Three Types of Leaders Every Learning Organization Should Have
One of the best things about living your professional life in education is the assumption implicit in the field that everyone has something valuable to contribute, and there is always an opportunity to level up. Over the past year, we have seen this belief confirmed in classrooms, virtual classrooms, schools, and districts all over the country as teachers, counselors, campus administrators, and district leaders have taken on challenges and shifted the way school happens with no notice, little training, and endlessly changing demands and limitations.
At Education Elements, we often reference The New School Rules, especially when we are working with school and district leaders to create cultures in which people learn with, and from each other. The last rule of the six states the belief that, “Schools Grow When People Grow;” it’s a concise summary of the principles of a learning organization.
It seems obvious, in a way, that an educational institution would be a learning organization, but, traditional schools and districts have sometimes struggled to be these places - places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” (Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline).
Schooling during COVID required all of the characteristics Peter Senge lists in his description of a learning organization: people had to expand their capacity to create results, engage in new and expansive patterns of thinking, and they had to learn how to learn together. As you reflect on the year that was, and plan for the year to come, consider ways to build on the silver lining of this year by developing leadership at all levels of your organization.
As schools and districts are becoming learning organizations, we can learn from the research done in other organizations as they have made this shift: the evolution is driven and supported by the people within the organization, as they fill some specific leadership roles: Local Line Leaders, Executive Leaders, and Internal Networkers/Community Builders.
Three Types of Leaders in Learning Organizations
Local Line Leaders
- Who are they? Local line leaders are the people in your school who have a locus of control in which they can experiment with new ideas. They might be the teachers who do innovative things, the principal who hosts an ed camp, or the department head who pilots a new curriculum.
- What do they do? These are the innovators--people who undertake meaningful organizational experiments and test whether new learning capabilities lead to improved results. People with local line leader potential may not be aware that they are conducting these experiments--they may just be drawn to trying out new things and fearless about taking risks. Even if they don’t know they are doing it, they are expanding the organization’s sense of what is possible.
- How can you support them? Supporting innovators like local line leaders, start by clarifying what ideas are safe enough to try. During COVID, many local line leaders were able to test out new virtual instructional practices, classroom configurations, and communication practices because their leaders gave them freedom to innovate within boundaries. Once the conditions are clear, check in with these local line leaders--celebrate progress when things are working, and discuss the lessons learned in failure when things don’t go as planned.
- Helpful Resource: The Start Up Teacher Playbook by Michelle Blanchet and Darcy Bakkegard. This practical book was written by two former teachers to support innovation in the classroom.
Internal Networkers/Community Builders
- Who are they? The internal networkers/community builders serve as the cross-pollinators of a learning organization, bringing ideas from one space to another, and helping scale and evolve the lessons learned through innovation. In a school, they might be art, music, PE, STEM, or modern language teachers who work with all grades, special educators who push into a range of content areas, or counselors, who work with a range of students, teachers, and families. At the district level they might be division directors, who work with all of the schools at a given level, or directors who work across all of the schools in a specific capacity.
- What do they do? “Seed carriers” of the new culture, who move freely about the organization, learn from the line leaders who are innovating, then find those who are predisposed to bringing about change in other parts of the organization. These community builders help out in implementing new programs and practices (organizational experiments), and they aid in the distribution and diffusion of new learnings.
- How can you support them? These networkers and builders need to have the systemic support to spend time learning from and supporting the line leaders, so there needs to be an expectation that they will be welcomed and involved in the spaces where innovation is happening, and they need a forum for connecting these innovations to new settings. For example, incorporating the practice of frequent classroom or virtual classroom visits, holding time for collaborative planning, and implementing the practice of soliciting and giving peer feedback.
- Helpful Resource: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. This book explores the key skills and practices that support a culture of collaboration, innovation, and learning, including guidance on how to reform a toxic culture.
- Who are they? Executive leaders are those who have the positional authority to shift the organizational practices and culture to allow for the local line leaders and internal networkers/community builders to test and scale new ideas. They may have titles like Principal, Assistant Principal, Director, Superintendent, or Assistant Superintendent.
- What do they do? These leaders provide support for line leaders and seed carriers by developing learning infrastructures and leading by example, which results in the evolution of the norms and behaviors of a learning culture. That might look like embracing new meeting protocols that encourage psychological safety, sharing their own learning process, or engaging in retrospectives to evaluate progress and make adjustments. They articulate the guiding principles for learning in the organization, and they surrender the power typically embedded in their role to enable the investment of the others in the organization.
- How can you support them? To support the Executive Leaders in a learning organization, others in the organization should participate and engage in good faith in the practices and norms introduced to support the entire organization learning with and from each other. The shift in culture requires the buy-in of the entire school or district staff.
- Helpful Resource: The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black. This book offers an operating system for schools and districts as they shift from traditional hierarchies to more responsive learning organizations.
It takes a mix of leadership styles and a range of leadership skills to create and sustain a culture of learning, and this year proved that schools across the country have found leadership at all levels.
About Megan Campion
Megan Campion is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team. Megan came to Education Elements with extensive experience working in schools as a teacher and administrator, and with schools as a program manager and consultant. Megan began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at an independent school in McLean, Virginia. She transitioned into teaching middle school history in her second year of teaching, and spent her time as a teacher creating student-centered, inquiry-based learning experiences for students. Megan’s career in education has been centered around the question of what is effective, scalable, and measurable in education, and supporting the development and engagement of all stakeholders in a school community.