In a diagnostic framework from Harvard Professor Dean Williams’ book Real Leadership, Williams argues that good leaders do not simply create followers; rather, they facilitate learning within and across groups in order to address complex realities that demand change. He says that the true task of a leader is getting people to face the reality of any situation themselves, thereby prompting them to develop their own strategies for dealing with problems. In doing that work, a variety of challenges may emerge, which Williams organizes into six primary domains that fittingly describe the major challenges hindering educational leadership in today’s school districts. An innovative leadership approach can help address these challenges in the following ways:
1. The Activist Challenge
In an activist challenge, a group’s values and principles may not reflect the reality of the choices it makes or the systems it has in place. In the classroom, this can occur if a school espouses the belief that students learn at different paces but has no systems for students to make up work or receive extra support if they fall behind.
>>The Innovative Leader Approach: Help a group align its values with its systems, structures, and actions. This involves developing a strategy based on a clear vision and plans for implementing system-wide shifts to personalized learning or competency-based education.
2. The Development Challenge
In a development challenge, a group has untapped potential that is simply not yet developed. For example, it may be present in staffing models in which all teachers have the exact same responsibilities, even though some may be well-suited for coaching or curriculum work beyond the four walls of their classroom.
>>The Innovative Leader Approach: Tap into the raw potential of the group and bring out latent capabilities that are overlooked or simply stifled by current systems.
3. The Transition Challenge
In a transition challenge, if the current value set shifts to a new value set, great progress can be made by the organization. Consider Professor Todd Rose’s work challenging the conventional wisdom of averages in favor of individuality and “jaggedness” in education, as well as technology’s role in accelerating and supporting that process. In the classroom, this challenge can be seen in getting students to shift from an “I’m not smart” mindset to an “I’m able to learn if I try” mindset.
>>The Innovative Leader Approach: Help a group unpack its current beliefs and principles in order to embrace a new set of ideas that can improve performance.
4. The Maintenance Challenge
In a maintenance challenge, a group must weather changing circumstances and preserve the work it has done in order to be able to move forward in the future. This took place a few years ago as Common Core support eroded in state legislatures, and leaders were left alone to adjust to changing state standards and assessments. Effective leaders and teachers had been focused on the broader competencies and principles of teaching and learning that allowed practitioners to stay focused on a coherent instructional vision. Those who were hyper-focused on specific tests or curricular materials faced a more difficult battle in adjusting to a changing landscape.
>>The Innovative Leader Approach: Preserve the essentials and keep performance at a high level until a threat passes or the unknown becomes known.
5. The Creative Challenge
In a creative challenge, a new opportunity arises that gives a group a window to explore new ways of thinking and doing in hopes of making a permanent and lasting change for the organization. This is often the “innovation” work that schools are charged to tackle through grants like Next Generation Learning Challenges, the XQ Super School Project or Race to the Top funding. It might also come in the form of a community passing a penny tax to fund new resources for schools, an election that allows for a fresh start with a new school board majority, or a chance for leaders to enact policy waivers that enable new work.
>>The Innovative Leader Approach: Imagine new realities, develop curiosity about possible solutions, and connect partners across the country doing similar work.
6. The Crisis Challenge
In a crisis challenge, a group faces an unexpected event or change in circumstances that threatens its ways of working or even its very existence. This might occur when a state or district takes over management of schools, or when an abrupt shift in leadership occurs within an organization.
>>The Innovative Leader Approach: Establish a process to deescalate the situation and then focus on addressing the key issues that led to the crisis in order to prevent its recurrence.
Whatever challenges your school or district faces, an innovative educational leadership approach will require a mix of short-term steps and long-term planning to address key structures in the organization as well as the changing circumstances that surround them. It can be a complex endeavor, one that requires a strong framework for moving through the process and determining the precise challenges your school or district is up against.