Newsletter 288 - School Leadership Development - Innovation - PART 8
by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray (Internet)
The leader as innovator – how to embed a culture of innovation in MSED schools.
Leadership and school culture lay the foundation.
The Role of Leadership
Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.
The influence of leadership is second only to the influence of the classroom teacher in determining student success. The effect of leadership is also greatest in schools with the highest levels of need (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005).
So what is true leadership?
When people come across the word leader, it often precedes the word follower. Leadership is not about attracting others to follow. This notion conveys a sense of power, authority, and control that might serve one well in the short term (by getting others to fall into line through conformity), but it doesn't create the innovative conditions necessary for sustainable change. The definition and resulting perception of leader needs a makeover.
Great leaders don't tell people what to do but instead take them to where they need to be. There is no agenda to create a harem of followers or disciples. True leaders know that their success is intimately tied to the work of the collective. As such, they encourage risk taking and create a culture of innovation and trust. One person doesn't win a war, an election, or a football game. The pinnacle of success comes from a dynamic team approach where each person knows that he or she has an important role to play—that the work has meaning. We can also say with certainty that one person doesn't singlehandedly build a successful business. This same principle undoubtedly applies to schools and districts, as school leaders must be creative and forward thinking in obtaining streams of human talent and capital resources required to sustain their success.
The following acronym has been developed to add context to the evolving role of leadership in schools today. The best leaders do the following on a consistent basis:
Learning is the heart of the work. Great leaders are committed to professional growth since they know there is no perfection in any position—just daily improvement. Leaders engage in both formal and informal experiences to improve their practice, which will ultimately have a positive effect on student learning (Leithwood et al., 2004). Leaders make the time to learn and get better on a daily basis and, in turn, make their learning visible as an inspiration to others. Leaders who love their work are always learning.
A key element of effective leadership is the ability to empower others to take risks, remove the fear of failure, and grant autonomy to innovate. A recent study that surveyed 1,500 workers from six different countries showed that humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating such an environment (Prime & Salib, 2014). People who are empowered find greater value in the work they are engaged in. Empowerment leads to respect and trust, which builds powerful relationships focused on attaining a clearly articulated vision.
Continuous change is inevitable. As such, leaders must embrace a sense of flexibility and openness to change when the need arises. In fact, the best leaders will be proactive and "create change" before external influences force it. Research has shown that the ability to adapt to an array of situations, challenges, and pressures is pivotal to accomplishing one's goals (Yuki & Mahsud, 2010). The research illustrates that leaders need to have mental models that facilitate understanding about the complex effects of their behaviors on multiple objectives and that stress the importance of balancing competing values. Leaders need to appreciate and take advantage of opportunities to increase their self-awareness of relevant traits, skills, and behaviors, and they need to develop necessary skills before they are needed. In addition, they are comfortable navigating unclear situations while blazing an unexplored trail. The research also shows the need to recognize responsibility for helping others develop and use the skills and behaviors required for flexible and adaptive leadership (Yuki & Mahsud, 2010). Success in life is intertwined with our ability to adapt in order to survive. Such evolution through adaptation creates better leaders.
Delegation is an essential aspect of distributive and collaborative leadership; no leader can do everything by himself or herself. Research has shown that extending leadership responsibilities beyond the teacher is an important lever for developing effective professional learning communities in schools (Morrisey, 2000). Building greater capacity in staff through purposeful delegation is also an important means of sustaining improvement (Fullan, 2001). The decisiveness to delegate certain tasks and responsibilities is not a weakness. On the contrary, it enables leaders to apply sharper focus to areas of greater importance. Collaborative leadership also builds confidence in others' ability as coleaders of an organization—even when they don't have a fancy title or letters after their name.
