10 Reasons Helping Professionals Like Educators Are Natural Leaders—Whether They Know It or Not

It’s been a long-held assumption in the U.S. workplace that you’re either a service-oriented professional or a business-minded professional—either a “do-gooder” dedicated to social causes or someone more interested in earning a good living as you climb the corporate ladder. I don’t buy into that assumption, not only because my own career trajectory disproves it, but because some of the most talented and effectual leaders I’ve seen have started out as boots-on-the-ground helping professionals who later took their particular aptitudes and abilities and applied them to the highest tiers of leadership in the organizations they serve.


In the case of educators, the “highest-tier” positions would include school principals, district superintendents, university deans and presidents, chief academic officers, state Department of Education heads, and, heck—why not?—even the U.S. Secretary of Education. Teachers are uniquely suited to ascend to such roles because they have inherent traits that equip them to adeptly manage the tasks and functions leadership positions in educational institutions demand and they possess a skillset that comes naturally to them and is only reinforced by their on-the-job training and experience.


But the thing is, teachers don’t always see this potential in themselves—they’re so devoted to their students that they often don’t believe their qualities and competencies qualify them to advance … and advance high, if they want to. But they do have this capacity, they are wonderfully qualified to lead both people and systems. If you’re an educator, here are 10 reasons why you were born to lead.


#1: You’re a Natural

Most teachers will tell you they knew what they wanted to be when they grew up since early childhood. It’s like they came out of the womb with the necessary helper’s mentality that translates seamlessly to servant leadership. You are already compassionate in your treatment of people, you already know how to forge through their struggles, you display fairness and practice equality in your classroom every day. And you’re an uncommonly good communicator, able to break down barriers to understanding and explain things in accessible terms. That’s what a leader does.


#2: You’re Already Viewed This Way

You may see yourself as an educator, but others see you as a problem solver, a fixer, a mediator, and a bridge to comprehension. People come to you for advice, don’t they? Your colleagues confide in you and deem you dependable, I’ll bet. You don’t need to train yourself to be an active listener and a rational decision maker amid high tension because you evidence these abilities daily. You know how to calm, to mitigate, to guide—all essential to deft leadership.


#3: You Don’t Need an MBA

So many people get tripped up by the erroneous belief that they can’t run an organization without an advanced business degree. That’s simply not true. You can learn how to read a P&L statement, negotiate leases, or present to a board through books, online classes, a mentor. But you can’t learn passion or vision or a soul-deep desire to extend the good for the one into the good for the many. These qualities matter more to the vitality and vibrancy of an organization than a framed diploma on the wall.


#4: You Have Essential Training

Leading an organization requires knowing how that organization runs—what obstacles need to be hurdled and what gaps need to be filled to make progress. Both your formal education and your on-the-job training have provided you with tools you’ve learned to employ to make your workplace more functional. And by default, helpers embrace helping others, so you’re already conditioned to put the best interests of your students first. Leaders lead effectively by putting the interests of their people first.


#5: You Know to Defuse Crises & Formulate Plans

If there’s anyone who knows how to put out fires, it’s a classroom teacher of school-aged children. If there’s anyone who knows how to set an agenda—for a whole year at a time, no less!—it’s a teacher. There’s not much difference between an annual business plan and a class syllabus or curriculum; they’re both about enacting a long-term objective and then deescalating any challenges that get in the way of successful implementation. It’s all in a day’s work for an educator.


#6: You See the Whole Picture

A big part of being a skilled leader is being able to look beyond the individual issue (Jonah’s difficulty with a math problem) to the larger goal you’re working toward: educating an entire generation of people so they can have productive, rewarding futures. Because you can see the forest for the trees, you’re gifted with the perspective need to manage staffs, make policy, and improve communities. Your macrovision trumps your microvision even during trying times.


#7: You Have Insider Information

The most admired leaders are those who have come up through the ranks and worked in all the roles under them. How can you know what needs to be fixed if you don’t have firsthand exposure to the problem? How can you know the team’s frustrations if you haven’t been frustrated by them yourself? And how can a superintendent effectively counsel and supervise teachers if they’ve never taught? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not preferable. Because you already have “field experience,” you’ve mastered the intricacies of your field. The people who work for you will know that and appreciate that. In turn, they will follow you.


#8: You Respect Others

Leadership isn’t driven by giving directives to, instilling fear in, or proving your superiority over others. Leaders gain loyalty when they recognize that the people who work for them are actually the ones producing the results and outcomes they’ve set. When you accept people for who they are and acknowledge the value of the contribution they’re making, they can feel your respect—they can tell you’re talking to them and not down to them. For educators, respecting others is built into your very constitution.


#9: You Champion Others

Go find an educator who doesn’t care if their student fails. Who won’t go the extra mile until their charge “gets it.” Who can’t see strength where another sees weakness or who only sees a deficit instead of a solution. Go ahead, I dare you. You won’t find one, because they don’t exist. Educators went into their field because they are fulfilled by lifting and empowering others. Teachers are intrinsically encouraging, positive, and resourceful. You will fight for others who do not know how to fight for themselves, and in this way, you lead.


#10: The World Needs You

Anyone who works with young people knows that now more than ever, we need leaders who care beyond their own time and place, who are immersed in their communities instead of removed from them, and who are willing to extend effort for the greater good over their own self-interest. Do we really need another billionaire or business mogul telling us how we should allot our assets or allocate our resources? Given the choice, I’d pick an educator to teach the world how to move forward more justly and more compassionately over a politician, an Ivy League grad, or a corporate bigwig any day. You know what the world needs? It needs you.


You can read more about my committment to championing helping professionals as organizational leaders in my book, Doing Good & Doing Well. For now, I just want you to believe in your exceptional abilities and to encourage you to pursue your aspirations of making an exceptional mark in your field!


About Author

Michael L. Kaufman, MSW, PhD, is the author of Doing Good & Doing Well: Inspiring Helping Professionals to Become Leaders in Their Organizations (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). With his heart of a helping professional and head of a business executive, he rose from being an in-the-field social worker to the CEO of one of the largest private education companies in the country. He currently runs the special education management and consulting company he founded, dedicated to effecting positive societal change and improving the future prospects of K–12+ students with exceptional needs.

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