What is the Role of School Leadership?
As we create a new vision for education, let’s discuss the impact and the importance of school leadership. As mentioned in a previous blog, I have visited schools all over the country. Each school, to some extent, takes on the personality of its leadership. If we are going to change our schools, leadership is a critical piece of this process.
A couple of years ago, I read the book Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I would not put this faith-based leadership book in my personal top 10. However, it brought some interesting ideas and perspectives. The book is about the historic Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800’s. The goal of this group was to explore the newly acquired land, the western United States. They were to establish trade with Natives and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean.
The belief at that time was that the western United States’ topography was essentially a mirror of the eastern US. The group carried canoes with them as they ascended the Rocky Mountains. They hoped there would be a waterway to take them to the Pacific on the top of the mountains. At the summit, they were quite surprised to see a series of more mountains on the other side. At that point, they had a decision to make. Do they continue to carry their canoes, or do they abandon them?
Lighten the Load
What does this story have to do with school leadership? There are a couple of lessons that are important to our conversation about school redesign. First of all, what canoes are you or your staff still carrying that no longer serve you well? You have brought them with you just in case they are needed (like the canoes being carried up the mountains). But, now they are slowing you down. You need to be thoughtful about abandoning them.
Bolsinger also talks about Lewis and Clark leading off the map. There was no map of the regions they were exploring. A high level of trust in each other was crucial. They made maps as they traveled to record their journey. In many ways, we are leading off the map as leaders of schools in the modern age. We don’t know exactly what lies ahead for our schools, budgets, policy changes, and an everchanging political climate. Courage is necessary to lead this unchartered territory and to leave a map for others that may come after us.
One of the primary roles of leaders in schools today is to create safety for students and staff. This builds a high level of trust. Trust, physical safety, and emotional safety are required in order for folks to be willing to take risks.
I am not sure where I first heard this concept, but I have used it with my staff. At the watering hole on the African savannah, a gazelle really only asks one question. The strategy is not the best way to consume water or about the best grouping at the watering hole. The only question that matters is “Is it a lion?”
If there is even a hint of a lion, the herd becomes anxious, and nothing matters except for the lion. The gazelles won’t be able to take a drink or move on with their lives until the lion is gone. In school leadership, we must identify and eradicate the “lions” that threaten our students and staff.
One of the greatest threats to our students and staff is a lack of clarity on priorities for the school. Nothing is important if everything is important. We need to be very intentional as leaders about identifying and clarifying what is and is not important.
As leaders, we must ensure that the best idea wins, not the loudest voice. Too often we just give in to the person who complains the loudest instead of to the best idea. Eventually, folks with good ideas will no longer share them if they are not acknowledged and respected. In a culture where the best idea wins, creativity is unleashed throughout the system.
When I tell folks I am a high school principal, I am often met with strange looks. People ask questions about my job and sometimes about my sanity. Some folks assume I spend all day dealing with crazy parents and suspending unruly teenagers.
The way I like to describe my job is that I am an “educational solutions architect.” I get to spend my time designing solutions to educational problems for staff and students. We just designed/remodeled a bank into a school building. I was fascinated by the interplay of the architects as they balanced the structure of the building with the aesthetics. The building needed to structurally handle the load of the roof and the walls. Yet, it also needed to be a visually appealing and usable space. As an educational solutions architect, the things I help create also need to balance creativity and structure.
As we design new solutions, we must be willing to try small, low-stakes investments. The goal is to see if any of the potential solutions work before unloading significant resources. I like to frame this as “bullets before cannonballs”. In a naval battle, the captain first wants to dial in the position of the other ship with bullets. They do this before unleashing cannon balls in order to maximize resources. Once the position is dialed in, then you can unleash more at the target.
Being the solutions architect, I need to understand my role in communicating. I can explain the solutions that work and the results of the cannonballs. I am much more comfortable leading from the back or alongside others. While I am not always comfortable leading out front or making my voice heard, there are times it is needed. We need to be willing to sit at the adult’s table if we want to make a lasting change.
Let me explain. I grew up in the Midwest and had a large extended family that would gather every year during the holidays. We had about 30-40 people who would gather. There was no way that we were all going to fit in the dining room. The adults would eat in the dining room and we would set up a kid’s table down in the basement. The kid’s table is where the action was at. We didn’t talk about politics, world events, or other adult topics. Instead, we looked forward to my cousin eating a roll every year covered in ranch dressing without chewing. We referred to this as the “roll trick”. I won’t share all of the details of that one, but there was a lot of laughter. Just use your imagination as you think about the results of trying to eat a roll without chewing…
Being one of the older cousins, I was moved to the adult table when I got married. Frankly, I did not view it as an upgrade. The longer I am in education, the more I believe that great educational leaders are more comfortable at the “kid’s table”. They don’t take themselves too seriously and know how to easily relate to students. As we look to redesign our schools, don’t be afraid to engage at the kid’s table. Keep in mind, though, that there are times we must sit with the adults.
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