In today's global, sharing economy, access to relevant, up-to-date information is vital. Leaders understand this fact and develop strategies to authentically engage with their stakeholders through multidimensional communication and by taking control of public relations, developing a positive brand presence, and establishing an effective feedback loop (Sheninger, 2014). One of the greatest challenges for today's school leaders is the ability to create an environment that cultivates each person's intrinsic motivation. An ecosystem of engagement flourishes when leaders understand the foundational drivers of human engagement—the need for trust, a sense of belonging, the need for hope, and the need to feel invested in the work. Increased engagement results when leaders meet stakeholders where they are, encourage two-way communication, and become the "storyteller-in-chief."
It is difficult to find a great leader who does not regularly reflect on his or her own work and effectiveness. Reflection, which can be defined as the process of critically thinking about your behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values, has been identified by numerous researchers as an important part of any formal or informal learning process (Schon, 1983; Kolb, 1984; Mezirow, 1998). Leadership is learning, and learning is leadership—at both the individual and group levels. The ability to reflect, however, is not necessarily an inherent attribute; it must be cultivated over time. Unless one is actively engaged in the practice of reflection, it is doubtful that this capability will develop on its own (Roberts, 2008). In a digital world, reflection can take many forms and results in greater transparency. It's not how one chooses to reflect but an emphasis on consistently integrating the process that defines a great leader.
Beyond the notion of titles and power, leadership is about serving others. The best leaders work diligently to meet the needs of others, as they realize it's not about them; it's about obtaining the organizational vision; and for schools, that's doing whatever it takes to serve the community and all of its children. Leaders must model the behaviors they seek, empower people to expand their personal capacity, and put the needs of the organization above themselves. Leaders flourish through their influence—not because of a fancy title. Serving others taps into one's heart and soul as these leaders are driven by far more than a position of power or a paycheck. In a study done by Sipe and Frick (2009), it was found that "servant leadership" was the predominant factor in an organization's level of success. Ultimately, the best leaders don't add more followers; they develop and empower more leaders.
The most influential and effective leaders are those who
Intentionally designed schools are led by high-octane leaders who model the way, build capacity in others, and create cultures of innovation. These leaders create the vision and make it happen. In their schools, learning is being transformed.
From Vision to Action
Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.
Joel A. Barker
There is often a great deal of emphasis on establishing a vision when beginning the change process, and rightfully so. Effective leaders understand the importance of a shared vision and the need to articulate lofty goals and expected outcomes. A clear, well-articulated vision sets the stage for the time and effort required to follow through on what might be a long, arduous journey (Sheninger, 2015b). These leaders are forward thinking, and in order to effectively lead change, a shared vision must be created. "The only visions that take hold are shared visions—and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. The best leaders are able to bring their people into the future because they engage in the oldest form of research: They observe the human condition" (Kouzes & Posner, 2009).
John Ryan (2009) elaborates on how leadership success always starts with a clear vision:
Great leaders give real thought to the values, ideas, and activities they're most passionate about—and those are the things they pursue, rather than money or prestige or options forced on them by someone else. The visions these leaders have can be—and, in fact, should be—challenging to put into action. They realize them only by setting realistic, demanding goals and then going after them relentlessly, with the help of other talented men and women who are equally committed and engaged.
Ryan states that compelling visions can truly change the world, but staying invested in them can be extremely difficult when hard times arrive. The real work and testament to great leadership is moving past the visioning process by developing a strategic plan to turn vision into reality. We all have been a part of, or witnessed, one too many visioning exercises that focused on the formation of a mission statement. The result, for the most part, is a hollow vision, created by hours of debate and born out of a handful of statements, that ultimately is not supported by action. Many, including us, would consider this type of exercise a waste of time. We would even go so far as to say that getting people in a room for countless hours to develop a jargon-filled paragraph is more indicative of an LBT than an effective school leader. Mission statements do not lead to sustainable change or intentionally designed schools. Forward-thinking visionaries who persistently strive to implement a vision through actions do.
Developing a shared vision is an attribute linked to all great leaders, but the best leaders ensure that a strategic plan is developed and then meticulously implemented. A vision has to result in a systematic plan that provides a focus for the change initiative. The plan must then be monitored and evaluated if the desired outcome is sustainable change that will lead to transformation. The real work comes after a vision has been established.
