Early Ed Leadership & Innovation

We train frontline early educators and child care business owners in entrepreneurial leadership, and research ways to support them at scale

Research Summary: Pathways to Leadership for Early Educators


In “Redefining Leadership: Lessons from an Early Education Leadership Development Initiative,” published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, Professor Anne Douglass shows that a leadership development program can change the mindset of experienced early educators so they see themselves as innovators and influencers. This first-of-its-kind study followed 43 early educators as they went through a relational and entrepreneurial leadership development program. The results demonstrate that these educators, who had an average of 18 years’ experience in early childhood education (ECE) but who did not self-identify as leaders, subsequently took on leadership roles within the field, bringing new ideas and innovation to their practice.

Defining the terms: relational and entrepreneurial leadership

This study defined leadership as “a process of influencing positive change to achieve a desired goal or generate a new solution to a problem.”

  • Relational leadership recognizes the expertise or authority of each person within an organization, regardless of formal titles or roles, who exercises leadership at multiple levels.
  • Entrepreneurial leaders are change agents and innovators who focus on finding and testing new and better solutions to problems.


Early educators in the study experienced important shifts in their thinking about leadership. They came to understand that rather than being hierarchical and formal, leadership can be highly collaborative, relational, and purpose-driven. When they redefined leadership in this way, they were able to recontextualize their past and present actions and skills and see themselves as leaders, often for the first time. Notably, in this study, as educators developed their identity as leaders, they also joined networks of other emerging and established leaders to sustain support for their new identity as a leader.

These educators subsequently contributed to the field in new ways: by pursuing doctoral study to advance ECE scholarship; seeking new positions that would enable them to make change on a greater scale; serving in leaderships roles in a professional association or advisory board; implementing innovative ideas developed from their studies in their workplace; or by pursuing entrepreneurial ECE ventures like establishing a mission-specific school.

Implications for ECE

At present, the ECE field lacks clearly defined and articulated leadership development opportunities and pathways, and little attention has been paid to systematically developing and supporting the leadership of educators to drive improvement. These results suggest that the field may benefit from creating new pathways to leadership that are supportive and ongoing developmental processes rather than one-time training programs with no follow-up or networking with other leaders.

Further Reading

Journal Article
Douglass, A. (2017). Redefining Leadership: Lessons from an Early Education Leadership Development Initiative. Early Childhood Education Journal.

Research Summary
ECE Solutions: Pathways to Leadership

ECE Solutions: Pathways to Leadership is one in a series of policy briefs summarizing original research by the Leadership Institute that is generating new knowledge and accelerating creative and critical thinking about leadership and innovation in the field of early care and education.

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