There’s no doubt – leadership is difficult and serving as a school principal or other school system leader can be extraordinarily challenging. The stakes are so high; the futures of human beings are in development, and numerous stakeholders, understandably, demand that leaders have the answers. And yet, having all the answers may be the entirely wrong approach for leaders. Engaged and active leadership –yes. Leaders who dictate and demand – not so much.
We have, I suspect, worked with and for leaders who fit into the following categories:
- The Competent Manager: Duty schedules and Back-to-School Night are well-organized. A vision for progressive and innovative practices is not really evident.
- The People Person: The leader is a great person with exceptional interpersonal skills. When the going gets tough or boldness is needed, however, decisive action is wanting.
- The Do as I Say, Not as I Do Boss: The words are impressive, but the actions and follow through do not match the promises.
- The Authoritarian: Invoking fear is not a leadership attribute.
- The Transactional Leader: Changes are rampant and things are happening. After a year, though, everyone is exhausted and the sustainability of improvements is highly suspect.
- The Incomplete Leader: The intentions and energies are good, but shortfalls in vision-setting, professional learning supports, resources, incentives, or the implementation plan slowly and tragically erode away the potential benefits of the initiative.
- The Door is Closed Leader: We think there is a leader, but the door is always closed.
Having served as a site principal and district leader for well over a decade, I cannot and am not passing judgment. These jobs are terrifically difficult and, frankly, I was neither adequately trained nor supported to be a leader. Efforts to ensure that school administrators are instructional leaders are laudable, but how about support in the basics of leadership?
We know Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Wise leaders will resist the temptation to push back when, inevitably, there are questions regarding continues improvement efforts. Questioning isn’t resistance, it’s engagement.
The preponderance of research and literature on leadership portrays the leader not as a dictator, but as a coach; leaders don’t order their followers to complete tasks, but collaboratively develop a vision, listen and learn with and from stakeholders, and build the capacity of their teams to do the work. Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, in The One Minute Manager, write, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” (Blanchard & Johnson, 1982). Jack Welch, in Winning, notes that, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” (Welch, 2005). And John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.” (Maxwell, 2007)
In John Kotter and Dan Cohen’s work, The Heart of Change (2002), they note that leaders effect positive, productive, and sustained improvements in their organizations through the people with whom they work. Leaders gather a guiding coalition, craft a clear and simple vision, empower people to overcome obstacles, and strive to maintain momentum until the change becomes the new normal. Leaders don’t push the change, they guide the change.
In Switch (2010), Chip and Dan Heath note that resistance to improvement efforts often comes from a lack of clarity; what is perceived to be laziness is often the result of stress because we’re moving faster than the speed of trust; that perceived problems with people are often problems with the plan. The lesson is: Work with your colleagues, not against them. The vision is what’s important. How we get will likely emerge through the change process itself.
Simon Sinek (2009) famously encourages us to “Start with why.” What we do and how we do it will emerge from the why. Starting with why requires that we collaboratively define the why, and the individuals within the organization should be involved in the process.
And of course, this thinking of leader as a coach who empowers teams isn’t new. W. Edwards Deming (2013), Peter Drucker (1990), Peter Senge (1990), and Jim Collins (2001) reached the same conclusions. Interestingly and not coincidentally, the principles of leader-as-coach merge smoothly with the principles of PLCs at Work, and PLCs at Work may be the most common sense practice of all, a notion that I explore in conclusion of this book. The work of Deming and Senge are precursors to the work of DuFour and Eaker. Leadership is most definitely a challenge and it represents a set of skills that can be learned and continuously improved. This profession deserves and demands that leaders possess the most refined qualities and skills.
Exhaustive analyses of leadership in exceptional schools notes that, “The most direct and impactful way principals can influence student learning is by building and maintaining a strong learning climate in their schools” (Allensworth, Farrington, Gordon, Johnson, Klein, McDaniel, & Nagaoka, 2018, p. 26). And shaping strong cultures requires that principals empower others to lead:
“Teachers and students need support to build their leadership capacity…By developing structures to build teacher leadership capacity, principals empower teachers to take ownership over moving learning goals forward…this includes involving teachers in school-wide decisions, purposefully distributing leadership responsibilities (as opposed to ad hoc task delegation) to teachers and other student support staff” (Allensworth, Farrington, Gordon, Johnson, Klein, McDaniel, & Nagaoka, 2018, p. 26).
But, others will be wary of assuming leadership responsibilities if mutual trust is missing; trust is foundational to collaborative leadership (Bryk, Schneider, & Kochanik, 2002).