David Taylor (2014) outlines 10 crucial elements to successfully move from vision to actionable change:
Great leaders are never satisfied with simply developing a shared vision. They work tirelessly to model expectations during the planning and implementation phases of the change process while empowering others to embrace the needed change. It is easy to talk the talk. Great leaders walk the walk while helping others experience greatness and success along the way. Great visions can, and will, lead to the development of a legacy. Your legacy will be defined by how well you positively affect the lives of others.
Developing a "Culture of Yes"
If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.
One key to change is developing a "culture of yes." This does not and will never occur through an onslaught of directives, mandates, top-down demands, or micromanagement techniques—nor is it a pass for low quality. As our good friend Jimmy Casas shares, "You can't build capacity if people are always asking you for permission." As educational leaders evolve, they must begin to rethink the change process by creating school cultures focused on embracing change as opposed to buy-in (Sheninger, 2014). If educators understand and value why a particular change is being implemented, then they are more prone to support and promote it. This is at the heart of successful change leadership. When people understand the value of change, they are more intrinsically motivated to embrace it, which results in sustainability and ultimately leads to transformation.
Change in any organization is often an arduous task, especially during the initial implementation stage. The onset of the process is typically fraught with challenges, such as overcoming the status quo, a mentality of "if it isn't broke why fix it," fear, a leadership void in the school hierarchy, lack of knowledge on how to initiate change, no clear vision, too many concurrent initiatives, naysayers/antagonists, and a one-size-fits-all approach. We must realize that change is difficult and that a commitment to see the process through is vital if the end goal is cultural transformation that sticks.
Success also lies in a leader's ability to make difficult decisions. Leadership is not a popularity contest. True leaders make tough decisions instead of trying to please everyone. I (Eric) fell victim to the allure of putting popularity first early in my career as a young principal. After realizing the school was stuck in a rut, it took some self-reflection to get myself on track and do the job I was hired to do. Personal reflection led to a mindset shift, and from that point on, several sustained change initiatives resulted in a culture that worked better for our students and staff and ultimately improved student learning outcomes and achievement (Sheninger, 2015b). Leaders are defined by the examples they set.
You must develop a mindset for change in order to create a culture of yes. This process begins with a reflection of why change is so hard and an assessment of why previous change has failed in your school or district. Every school and district has its own culture and unique set of potential roadblocks. Pinpoint areas of difficulty that could morph into challenges or excuses: time, lack of collaboration, finances, limited support, poor professional learning, resistance, mandates/directives, and a history of frivolous purchases. Once the challenges and potential obstacles are visible, begin to develop a roadmap for change by using the following questions:
It is important for leaders to examine and seek answers for each of these driving questions. The questions themselves focus on a leader's ability to initiate change. Utilizing this lens, a culture of yes can be cultivated through the following drivers: strategic thinking, communication, meaningful work, key stakeholders, and a commitment to learning. Effective leaders develop a shared vision with input from all stakeholders, including students. They then craft and implement a plan for action that supports the purpose for the change. The glue that holds the entire process together is a leader's passion for how the change will positively affect students and staff.
Strategic Thinking: After developing a shared vision, a plan for action must be developed. The plan identifies the purpose and focus for the change, and it provides methods to monitor successful implementation and sustainability. The best school leaders model the expectations they set for others. (For a systemic model of strategic thinking for action planning, see Appendix A.)
Communication: The most effective leaders are effective communicators. The art of communication allows them to accomplish tasks and get things done, disseminate important information, acquire new information, develop a shared vision, reach decisions through consensus, build relationships, and motivate and empower people to embrace change. In today's digital age, effective leaders also leverage available technology to transform communication.
Meaningful Work: With any change initiative, you must ensure that a solid foundation aligned to teaching, learning, and leadership is in place. The work should be grounded in evidence and be aligned to the latest research and best practices. As successes occur, it's important to celebrate with staff and students. Showing people how proud you are of their hard work helps expedite the change process and assists in motivating others to embrace the change effort.
