Building Your PTA Leadership Skills

Perhaps you’ve just been nominated or elected president of your PTA. Maybe you’re thinking about running for PTA president next year. Or maybe you’re headed into your second term and want to do things differently this year. However you’ve arrived at the position, being a PTA president will require you to develop your leadership skills.

Contrary to the popular phrase, leaders are not born, but made. Even so-called “born leaders” have honed their skills over the years. Even if this is your first leadership experience, you can still be a successful PTA leader. Here’s how to build your PTA leadership skills.

Get Trained

This seems like a pretty obvious starting place—you’re beginning a new job, so you ought to learn how to do it—but many PTA leaders don’t bother to take any training. Perhaps they’ve been a PTA member or officer for a while, have seen their PTA president work, and think it all looks pretty simple. Maybe they think that the job isn’t that important because it is “just a volunteer position.” But in reality, as a PTA president you are running a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and with that comes legal requirements and all the skills you would need to run a non-profit with a paid position.

Illinois PTA provides several training courses. PTA 101 will give you the basics of what PTA is and how it works, and Money Matters 101 covers the major financial details of running a PTA. The PTA President’s Course, however, is primarily about leadership, so be sure to take it. Other leadership courses beyond the Illinois PTA ones are often available at the Illinois PTA Convention or at district or region events.

Don’t forget to look for other leadership training opportunities as well, whether they be through your job or through other volunteer organizations. The Boy Scouts’ Wood Badge course is one well-known example, and the leadership skills you learn elsewhere translate into your PTA role (and vice versa).

Figure Out How You Lead

There are a lot of different approaches to being a leader, and if you search on leadership styles, you’ll see them spelled out in lists of three to a dozen or more. Rather than trying to tailor yourself to a specific leadership style, it is far better to look at the qualities that make an effective leader, to effectively use those that you are good at, and to work to improve those that you are weaker in. You’ll find that as the team you lead changes over time, whether from changes in the people on the team to growing experience on how to work together, your leadership style will need to change to meet the current needs of your team.

Note that being a leader is different from being a manager. You can be a PTA president who is simply a manager, making sure that things get done on time, events get planned and executed, and taking care of the other PTA equivalents of “making the buses run on time.” But being a PTA leader means moving your PTA ahead to do things it isn’t already doing.

When looking at the qualities that good leaders possess, the ones listed here are a good start. You may identify other qualities based on examples of good leadership you have experienced as well. Good leaders are:

  • Appreciative:Remember that success is only achieved with the help of others, and that true appreciation for those you are leading and their hard work provides encouragement, develops confidence, and builds teamwork.
  • Confident:Good leaders are confident that they are leading their team in the right direction, but not overconfident. Don’t be afraid of having your ideas challenged or having to admit you made a mistake.
  • Flexible:As situations change and new information becomes available, the path you are leading your team on may no longer be the correct one. Be open to new ideas. “We’ve always done it that way” is not a good reason to keep doing something unless you fully understand why it has been done that way, and that still doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.
  • Honest:Having honest conversations with the people you are leading can be the most difficult job of a leader, but also one of the most essential. Honesty inspires trust, and trust is the foundation of a successful team. Trust means that your team can have the productive conflict necessary to move forward without devolving into personal attacks or other destructive behaviors.
  • Compassionate:Remember that those you are leading are human, and as a result, they sometimes make mistakes. Approach mistakes with compassion, including those you make yourself.
  • Fair:Every member of your team has a role to play and any member may be the one with the critical idea that ensures success. Don’t play favorites; focus on results.
  • Impartial:Being impartial means recognizing your biases, prejudices, and tendencies and ensuring that they don’t affect your actions.
  • Courageous:A courageous leader is prepared to take a risk, raises difficult issues, gives and receives difficult feedback, and trusts in the members of their team.
  • Diligent:Leading a team is not easy. It requires you to put in the hard work necessary to get things done. When you as a leader are willing to put in the hard work, it inspires others to do the same.
  • Responsive:A responsive leader adapts their behavior to the situation at hand, listens to their team, and adjusts to meet the needs of their team.

Be a Servant Leader

There are those elected to office who think that now that I’m PTA president, everyone has to do what I say. But leading based on your position alone will not get you very far, especially when you are new to the position, because you have not built up a track record of trust, accountability, or success with those you are leading.

Servant leadership is the idea that you lead by serving others. This approach works especially well in organizations like PTA, where your team is made up of volunteers. Being a servant leader means that your focus should be on doing what needs to be done to make those below you successful. That means that an important part of your job as a servant leader is building and maintaining the relationships among those on your team. To help you do that, focus on these skills:

  • Listening:By listening to others actively and intently, you can better understand where your team wants to go and help to clarify that direction.
  • Empathy:A good servant leader empathizes and understands those they lead and recognizes their unique abilities and perspectives. That means that you do not reject them as people even when you are forced to reject certain behaviors.
  • Healing:Every one of us has our own triggers and sore spots built up over a lifetime of experience. Occasionally, a team member or we ourselves may bump one of those sore spots inadvertently. Use such occasions to promote healing on your team. Remember Ian Maclaren’s adage, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
  • Awareness:When you are a servant leader focused on the needs of your team, you need to be aware of what they need and where they are coming from. But awareness also extends to you as a leader. Be aware of your beliefs, values, goals, and biases.
  • Persuasion:Servant leaders, by definition, focus on persuading others rather than coercing them, but don’t fixate on persuading others to your path to success. Focus on persuading others to achieve the goals and results you want, which means being open to the path that they suggest to those results being superior to yours.
  • Foresight:It is easy as a PTA president to get caught up in the day-to-day issues. Take the time to lift your head up from the immediate tasks at hand to focus on where you want your PTA to be at the end of your term. Think about the steps that need to be taken to get your PTA there.
  • Stewardship:When you were elected PTA president, you were not put in charge of the PTA, you were given the job of caring and growing your PTA for your successor.
  • Commitment to the Growth of People:Central to servant leadership is growing the skills and abilities of those on your team both as people and as leaders. That commitment includes taking a personal interest in everyone’s ideas and suggestions, empowering your team members to take action and be involved in the decision-making, and actively supporting each team member in the manner they need it. Doing so will provide your PTA with better leaders in the future.
  • Building Community:Parallel to supporting the growth of your team members is building community in your PTA and your school. This means extending those same servant leadership skills that you have used with your board to everyone at your school, from the principal to the teachers, staff, students, and families.