5 Stages of ECE Leadership

What makes a good ECE leader and what are the factors that impact the journey and rise to influential leadership? Utilizing current research, the following is an example of how life and experiences form understanding, principles, and leadership abilities in the Early Care and Education (ECE) leader.

Robin Stephenson, M.Ed.

2/28/20234 min read

In recent years, there has been much research into what makes a good leader and the factors that impact their journey and consequently their rise to influential leadership. Utilizing this plethora of research, the following is an example of how life and experiences form understanding, principles, and leadership abilities in the Early Care and Education (ECE) leader.

One of the advantages of most ECE enthusiasts is the understanding that there is a developmental process to just about everything. This is true in one’s leadership journey as well. Are leaders born or developed? Well, I believe it’s a bit of both.

Birth order, physical development, and life experiences all have a place is growing a potential leader. Many first-born children take “leadership” over their siblings. Children with perceived physical and intellectual abilities are often given early leadership opportunities over their peers in sports and other extra-curricular activities. Life experiences that require a child to develop coping skills can also become unexpected assets in future endeavors. Nature does count; however, great leaders do not rely on nature or their past experiences to mold them into an effective and successful leader. They are much more intentional about their goals for life and in leading others.

Our early years often lead us into Stage I of ECE Leadership: The Informal Leader. In this stage of leadership development, we don’t often realize we are functioning as a “leader”. Sometimes it’s more of the “bossy” child which come out of us reminding where we are reminding others of what we’re supposed to be doing. Sometimes it’s part of our personality such as providing answers or taking the lead when no one else will. And sometimes it’s just a part of our nature to give a helping hand. This informal type of leadership is relational in nature. An Informal Leader is given “permission” to govern the behavior of others because of past experiences and actions that have proved beneficial. While some of these actions may seem a bit negative in nature, they may very will set the stage, if nurtured correctly, for a potentially great future leader.

Established leaders with an eye to developing other leaders often look for these characteristics among their staff, and once they have been identified, they provide them with official or unofficial opportunities to prove themselves as an emerging leader. They are offered a project or an assignment with boundaries and parameters, and frequently a mentor is assigned to guide and coach the emerging leader through the process towards a successful conclusion.

Successful emerging leaders grow into becoming a Stage II ECE Leader: The Positional Leader. Once an emerging leader has established a sense of trust with management, they may be offered the responsibility of a Positional Leader. For example: a lead teacher in an ECE program may have exceptional skills and talents in the area of math and science for young children. The Director of the program might assign the teacher to lead this area of the children’s program and curriculum. They will have the responsibility of following through with assigned directives, the permission of the management to develop and share, as well as the right of position to require other staff to follow the approved process and procedures. Positional Leadership in ECE might also include but not limited to department heads, lead teachers, and others that have specific outcomes expected from assigned duties.

The Stage III ECE Leader is a Managing Leader. Managing leaders are focused on the follow through of policies and procedures, staff handbooks, licensing requirements, and staff training just to name a few areas of responsibility. Each responsibility has a description and checkpoints that ensure compliance in the field. Managing leaders are focused on securing and scheduling staff, providing applicable training opportunities, coaching, and monitoring new staff for orientation and existing staff for compliance. While task focused, they must also have the ability to problem solve and create solutions that provide the best possible outcomes for the children, their families, the staff, and the company as a whole.

Stage IV ECE Leader is the Visionary Leader. Visionary Leaders are people focused. They are incredible communicators and recognize it’s their responsibility as a leader to understand their followers and communicate in such a way that their staff and other stakeholders buy-in to moving ahead and staying committed to greatness. They are skilled in motivating and engaging teams and are authentically interested in the achievements of everyone’s growth. This leader melds new trends and cutting-edge information with the company’s philosophy, and the expectations of their target audience. Visionary Leaders serve as a role model, inspire others, and create a culture required for sustainable success.

Stage V ECE Leader is the Legacy Leader. It’s difficult to influence others without the ability to inspire them and it’s difficult to inspire someone you don’t have an influential connection. The Legacy leader has acquired a great deal of knowledge that has been sifted through personal experiences and successfully replicated their skills and knowledge in others. The Legacy leader is able to balance their past outcomes (both good and bad) with the current trends and shifts in the field today. Legacy leaders may serve within a program, however, many in this stage are trainers, instructors, writers, researchers, advisors, and others that support the field with wisdom and experience.

It is common for a leader to be at different stages of leadership within a variety of leadership responsibilities. Why not conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis on your own leadership skills and determine where your greatest leadership abilities are most prevalent?

Robin Stephenson, M.Ed.
Founder & CEO Seasonal Pathways

Robin’s professional experience includes serving as a teacher and administrator; executive program leader; vice president; college instructor; entrepreneur and business owner. Her training and support of staff and specifically, women in leadership reaches throughout the United States, Canada, England, Romania, Hungry, The Philippines, Hong Kong, South America, and South Africa. Over the past 30 years, Robin has served on the board of directors for three national educational organizations, including the Association of Early Learning Leaders (AELL). Her career leadership has contributed towards making a difference in the care and education of young children, and in the lives of those who serve them.​​

"It's not about being a "bad-ass boss", it's all about leaving a legacy through meaningful and effective leadership." Robin Stephenson

children standing on bridge
children standing on bridge