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Utilizing Social Capital through Exemplary Leadership in Schools
May 1, 2011


The United States and many other developed countries are becoming more multi cultural, multi ethnic, and multi racial than ever before. This may to a certain extent cause less communication, interconnectedness or dialogue between diverse individuals. This lack of communication and dialogue, especially in education, manifests itself as less participation and involvement, which negatively affects educational success. Since educational success is highly associated with parental and community involvement, social capital plays a critical role in improving overall successes in education. Educators and policy makers should seek new ways and strategies to improve social capital with greater efficacy. This also includes reexamining leadership styles, practices and setting exemplary leadership frameworks.

1. Social capital

Due to the abstract nature of the concept, social capital is mostly defined by its functions or manifestations. In other words, definitions mostly answer the question of what social capital does rather than what it is. Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak (2001) refer to social capital as a dynamic and even organic phenomenon. Their approach also emphasizes social capital’s role and function, rather than social capital itself. They underline (1) how social capital works in organizations, (2) how investments are made in social capital, and (3) the return that these organizations and individuals experience from these investments (p. 3). In this framework, Cohen and Prusak (2001) offer the working definition of social capital as “the stock of active connections among people.” Yet, there seems to be a more concrete definition offered by The World Bank Social Capital Initiative (1998). According to The World Bank Social Capital Initiative, social capital is the “internal, social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded” (p. iii). Thus, social capital is seen as the glue that holds societies together. Consequently. without social capital, society at large will collapse. Due to its importance, researchers from different fields, such including political science, economics and education, investigate social capital, as many people see social capital as a solution to persistent social problems.

2. Social capital and education

In the world of education, social capital is formed by social networks connecting families, schools and communities. In other words, parental and community involvement are the forms of social capital which are most associated with academic success. The World Bank (1998) argues that there is evidence that schools are more successful when parents and community members are actively involved. Discussions about school issues, parental monitoring, active tutoring, providing encouragement, attending school events, responding to school obligations, etc are all examples of parental involvement. Less effective community involvement examples include (1) supporting schools financially, (2) participating in school events, and (3) involving schools in community meetings. Community involvements render teachers more committed. Furthermore, it effects students’ general achievement, including achievement in reading, math, or other specific curricular areas, as well as IQ scores and an array of attitudinal and behavioral outcomes.

3. Education and leadership

Even a cursory review of the leadership literature reveals that there are multiple definitions of leadership, and these all arise from mainly different perceptions and specific disciplinary conceptualizations. For example, some authors choose to treat leadership as a psychological fact while others see it as sociological (Pierce & Newstrom, 2008). In different disciplines, such as education or health, the definitions are based upon the references of that particular discipline. Therefore, a wide range of definitions of leadership are offered, but not a single model or term given. Accordingly, while some leadership approaches focus on the different characteristics between the followers and the leaders, others look at internal or external variables such as representation and effectiveness.

In education, leadership is mostly represented in schools by school administrations. Specifically, principals and teachers are expected to possess the leadership skills necessary to run their schools. Leadership practices are not only expectations but also obligations and requirements as part of the profession. This is especially true for principals. Since they form school policies, they’re considered critical for academic and disciplinary success.

Kouzes and Posner (2007) see the concept of leadership as a practice rather than as a personality type. After several case analyses, surveys and questionnaires, they uncovered five leadership practices common to personal-best leadership experiences as guidance for all leaders. These five practices of exemplary leadership are essentials and applicable for all leaders who want ot get extraordinary things done in organizations, including educational institutions. The five practices are: (1) modeling the way, (2) inspiring a shared vision, (3) challenging the process, (4) enabling others to act, and (5) encouraging the heart.

4. Exemplary leadership, K-12 education, and social capital

To improve and benefit from the existing social capital in a family, school and community, the five practices of leadership proposed by Kouzes and Posner may be implemented in K-12 institutions. Accordingly, this model may improve academic and disciplinary success in K-12 education. The following titles will focus on possible actions, attitudes or procedures to improve social capital as conducted by school principals and teachers.

a. Model the way

Behaviors are more important than the title that people carry in organizations. It is through behavior that people win the respect of other members of an organization. If leaders want to gain commitment and better standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect from others. Overall, leaders model the way (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). School principals and teachers should act and behave in the best way possible, as exemplary models, towards colleagues, parents and community members if they wish to utilize and improve social capital. Modeling the way can be done by more involvement and participation in the activities organized in and out school. However, principals and teachers should prioritize their needs when they are choosing activities and events. For instance, different ethnic and cultural groups in a community can isolate themselves, since other members of the community may not want to communicate. Although these different groups may open their activities to all community members, lack of communication and dialogue creates isolation and, as explained before, cause lack of trust, reciprocal respect, interaction and safety, all of which are essential to building social capital. Thus, principals and teachers should prioritize communication and dialogue rather than basic social needs such as entertainment. Modeling the way can also include mutual family visits, joining social organizations and participating in community workshops, conferences and diversity meetings. In short, principals and teachers should represent – model the way – rather than present what social capital requires as a discourse.

b. Inspire a shared vision

Keenness, interest, diligence, inspiration, enthusiasm, dreams and imagination are essential factors for leaders in an organization (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). When leaders are visionary, and if their visions are realistic and if they have confidence in their capacity and skill, remarkable achievement can be realized. According to Kouzes and Posner (2007), every organization and social movement begins with a dream. Dream is a force which helps shape the future. However, dreams cannot work alone and must be shared. Leaders with dreams, or even leaders with more tangible projects, may not initiate an organized movement or substantive change. People will not follow leaders unless they accept the vision or dream as their own. To do so, leaders need to inspire people to share their vision.

