Pygmalion leadership in action

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  • Beware of making leadership about you.
  • Great things happen when we see the art in others.
  • Consider high expectation impacts on leadership, staff and students.
  • Take a questioning approach to your next conversation.
  • Ask strong, confronting, reflective questions.

The Pygmalion Effect is based on the ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, a talented but troubled sculptor. Pygmalion was unlucky in love and his many disappointments led him to harbour a grudge against women in general.

Ironically, Pygmalion’s greatest piece of work was an extraordinary ivory sculpture of a woman. So despairing was he of his plight with women, that he decided to create a perfect woman. He obsessed over that sculpture and as the months went by he noticed he had become more gentle and considerate with his tools. Eventually, Pygmalion named his statue Galatea and fell in love with her.

Even after completion, he would dress the statue in fine clothes and jewellery and bring her offerings of expensive food. He devoted himself to Galatea. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, saw this and was very impressed with the high expectations that Pygmalion had for his work and for the reverence he showed it. After Pygmalion had prayed to Aphrodite one night, she brought Galatea to life. Pygmalion and Galatea married and lived happily ever after.

Myths and legends evolved as teaching tools. This particular myth talks to us about high expectations and how we can never be sure of what is possible when we create something fantastic in others.

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
– Henry Ford

Scholars who have studied the Pygamlion myth have found some strong implications for education.

Consider three different implications of the Pygmalion Effect in our work:

  • Pygmalion Leadership – this is the art of empowering beauty and impact in others. Pygmalion Leaders know that the challenge of leadership is that this isn’t about us – it’s about our staff (the sculpture). We need to let the character and skill of others emerge and to avoid the trap of merely creating clones of ourselves in our teachers.
  • Pygmalion Teachers – James Rehm, executive editor, US National Teaching & Learning Forum said “When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways. How we believe the world is and what we honestly think it can be have powerful effects on how things turn out.”
  • Pygmalion Students – imagine an entire cohort of optimistic, risk-taking students driven by a passion for high expectations across our schools. What could that do to influence a culture of learning? And what is the cost of not building this cohort? As Howard Zinn reminds us “Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.”

This might seem ethereal and enormous to the busy contemporary school leader. However, it is critical to consider the types of questions that we are asking of our teachers. We should also consider the questions we want them to ask of themselves.

In his extensive study of the ways that attitudes and expectations impact the work of both teachers and students, Principal Baruti K Kafele1, suggests that using the right reflection questions can lead to a cultural shift where there are improved results. If we ask our teachers to consider these questions about their students, we might have the key to a higher expectation school:

Do I believe in them? Do I have a passion for teaching them?
Do I have a purpose for teaching them? Do I treat teaching them as a mission?
Do I have a vision for what I expect of them? Do I set incremental and long-range goals for them to achieve?
Do I plan each day thoroughly toward their success? Do I see myself as a role model for them and always conduct myself as a professional?
Do I see myself as the number-one determinant of their success or failure? Do I conduct daily self-reflection and self-assessments of my practice of teaching them?


ASCD synopsis of Baruti Kafele’s “The Principal 50”.
Bibliography: (2019). [online]
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