Key Stakeholders: Successful change initiatives ultimately depend on moving the masses, but this can best be accomplished by building positive relationships at the individual level. Empower staff to embrace change by putting them in a position to experience the value for themselves. Provide autonomy to those who are already on board while focusing more time and effort on supporting staff who are not yet willing to change.
A Commitment to Learning: The best and most effective leaders never stop learning; they understand that there will always be work to do, no matter how much success is encountered. As Antoni Cimolino states, "There is something to be learned every day, both by looking in the mirror at yourself and by looking at the people around you" (Seijts, 2013).
Today's leaders have a great advantage over their predecessors when it comes to learning—social media. The ability to learn anything, anytime, anywhere, and from anyone through Personal Learning Networks (PLNs)—something we'll discuss in more detail in Chapter 5—is a game-changing resource to build effective leadership skills.
A great deal of time and effort (and a large number of difficult decisions) embody every successful change effort. With that said, it is imperative that the changes you implement actually stick and don't become short-term blips on the radar. Hargreaves and Fink (2004) provide some key points on sustaining change that will enable you to develop a clear focus during the visioning and planning process. Change needs to focus on
A culture of yes thrives when improvement is seen as the result of a collective effort to improve learning for all kids.
Empower Your People
Great leaders don't succeed because they are great. They succeed because they bring out greatness in others.
Effective leadership is a continuous choice, and empowering your people is vital to intentionally designing schools. So how can school leaders empower their team?
Adapt when needed. A great leader knows that his or her respective leadership style will never work for everyone. Being able to successfully navigate different personalities and situations requires flexibility and a willingness to change course on the fly.
Love the work. Enjoying the work provides the resolve to persevere when challenges arise. Most of all, great leaders have fun and do what it takes to ensure others have fun as well.
Show appreciation. Sir Richard Branson has been known to say "Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don't want to" (Branson, 2014). Great leaders know that success is not isolated to one person in an organization. Leadership is a collective effort wherein everyone plays a role. Great leaders go out of their way to put others—not themselves—on a pedestal while consistently praising deserving efforts both in public and private.
Eliminate excuses. Challenges and obstacles will always be prevalent in any organization, especially schools, and they often morph into excuses about why certain initiatives can't be accomplished. As such, school leaders often "no" themselves right out of innovative ideas. Great leaders clear the way for their staff by removing obstacles and challenges through empowerment and autonomy. If it is important enough, a solution will be found. If not, an excuse will be made.
Establish a focus through vision. A clear vision provides guidance not only to the goals at hand but also for how to accomplish them. Great leaders work with stakeholders to develop a shared vision and resulting action plan that keeps everyone focused on a goal of improved student learning. Great leaders also know that vision alone is not enough.
Model expectations. A great leader never asks anyone to do what he or she isn't willing to at least try. Setting an example by putting yourself in others' shoes provides the inspiration and motivation for staff to embrace change.
Start small. Great leaders don't set out to radically change school culture in one fell swoop. They understand that success is the culmination of numerous small wins that build momentum for larger changes.
Know when to delegate. Common sense dictates that no one can do it alone. Great leaders exhibit trust in others when certain tasks are passed along. This in itself works to develop more leaders throughout an organization. The process of delegation also allows for more of a focus on the larger issues at hand.
Provide meaningful feedback. There is a big difference between meaningful feedback and criticism. Great leaders articulate where their staff excel and highlight specific areas of growth. Meaningful feedback is the fuel for improvement.
Communicate effectively. You won't find a great leader who is not also a master communicator. Great leaders understand that listening, facilitating dialogue, asking questions, creating an open environment, and clearly getting to the point are essential skills. They also understand the importance of a multifaceted approach to increase stakeholder engagement.
Change Agents Build Relationships: A Key to Culture
Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.
As mentioned, change is a word that is spoken about in education circles more and more each day. But herein lies the problem: talk and opinions get us nowhere. The fact of the matter is that education has to change dramatically, but how this is initiated should no longer be a contentious topic for discussion or debate. The best leaders don't just talk about change. They make it happen. It is relatively agreed upon that the structure and function of most schools around the world no longer meet the needs of today's learners. There is a quiet revolution gaining steam as more educators and students push back against the traditional policies and mandates that have been forced upon them. Leaders need to decide if it is worth it to conform or to forge their own path and provide students with the education and learning experiences they deserve.
