7 Reasons Courage is Mission-Critical to Innovative School Leadership
Every team meeting we have at Education Elements begins with a check-in question. Sometimes it takes me a while to come up with my answer, but on a call recently it was a no-brainer: “What trait do you most value in a leader?” To me, that’s simple – it’s courage, for two key reasons. First, because courage in leadership is rare, or at least more rare than it should be. And second, because courage is a superpower when it comes to leading innovation, building culture, and enabling transformation. My colleagues and I do a lot of work with leaders, and our framework for innovative leadership is built around a set of competencies that directly feed, strengthen, and enrich leaders’ courage, a mission-critical element of their leadership. While the list could go on and on, here are seven leadership superpowers that courage can activate.
Innovative leaders have the courage to do less, not more.
Every school and district I’ve encountered struggles with initiative fatigue and the challenge of having too many competing priorities. And yet most of us in the world of school leadership have seen that the schools where true transformation and innovation occur are those where a brave leader has made the decision to do fewer things as a school, but do them well, deeply, and for an extended period of time. Building this kind of courage comes from working on leadership competencies like “Focus on Purpose” and “Decide Deliberately”, identifying what matters most, feeling confident about it, and focusing our attention on that, rather than splitting our attention across a wide set of half-measures.
Innovative leaders have the courage to speak a hard truth for the sake of the students, the staff, or the institution.
Sometimes we just have to say it. Perhaps the hard truth has to do with a program that has outlived its purpose, a teacher whose style is in conflict with the school’s values, or a problem area everyone sees but no one wants to talk about. Those kinds of unspoken issues can fester for years, distracting us from the work we really need to be doing: helping all students learn. Our students and our schools deserve courageous leaders speaking hard truths. After all, if a leader’s style is steeped in competencies like “Focus on Purpose,” then speaking up is the only logical choice in order to truly focus on a school’s ultimate purpose - giving our students, our staff, and our school the best we can.
Innovative leaders have the courage to “own” an initiative or a decision rather than blaming those “downtown”.
Perhaps the most common way I see school leaders undermine themselves and diminish morale is when they explain that “downtown” or the “leadership” or “the superintendent” wants us to do this or that. Nothing undercuts an initiative like explaining that your boss made you do it. As leaders, it is our responsibility to own, cheerlead, and celebrate new initiatives, to find a way to get behind them authentically and, if necessary, through hard conversations with the higher-ups. This kind of leadership is central to the “Nurture Trust” competency. Top-to-bottom trust in a school system comes when we all know that leaders only push initiatives that they personally support and that somehow or other the leader has found a way to get behind and work with whatever comes from downtown.
Innovative leaders have the courage to identify a vision and strategy that will ruffle some feathers.
We owe it to our students to be changemakers – the status quo is not good enough for them. As such, leaders need to be brave enough to envision a future and articulate a path to that future, even when that path might create tension, discomfort, or disagreement. Again, it is by leveraging competencies like “Focus on Purpose” and “Decide Deliberately” that leaders can focus on what matters, even if that doesn’t please everyone in the short term.
Innovative leaders have the courage to own a mistake or an area of ignorance.
We are lucky to live in an age when leadership doesn’t have to mean the leader is the smartest person in the room. Good leaders know that leadership means admitting when they’ve made a mistake and seeking to make it right; they also know that good leadership means asking for help to build one’s own knowledge and skill. By working on competencies like “Cultivate Curiosity” and “Build Community,” leaders can shift from a more old-school version of “leader-as-expert” to a stance of “leader-as-facilitator” and “learner-in-chief.”
Innovative leaders have the courage to delegate a project or a decision to someone else, and to give them credit when it succeeds.
Leadership also isn’t about getting the credit, being the rainmaker, or driving the bus. Just as great teachers in the 21st century are the ones who create conditions in which their students can make their own meaning, great leaders are the ones who create a space where others can lead, innovate, and make change. Courageous leadership means empowering others to drive projects and launch new ideas; it also means protecting teammates if a risk doesn’t pay off but selflessly trumpeting their success from the rooftops when it does. We help leaders build their capacity in this area by working on competencies like “Distribute Power” and “Show Appreciation” – while these competencies may be obvious, they are easier said than done, especially for busy leaders trying to make change quickly and keep a lot of balls in the air at once.
Innovative leaders have the courage to take off the mask and share their true selves with their staff.
Somewhere along the line, some of us (myself included) learned the wrong lesson – that professionalism as a leader meant drawing a bright line between home and work, keeping a poker face at all times, and keeping ourselves apart from “the staff.” While professional boundaries are as important as ever, they don’t require this level of separation. Leaders who want to build trust, nurture relationships, and lead a cohesive team will need to be brave enough to show their true selves to their colleagues and teachers. Laugh at yourself, cry a little, show some frustration occasionally. Most people I know would prefer to be led by a human, not a robot. Ultimately, growing in this area of leadership starts with the “Know Yourself” competency, one which we have found many leaders almost never get the time or support to work on, despite the fact that it is absolutely central to good leadership.
Future blog posts by our team will examine ways leaders can build their courage. Here’s a spoiler: it’s not easy, and it takes a lifetime. Want to get a head start? Reach out to our team at Education Elements to learn more about the ways in which we develop leadership competencies, build leadership capacity, and help leaders level-up their courage. Additionally, find an event near you where you can can meet and collaborate with education leaders and learn from experts and innovators in areas like personalized learning, strategic planning, team dynamics and habits, innovative leadership, and teacher retention – like the Education Elements Summit 2020 this May. Super early bird registration ends next week on January 14th!
About Andy Shaw
Andy Shaw is a Senior Design Principal on the Design & Implementation team, working with district and school teams to improve student outcomes through inclusive and intentional change processes. Andy has worked in education since 2002, first as a high school mathematics teacher and then for seven years as a high school administrator. Most recently, he served as the Dean of Curriculum and Innovation at The Bay School, a progressive high school in San Francisco, where he led a future-focused redesign of the school's curriculum, calendar, and bell schedule. Andy's passion is for process: keeping students, teachers and staff, school values, and culture at the heart of major initiatives. He holds a B.A in Mathematics from Bowdoin College and a Master's of Arts in Education Leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University. Andy is originally from Maryland and currently lives in Berkeley, CA.