A shared vision is as important as modeling the way in the process to utilize and improve social capital. People need to be convinced about the benefits of social capital in academic and disciplinary success in schools. Since many studies (Dika & Singh, 2002) show positive links between high social capital and overall success in K-12 education, making people believe in its benefits may not prove a difficult task for principals and teachers. However, a simple belief does not help much with improving social capital. Kouzes and Posner’s (2007) second practice of exemplary leadership, which is inspire a shared vision, might help leaders, principals and teachers achieve sufficient utilization and improvement in education. The visions and dreams may include (1) high involvement in activities and events, (2) strong connections with parents and community members, and (3) moral and financial support. The first step towards realizing such visions is telling them to the targeted individuals. The second is paralleling the visions with people’s expectations, hopes, and dreams. To do so, principals and teachers should engage in dialogue, not only with their colleagues, but also with parents and community members. The third involves further interaction and dialogue with people to amend or modify the vision for more effective utilization, if needed. Thus, plans and preparations for the planned goal or for the better utilization and improvement of social capital can be improved, and thus become more appealing.

c. Challenge the process

Leadership cases mostly involve a case of change or are perceived to be a challenge to the status quo. Studies done by Kouzes and Posner (2007) confirm this. For example, leaders may challenge a system, its processes or procedures so that they obtain new or better products, processes, services, systems, or outcomes. Challenge might involve an innovative product, a cutting-edge service, a revolutionary piece of legislation, or a reformed cadre of different personnel.

In a school environments, change and challenge occurs in and through the existing policies, internal culture and the status quo. To achieve a significant or better organized transformation, school leaders, primarily principals, happen to take risks. Change might be perceived as a challenge in different forms to the existing attitudes, means, methods and personnel. It might not be seen within the framework or practice of the existing action-plans that allege to benefit social capital within a community. By and large, attempts to improve or further utilize social capital can be perceived as a challenge if there is already some resistance to and confrontation with the rank-and-file towards the process of change and development in any community. As for schools, school leaders can challenge the attitudes and processes that are not effective and valuable for better social capital. Their action plans need to include overall participation, steady attendance, constant involvement, frequent visits and positive relations which would invoke further responses, participation, and contribution from individual families or lager communities. Challenging stagnant, unpromising, unproductive methods, means, or processes with a positive attitude is usually acknowledged as a needed form of action and practice towards achieving objectives.

d. Enable others to act

Leadership is about team work, and cannot be restricted to a small group of loyalists. It must include peers, managers, customers, clients, and citizens – all those who have a stake in the vision. The command-and-control techniques of the Industrial Revolution are no longer applicable. Leaders must work to make people feel strong, capable, and committed. They need to enable others to act and to participate in team efforts in order to accomplish either an organized movement or significant change (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).

Kouzes and Posner’s fourth practice of exemplary leadership is an essential instrument, especially when a single person leads an activity or a project in an organization. This is true for schools principals. At schools, principals give direct orders to realize internal and external procedures. In many cases, teachers, parents, and community members fulfill or complete these orders without becoming a part of them. Teachers, parents, and community members need to be inspired and encouraged to feel like team members who can actively participate in utilizing and improving social capital for their schools. For instance, teachers should be able to contribute to an event organization not only as guests but also as team members who arrange the event. Parents and community members should also be enabled to work as team members working towards improvements or success. Rather than simply participate, they can get involved in the events and organizations, at least to a certain extent, as controllers, coordinators, sponsors, or organizers. This simple involvement naturally attracts and increases the level of interest in school and overall education by society at large, and of course results in the improvement and utilization of social capital accordingly.

e. Encourage the heart

Encouraging the heart is another practice of exemplary leadership offered by Kouzes and Posner (2007). It is essential for leaders, because people get exhausted, frustrated, disenchanted, and often temped to give up. Leaders encourage the hearts of their constituents to carry on. Encouragement may come in many forms, ranging from dramatic gestures to simple actions. For instance, in recognition of performance of the constituents, a simply participating in their celebrations encourages people’s hearts. Such simple actions show that their performance is recognized and appreciated by the leader (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). .

Similar to principals, teachers, as leaders, also should encourage the hearts of their students and students’ parents. Teacher-parent contacts, interactions and dialogues should be accommodated between individuals for academic success and educational progress.


As argued, there are several factors that promote academic and disciplinary success in K-12 education. Educators, in most cases, have the initiative and inherent power to utilize and modify these factors. Social capital is one of these factors and has a critical role for the overall success in schools, especially in K-12 education. Statistics and research show positive links between improved social capital and educational success in the US and elsewhere.

Environments with improved social capital have better educational success, whereas low social capital environments have lower educational success, with high dropout rates and lower tests scores. Although studies clearly support the importance of developing social capital, further proposals, action plans, or practices are still needed to improve and utilize the social capital in K12 education. These proposals can be set by specific disciplines and also by interdisciplinary approaches, such as sociology, psychology, and education.

Erkan Acar is a PhD candidate in education at Marywood University, Pennsylvania.


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