Meaningful change has and always will begin at the individual level. It is at this level where change is sustained to the point that it becomes an embedded component of school or district culture. The hardest, but most gratifying, work in which a leader might ever engage is empowering colleagues to change. School leaders need to remove barriers to the change process, eradicate the fear of failure, provide autonomy, and empower teachers to drive change at the classroom level. Dynamic relationships propel this change to happen.
Consider trying the following strategies to help your colleagues begin the process of changing their professional practice.
Successes can then be promoted within the school and district to serve as a catalyst for cultural transformation. The same holds true for both teachers and administrators when it comes to students, who are our primary stakeholder group. Schools should be designed to meet the needs of students, but if they are not given a seat at the table or allowed to be a focal point of change efforts that ultimately affect them, then a golden opportunity is missed. Never underestimate the power you have to make your school, district, and entire education system better—regardless of the position you hold. Be the change you wish to see in education, and others will follow.
There is some debate about the difference between school culture and school climate, but both affect the operational functionality of the inner workings of the school. School climate reflects how members of the school community experience the school, including interpersonal relationships, teacher and other staff practices, and organizational arrangements. It includes factors that serve as conditions for learning and that support physical and emotional safety, connection and support, and engagement. A positive school climate reflects an attention to social and physical safety; support that enables students and staff to realize high behavioral and academic standards; and the encouragement and maintenance of respectful, trusting, and caring relationships throughout the school community. The U.S. Department of Education (2016) indicates that students learn best when they are in environments in which they feel safe, supported, challenged, and accepted.
We'd make the case that teachers are also at their best in such environments. A positive school climate fosters trust, respect, communication, and cooperation among students, staff, parents, and the school community. By improving school climate, schools lay the foundation for improving student achievement and building vital positive relationships with staff.
The role of a change agent is to provide relevancy, meaning, and authenticity in the teaching and learning process. It hinges upon your ability to provide an environment and activities that unleash students' passion for learning and allows them to demonstrate conceptual mastery by creating artifacts with the tools of their choice. Additionally, it relies on a bold vision to grant students and educators the autonomy to take risks, learn from failure, and adapt as needed. We need to realize that sometimes it's our own lens that gets in the way. It's our own mindset that can inhibit our ability to see things differently and ultimately redefine what's possible. Meaningful change—transformed learning—will happen only if we give up control and establish a culture built on trust and respect.
If our goal is to prepare the next generation of thinkers, doers, inventors, and change agents, then we must abdicate some control, trust students and educators, and work to develop a better system that will produce these desired outcomes. Educators must acknowledge the real challenges with which they are faced each day and work to develop solutions to overcome them. Challenges should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to change but rather opportunities to do things differently and better. There must also be a desire to embrace new thinking and strategies that not only address higher standards but also prepare students for the world they will face upon graduation. The end result will be the proliferation of uncommon learning strategies that, in time, will become common.
Shift the Paradigm
If you want something you never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done.
The world continues to evolve and progress as a result of technological advances. Only a few years ago, it would have been impossible to predict some of the foundational shifts that have become embedded in our daily lives. As we outlined in the Introduction, the speed at which such changes have taken place continues to grow exponentially. For example, in 2003, the idea of a smartphone began with Blackberry, only to be eclipsed by Apple and the release of the first iPhone in 2007. Disruptive innovations, such as Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb, have begun to dramatically alter consumer behaviors—in many cases for the better. These innovations have completely overhauled entire sectors of the economy. Make no mistake about it, technology is shaping the world in ways that we could never have imagined only a few years ago. The types of disruption we are seeing are improving effectiveness, efficiency, and results for people who are now globally connected. As such, competition has flourished, and there's been an exponential growth in innovation. We must either adapt and evolve or risk becoming obsolete and extinct.
