Leadership Competencies for the 21st Century

Leadership Competencies for the 21st Century

By Ken Kay (Chief Executive Officer) and Valerie Greenhill (Chief Learning Officer) of EdLeader21

Across the nation, we are inspired by heroic teachers who are focused on 21st century education n and the 4Cs. We see 4Cs integration scaled and sustained in places in which teachers, principals, superintendents and boards collaborate to support a 4Cs vision for every student in every classroom. Four years ago, we founded EdLeader21, a professional learning community, to support education leaders in this work. Today, we have 177 members in 35 states including 138 public school districts and 23 independent schools. In our PLC, the 4Cs drive every facet of our work. Collectively we use The 7 Steps to Becoming a 21st Century School or District to organize our efforts.

1.      Adopt Your Vision

2.     Create Community Consensus around the 4Cs

3.     Align Your System to the 4Cs

4.     Use the 4Cs to Build Professional Capacity

5.     Embed the 4Cs in Curriculum and Assessment

6.     Use the 4Cs to support teachers.

7.     Improve and innovate: Create a 4Cs organization.

We commend the members of the EdLeader21 PLC for their great work in using the 4Cs and 7 Steps to drive 21st century education in their districts and believe they serve as great models for other leaders around the country. Implementing the 7 Steps and successfully creating a 21st Century school or organization rests upon unique leadership competencies that these EdLeader21 members demonstrate, some of which we will highlight in this blog. To us, successful 21st century education leadership centers upon the skillful use of the 4Cs:

  • Effective 21st century education leaders model the use of the 4Cs.

When we visit highly effective 21st century organizations, we see the 4Cs modeled by students as well as teachers, instructional leaders, and central office members. We see effective communication taking place, adults working effectively on complex projects in collaborative teams, teams thinking critically to analyze and solve complex problems, and staff members generating original ideas that can be put into practice.

  • Effective 21st century education leaders promote the use of the 4Cs through hiring and evaluation practices.

Hiring leaders who embody the 4Cs and embedding the 4Cs into evaluation processes is an essential practice in district transformation. This communicates that the 4Cs are highly valued by the organization and provides leaders and staff members the opportunity to frame goals around and reflect upon their use of the 4Cs. At EdLeader21, we are in the process of collaboratively revising our evaluation process to emphasize the 4Cs. The process enables team members to select artifacts that highlight ways in which they have modeled the 4Cs.

  • Effective 21st century education leaders facilitate thoughtful, comprehensive reflection about their use of the 4Cs and the effects of their work.

An EdLeader21 Superintendent offered the following 4Cs questions that staff members use when encountering challenging problems:

Are we critically thinking enough about the problem?

Are we adequately communicating with key audiences about the problem?

Are we adequately collaborating about the problem?

Are we being creative enough in our solutions to the problem?

Effective 21st century leaders strategically guide their communities through the process of thinking critically and reflecting about their use of the 4Cs and whether their strategies and efforts have produced the desired results.

  • Effective 21st century education leaders empower team members with autonomy to problem-solve and innovate while building their capacity to achieve results.

Before leaders can get teachers and administrators to embrace transformation, they have to create a climate in which all educators are inclined to “buy in” to the vision. Some refer to this as “culture”. Some refer to this as “distributed” leadership. We like to refer to this as “autonomous accountability”. At first blush, the two words may seem in conflict. However, together they form a united concept of empowering educators to find innovative ways to reach a shared vision while building their capacity.

All of the members of EdLeader21 share a general commitment to the 4Cs, but they have all innovated to develop their own specific set of competencies tailored to their school or district. Moreover, every member pursues its own special brand of implementation most appropriate for that school or district.  Liz Fagen, the Superintendent of Douglas County Schools, observed: “As a district, we follow the same approach as EdLeader21. Everyone in our district must sign onto the same vision but each school and department is autonomous in developing the implementation strategy that makes the most sense for them.”

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

― Daniel H. Pink

We have highlighted a set of competencies that we believe are essential for 21st century education leadership. We see these competencies demonstrated by dynamic leaders who are active in our PLC and are inspired by their results. What competencies do you believe are essential for successful 21st century education leadership? Send an e-mail to Ken at kkay@edleader21. We would love to hear from you!

The 4Cs and 21st century education will scale when principals, administrators, headmasters, and superintendents are truly prepared to lead these efforts. We need strategies to build the capacity of the next generation of education leaders. As Michael Fullan as noted, “In our work in whole-system change, my colleagues and I have shown time and again that if you give people skills (invest in capacity building), most of them will become more accountable.” We agree with Michael. As we continue to support the concept of the 4Cs and the 7 Steps, we are building the capacity of the next generation of leaders to drive them.

EdLeader21 is a national network of school and district leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) into 21st Century education. For more information on how to become a member of EdLeader21, contact Sara Mobley at

A version of this blog first appeared in a P21’s Blogazine (March 9, 2015, Volume 2, Issue 4, Number 1).