As teachers, principals, and school leaders, we concern ourselves with literacy rates and gains. That’s important, but we can also use literature to develop student leaders through the deployment of a Principal’s Book Club.

Principals should consider leading a book club for a variety of reasons. Book clubs help foster positive community relationships, promote reading across the curriculum, and enhance professional development among the teaching staff. These benefits are great, but they leave out one additional item: cultivating student potential by focusing specifically on leadership issues through the discussion of a central piece of literature.

For some students, the only real leaders they see are those who reside in the school office or the classroom. Principals and other school leaders can use their role to build relationships and nurture leadership discussion and development in a way that is nonthreatening, engaging, regular, and purposeful. In Winchester, VA, for example, Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Mark Lineburg started a weekly book club with a small group of boys who were struggling to find good role models outside of school.

While student council leaders attend summits and conventions, there are many students left behind with little to no opportunity to develop skills to become leaders. Many students lack positive role models and most students also lack specific leadership conversations with the leaders closest to them—those in the community and schools.

Literature is a natural tool that can be used to connect school leaders to students. By relating to a central story, studying a character’s decisions and movements, and cataloging eventful moments of a book, the principal becomes relatable, with his/her position of power temporarily suspended. The baggage brought by individuals to the group is sidelined. Everyone from the principal to the secondary school student is an equal participant when discussing the story. The principal can guide the direction of the conversation and can lead discussions about whether or not a character made a wise choice, how a character weighed options when making a decision, or the impact of the character’s decisions on those around him or her. Rather than focus on literary traits as one would do in an English or reading classroom, books in the Principal’s Book Club are studied from the perspective of leadership and how characters live out leadership traits within the pages. The books are not found in the traditional curriculum, but live in a world that encourages students to read to understand humanity.

Leadership Lessons Within Literature

When designing a leadership-focused book club, it is useful to have a set of leadership traits or principles that guide your study. As a researcher studying this path, I began reading adolescent texts specifically to study leadership issues. I became overwhelmed with the potential leadership avenues—traits, styles, decisions, and failures—not to mention the sheer number of characters that can be involved in one story. I have found that the most efficient and clear way to study a piece of children’s or adolescent literature is to focus on the main character, or protagonist, of the story. This holds true for all literature, from young reader picture books to college-level novels. Capturing the story of one character, regardless of how many perspectives are told about that character, narrows the avenue for discussion of leadership processes and practices.

The question, then, is exactly what about the massive area of “leadership” you should discuss with the students. Whose leadership theory? Which leadership traits? Most school leaders have some basic coursework in leadership theories and applications, so rely on some of that knowledge to guide your work. In addition, there are many accessible websites and texts that provide basic primers on leadership theory. Leadership gurus James Kouzes and Barry Posner produce some resources specifically for student leadership development in their text The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. Something as simple as the principles in their narrative—modeling leadership, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, encouraging the heart, and challenging the process—can serve as a great tool or framework to foster book club discussion.

The characters, plotlines, and events of the story will form the basis of the discussion, not the strengths and weaknesses of leadership theories being presented.

As you begin, it is important to set minimal ground rules for the book club, many of which can be drawn from other book clubs from across the country in public libraries or bookstores. These rules range from always having read the assigned reading (or taking time to read together with the principal), assigning someone to keep the discussion on track, assigning someone to make sure students get equal time and opportunities to speak, and allowing multiple perspectives without criticism. Book clubs should have three or four main guiding rules that encourage member conduct and contributions in a way that promotes discussion and discourages judgment. Finally, it is critical that the principal view the book club as an investment. Most of all, realize that the seeds of leadership you are planting may not be fully cultivated for many seasons, and that’s OK.

Gretchen Oltman, JD, PhD, is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary leadership at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Take these steps to start a Principal’s Book Club:

Invite participants. Extend an invitation to students; do not ignore those who may not be “born” leaders or the most popular students.

Select relevant books. Consider award-nominated books from the American Library Association or those given awards such as the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Award, or local, regional, or state awards.

Implement ground rules. Book clubs should have three or four main guiding rules pertaining to member conduct and contributions, such as allowing students to share multiple perspectives without criticism.

Put in the time. Read the books carefully, take notes, engage in conversations, and find constructive ways to disagree.