Doing the Right Thing for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership

A Review By Christine Lowry, M.Ed.

“When you do the right thing for children, you champion every child’s right to high-quality learning experiences. When you do the right thing for children, you believe in the inherent value of every child, regardless of back-ground. When you do the right thing for children, you take action to ensure that high-quality, meaningful educational opportunities are provided to every child.” (Sykes,2014, p.1).

With this passage, Maurice Sykes, author of Doing the Right Thing for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership, immediately captures his intended audience, early childhood education leaders in all settings. This “doing the right thing for children” is the central thesis connecting the Eight Qualities of Leadership and serves as the guiding reason and path for developing leadership in the field of early childhood education.

From his first teaching job working with “at- risk” boys in a primary classroom in the District of Columbia to his current position as executive director of the Early Childhood Leadership Institute at the University of the District of Columbia, Mr. Sykes has nurtured the growth and development of “the first of my core values- human potential” (Sykes,1). Doing the Right Thing for Children seeks to encourage new and future leaders, and current leaders in classrooms, programs, schools, and organizations that care about children to become leaders who are willing to take action to support all children. Sharing his core beliefs, with examples from his personal experiences, the discussion of these eight qualities of leadership accomplishes his goal: to motivate leaders in every level and setting of early childhood education.

The structure of the book takes the reader through the eight core qualities: Human Potential, Knowledge, Social Justice, Competence, Fun and Enjoyment, Personal Renewal, Perseverance, and Courage with a sequence that develops the value of each in the context of the one preceding.

Each quality is fully explored in its various aspects of impact. Each is introduced with a vignette or personal recollection that provides a concrete example of using the quality in a way that shows its’ benefit. Mr. Sykes discusses each quality from the individual’s perspective and growth to ideas and explanations for the implementation of the quality at an organizational level and a classroom level. Each chapter concludes with a set of questions that serve as a self- reflection for encouraging this quality in one’s self and others. An aspirational “summary” of the key points in the chapter reinforces the qualities’ value.

With the current positive assessment of the value and benefits of early childhood education comes increasing attention to the field by parents, educators, policy makers, and the public. This focus necessitates a review of what high-quality programming looks like and what leadership qualities are needed for its’ successful implementation. Doing the Right Thing for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership provides an outstanding list and explanation of those qualities.

With the just right combination of information, experience, humor, and story- telling, Mr. Sykes gives us a compelling reason for developing these leadership skills and characteristics.

“As leaders in early childhood education, it’s our job to find that individual spark of genius in each and every child and adult we work with and draw it out.” (Sykes, 2014, p.26).

Using a first- person narrative style that addresses the reader with the pronoun, “you” lends a tone of familiarity to each chapter. The message, both explicit and implicit, is that “you” reader and “I” writer are in this together, growing together.

Mr. Sykes often uses storytelling from his personal experience, and chooses concrete, relatable explanations and analogies to discuss and reinforce complex, abstract concepts. In sharing thoughts on the importance of degrees and aspects of knowledge, he says,

“Leaders in early childhood education should take their cues from how children construct knowledge. Children are naturally curious about everything around them. They have theories and hypotheses that they are constantly testing through exploration and experimentation. For us, the blocks may look different, but we can learn much from the children’s curiosity that can be brought into our own lives. Curiosity about the way we work and teach will lead to experimentation. Experimentation will lead to innovation, and innovation can lead to new and powerful discoveries.” (Sykes, 2014, p.37).

This is certainly a passage that anyone who has worked with children can understand well and it captures the educator in a way that a simple intellectual explanation would not. Some readers might find Mr. Sykes’ approach to leadership lacking in a serious, academic tone and for those readers there are many volumes written with this view of leadership. Presenting each of the eight qualities of leadership in a context of supporting children keeps it from becoming neither overly intellectual and theoretical or condescending “cute” as many “how-to” books can be. Mr. Sykes strikes a balance that remains both personable and approachable while deeply examining the relevance and development of each of these eight qualities. His ideas and his “advice” range from light-hearted, to passionate, to poetic at times but always with the humility that reader and author are equals on the path.

In speaking of the crucial goal of understanding social justice at a personal and systemic level, Mr. Sykes urges, “We must convey to all children in our care that in our classrooms they are known, valued, unique, emotionally safe, and brilliant.” (Sykes, 2014, p. 63). This is a profound admonition to early childhood educators regarding our responsibility to children.

This book is ultimately a heart- felt guide to leadership at every level. Mr. Sykes completes this guide with the quality Courage. As a teacher of young children, as a leader at the school, and organizational level, as a motivator of educators and leaders, now and in the future, he clearly understands the strength it takes to act on one’s commitments to children. He understands and shares with the reader the importance of courage in the everyday of this work, and in the bigger picture of creating positive and lasting change that benefits children.

We are encouraged, all of us who care deeply about “doing the right thing for children” to use this book as our “roadmap” for becoming our best selves for children. This is a book of profound insights, explorations, and a “call to action.”

As we strive to engage in a powerful way with our children, we can develop “The Heart of Courage.” (Sykes,125).

“Courage is the element that ties all the other leadership qualities in early education together. It takes courage to advocate for human potential, to seek knowledge, to take stands for social justice, to dare to introduce fun into rigid models that have stood for decades, to make decisions in the face of outside pressures to acknowledge and act on the importance of “selfish” personal renewal, and to persevere in the face of seemingly impossible odds. It takes courage to do the right thing for children-a mission that courage lies at the heart of.” (Skyes, 2014, p.125).

Sykes, Maurice (2014). Doing the Right for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership. Redleaf Press.