Therefore, it's incredibly perplexing, to say the least, to see so many schools (really, education as a whole) remain static when it comes to change. Walk into the average neighborhood school and, for the most part, you will see the same structure and function that has dominated education for the past 100 years. The pressure to conform to a world that equates school success to standardized metrics is, for all intents and purposes, one of the main reasons we are not seeing disruptive innovation in today's classrooms. However, if schools and leaders do not learn from history and the effect of disruptive innovation, then it's only a matter of time before they suffer the same fate of obsolescence, which would be catastrophic to our economy and the world as we know it.
As Thomas Kuhn (1970) argued, scientific advancement is not evolutionary but rather a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions," and in those revolutions "one conceptual world view is replaced by another" (p. 10). Thus, a paradigm shift constitutes a change from one way of thinking to another—a mindset shift—which spurs a revolution that transforms learning and professional practice. This sounds great in theory, but as time has proven, it doesn't happen on its own. For a paradigm shift to occur and be sustained over time, it must be driven by change agents (in classrooms, schools, districts, and other educational organizations) who are willing to disrupt the status quo.
In a world where people use technology in almost every aspect of their lives, it is incumbent upon leaders, regardless of their position, to replace the conceptual view of school with a more meaningful one. This is where the concept of digital leadership really comes into play. By carefully analyzing current components of professional practice, educators can begin to make the necessary paradigm shifts to replace existing practices with more effective and relevant ones. The following are some specific ideas in relation to the Pillars of Digital Leadership (Sheninger, 2014).
Student Engagement, Learning, and Achievement: We can ill afford to teach and lead in the same ways we were taught and led. It is important to sift through the fluffy ideas that abound (and set aside the allure of new tools) and begin to integrate technology with purpose. Success is contingent upon sound instructional design, high-quality assessments, and an improved feedback loop. When implemented correctly, digital tools can transform education.
Learning Spaces and Environments: Desks in rows, LCD projectors used as glorified overhead projectors, uncomfortable furniture, poor lighting, and inflexible arrangements can no longer be the acceptable norm. In order for students to think and solve problems in the real world and beyond, they need to learn in spaces and environments that emulate today's reality. Research on learning spaces has shown that redesign can empower learners and affect student learning (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, & Kobbacy, 2013), a topic we will discuss at length in Chapter 4.
Professional Growth: As we will discuss in Chapter 5, traditional forms of professional learning such as "sit and get," one-size-fits-all, and training that lacks accountability all lead to a significant waste of time and money. Technology enables professional learning to take place anytime, anywhere, and with anyone around the world. No longer are time and location the barriers to growth they once were. Combining improved professional learning experiences with the power of a PLN sets the stage for meaningful improvement that can be transformational.
Communications: Most schools still heavily rely on traditional means of communication (e.g., email, newsletters, phone calls). The shift here is to begin to meet stakeholders where they are and engage them in two-way, real-time communication. As we highlight in Chapter 7, this blended approach will result in more transparency, exposure, and amplification of the vision.
Public Relations: If you don't tell your school's story, someone else will. Do you really want to roll the dice and take a chance with that? Everyone has access to the same video, image, and text tools and has the ability to become a storyteller-in-chief. There is a considerable amount of power in stories that focus on students' successes and staff members' accomplishments. No longer does any educator have to rely on the media alone to share the daily awesomeness that occurs in classrooms and schools.
Branding: Communications + public relations = branding. This is not a business-minded concept focused on selling; instead, it's a method of telling stories and consistently sharing a positive narrative about what happens in your district each and every day. This results in greater support and appreciation for the whole child approach that many schools are now focused on.
Opportunity: As the saying goes, if opportunity doesn't knock, then build a door. The digital world allows us to build and open doors like never before. The paradigm shift here will naturally result with a sustained focus on the other six pillars.
It is evident that a paradigm shift in learning, teaching, and leadership is needed to improve our education system. Opinions, talk, and ideas alone will not do the trick. To intentionally design schools, and ultimately transform learning, it is imperative that we raise the bar so holistic improvement becomes the norm—not an exception.
You are part of the solution.