The modern education system requires agile leadership that is capable of responding to an ever-changing landscape. Leaders must be able to build an adaptive, learning culture, build relationships and trust; create an inclusive and collaborative environment; and set a clear vision. This blogpost explores the qualities of successful education leaders in complex times.
While it used to be adequate for people to do as they were told, today people are needed who understand themselves and their world at a qualitatively higher level of mental complexity. The confusing, changing demands of modern life are developmentally inappropriate for most adults. The bar has been raised so high, so fast that the level of awareness and self-motivation expected today is far greater than anything required of previous generations. We no longer live in a world where we have the right to expect authorities to know the answers.
Complex, adaptive problems are solved with emergent practices, not ready to implement technical solutions. Leaders who thrive in complexity tolerate more uncertainty, ambiguity, and messiness. As the rate of change cycles at faster and faster rates, it requires more of a ‘learner’ and less of an ‘expert’ mindset. Adaptive leadership is about pointing people at the problem and mobilising them to do the work rather than being the one with all the answers. The people with the problem own the problem and the problem solving needs to be transferred to them.
Brian Cook, Social Studies Department Head at Dana Hall School, Boston says, “It’s about nurturing an eco-system rather than sticking to script. It takes time and it is messy and that is part of the process. You have to be OK with making mistakes.”
When a team operates in a culture of psychological safety, staff are energised to speak up when they see something going wrong. Leaders model that it is OK to make mistakes and acknowledge that they are likely to miss things. They are intentionally curious about people they disagree with in order to understand them. Differences generate conflict and creativity and help shape new perspectives. Instead of seeing resisters, leaders see people of potential. We can influence people by asking challenging questions and really listening to their answers. Where do they feel that little niggling feeling? What question are they asking that this might be the answer to? What do they want their learners to be like?
Jeff Evancho, Assistant Superintendent Secondary Education at South Fayette School District, Pennsylvania says, “I look for my toughest critics and start to build relationships. You have to be genuine. The art of listening. I set up in the library for a day, emailed all staff and invited them to come and challenge or critique me, whatever they wanted.”
80% of learning is informal and we must recognize our dependence on informal networks. Teachers learn more in the staff room, the carpark, and the pub than in any professional development session. They find out how to teach through informal learning: talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and working with experienced mentors. Leaders can identify the “seed carriers”, internal networkers and middle leaders who know how to get people talking to one another and how to build informal communities.
Brian Cook, Social Studies Department Head at Dana Hall School, Boston says, “Most enduring change comes about from middle managers. Every school has the teachers who have been there long enough to cultivate those informal relationships.”
Leading complex pedagogical change in schools requires patience for the slow and messy nature of the work, respectful and trusting relationships with people, listening with curiosity and authenticity, and respect for context and history. It isn’t about applying a formula; it is about engaging in a conversation. Effective leaders are intellectually curious, make people feel seen and heard, and invite people into change instead of telling them what they need to change. Too much education leadership focuses on procedural change and does not get to the deep change in teachers’ beliefs required for effective school improvement. Teachers are professionals with agency and teaching is a collaborative enterprise that requires constant reflection, examination, and inquiry.
Our leadership stance determines how we frame problems, see opportunities, and direct our energies. The quotes below are from three transformational education leaders. What can you infer about their collective leadership stance, and their views on learning and education?
“Instilling the same dispositions in the teachers and leadership as you hope to instil in students is one way to ensure that change has legs. It’s so powerful to invite people into change instead of telling them what they need to change.” – Kristen Kullberg, Making and Design Initiatives Coordinator at Washington International School
“If you are doing systemic large-scale change, you have to be focused on the adult learners first, not the children. The biggest mistake is not viewing adults as learners as well. If you don’t treat adults as professionals, you are [in a difficult situation].” – Elise Heil, Principal at Sacred Heart School, Washington DC.
“Have a genuine desire to listen and learn, to see your role as not the authority. Be truly curious about your learners, really care. Desire to listen and connect in an authentic way. See education as truly part of a civic effort. It is beyond passing a test; it’s about creating humans; it is more lifelong. When someone sees you as a human, that is really empowering as learner.” – Nathalie Ryan, Senior Educator at US National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Leaders question the status quo. In order to do something, we have to be able to imagine it. Becoming clear about our personal and collective purpose, is how we become leaders. When we know and document our values, and ask others to hold us accountable to them, it draws talented and motivated people to us. Clarifying your unique purpose and writing, distilling, and frequently revising that purpose can be transformational. Try providing your colleagues with a copy of your personal purpose, and ask them to call you on it if they see you not supporting those values.
People and organizations flourish when positive practices are given greater emphasis than negative practices. Ensure that after people interact with you, they have more energy. Three particularly important activities for promoting a positive climate include fostering compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude among employees. Leaders should be a source of life-giving or positive energy.
Erik Lindemann, 3rd Grade Teacher and Facilitator/Leader at Osborne Elementary in Michigan says, “Spend time with people who are the sparklers, the energisers, Spend time with the plusses. The ‘Yes, And…?’ people.”
Education leaders in complex times face a unique set of challenges. They must be open to change, embrace ambiguity, foster relationships, and cultivate a culture of psychological safety. They must also recognize the power of informal learning, understand the importance of a positive leadership stance, and sparkle with energy.
*Quotes in this blogpost are from my Churchill Fellowship.