It’s Not Enough to Be A Visionary – #LeadershipDay14

 joan of arc

Joan of Arc was a visionary leader.  Her example of commitment to doing what she knew to be right (and the suffering that entailed) has become a corollary for courageous leadership.  I would like to propose a somewhat differing view of the contemporary leader.  Being brave, committed, and visionary are all good virtues – maybe even essential – but they are not enough.

The world around us – and our work as educators – is too complex and multi-faceted to approach unilaterally.  All people have ideas about what they would like to see in the world; each of us, in our own right, is a visionary.  Educational leadership needs to do better than that; it needs to be inclusionary by design.

#LeadershipDay14 asks us to share our thoughts on effective digital leadership – the digital realm is, after all, just as important a landscape in 21st Century education as a classroom.  That said, I would like to expand the definition of “technology” a bit; I think we’re too quick to think of “technology” as something with circuits and screens. Something that lights up.  Something that we just learn to use well before the next version comes out.  Technology is more than the physical device that serves as a portal to the digital world.

Technology is any tool or technique we purposefully use to accomplish something. One of the coolest instructional technologies I have seen? Going desk-less – teachers manipulating the space to bring about enhanced communication, engagement, and presence.  So when it comes to being a Technology Leader, I believe we need to be mindful of all the technologies at our disposal, be they in the realm of spatial design, pedagogy, and (most critically) the common thread shared by ALL of our technologies: human interaction.

Inclusionary leaders have a key trait that facilitates good ideas getting amplified across a system: confidence. Confidence to bring divergent voices to the table.  Confidence to empower diverse teams with real authority to come up with adaptive solutions to new (and old) organizational challenges.  Confidence to make those processes transparent; confidence to reflect publicly about learning to lead, not just informational summaries on “what got done.”  These leaders know that real, sustainable growth – measured in the effect on student learning across the school/district – can ONLY come about by including people.

“Inclusion” also means involving more than just the same people.  That person in your school that gets the label of “obstructionist?”  They belong on these teams.  If we are worried about someone’s perceived negativity, then what better approach do we have than to welcome them into the solution/creation space?  More food for thought: they might not be all that “negative” after all – maybe they’ve just never had a substantive opportunity to contribute to something beyond their classroom.

Inclusionary leaders find those people and bring them to the table; they realize that, by not harnessing that energy for something constructive and purposeful, the organization will continue to be hampered – held back from its potential – by dis-unity and dis-integrity.

“As organizational change facilitators and leaders, we have no choice but to figure out how to invite in everybody who is going to be affected by this change. Those that we fail to invite into the creation process will surely and always show up as resistors and saboteurs.”  Margaret Wheatley in Bringing Schools Back to Life: Schools as Living Systems, 1999.

I like how Dan Rockwell mirrors this thought here:

Our primary tool in accomplishing this can be called our “inclusion technology” – a pathway/process that is tangible, visible, whose purpose is publicly understood.  At my former school we formed a 9-member “Design Team” after the model proposed by the Interaction Institute for Social Change:

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 2.57.31 PM

Our team – five teachers, one counselor, one classified staff member, two admin – met together for two years to do the following:

The Design Team will engage in deep study, reflection, outreach and inquiry to decide how we as a school can best organize our entire instructional program to support the learning of all students. The Design Team will be large enough to be representative and small enough to be functional.

This work is now moving into its “Year Zero” phase (concept via Tom Schimmer) where we learn through implementation, taking our conceptual work into real-world learning environments.  The team created these Learning Principles as the anchors, with the understanding that they are a living document subject to change and growth based on actual practice with them.  We looked to other schools and organizations for ideas and inspiration, but we had to create our own version to make them meaningful to our specific context and culture.

It is only through these slow, inclusive processes (see Fullan) that we can scale these agreements and practices across the school.  There is no “light switch” that gets turned on; change comes about like a sunrise – slowly, imperceptibly at first.  If we’re being honest with ourselves as learning organizations, we’re always in the “sunrise” phase in some way – considering new ideas and approaches to what we do.  Pushing past the comfort of expertise.

Oftentimes when I hear about someone’s “vision” I wonder if that has come about via connectedness with others or intense, independent introspection (pardon the dichotomy, there is a grey area here of course, as in most places).  Having a vision doesn’t make you a leader.  Our degree of certainty in a position can often be directly inverse to our ability to draw out, and commit to, areas of powerful convergence with others.  Inclusion feels scary at first because we sense that our voice might be lost; in part this is true – our “pure” vision joins the stream of others’ visions and loses its original form.  Through “inclusion technologies” like the Design Team model we use those initial, individual visions as raw material for bigger, better thinking.

Yet Wheatley sagely (and soberly) observes a simple impediment – the commitment to doing it:

“What still seems to be lacking is our commitment to involving everybody.  We keep hoping we don’t need to – that if we design a good plan, people will accept it because of its merits.  We haven’t yet absorbed the simple truth that every living being, every colleague, maintains the right to determine whether he/she will change.  We can’t force anybody to change. We can only involve them in the change process from the beginning, and see what’s possible.  If change becomes meaningful to them, they will change. If we want their support, we must welcome them as co-creators. People only support what they create.” (Ibid)

Teachers will recognize that this connects powerfully with how they interact with their students as well.

A recent thread on the outstanding #SlowChatED made me think more about the relationship between being a leader and having/carrying out a “vision:”

I like what Jeffrey and Justin say here – I agree that the role of the administrator is critical in the change process.  That said (and this is an administrator talking), it is unhealthy and often unsuccessful to make admin the default “carriers of the vision.” This reinforces a more factory-model view of education in which the boss has the big picture all laid out and the workers develop specific expertise to carry out a finite set of tasks.

The role of the school leader is shifting quickly.  The archetype we grew up with depicts two models: A) The middle-manager adept at massaging people out of their ire (not looking at the underlying causes), smoothing over differences (not necessarily surfacing and exploring them), and doing the dance just well enough to stay liked and stay employed; B) The Dictator.  Strength and conviction in leaders today must look, sound, and feel different; it must look like a table full of divergent voices forging common understanding and agreements.

Just as we expect teachers to transform their role and their authority relative to their students, so must we expect our leaders to move beyond old models of positional authority for true, lasting growth and change to be possible.

My question to you for 2014/15:

How will you go about developing inclusion vehicles in your organization – and how will you nourish and sustain your commitment to them? 


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