I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot recently. Just about every technical assistant provider and intermediary I speak with refers to two challenges they face working with districts: lack of capacity and lack of leadership. The former is a phrase so general it lacks meaning except to reinforce the existence for the TA provider. We know that implementing competency education puts everyone outside their comfort zone to some degree. We know that everyone is climbing steep learning trajectories to build out the skills to better meet student needs. The phrase lack of capacity echoes a fixed mindset – as if people do not have the capacity to learn rather than a need to build specific knowledge or skills.
The latter issue is problematic as well. First, it is difficult to separate a leader from leadership skills. Obviously positional roles such as school board, superintendent, and principal means that there are leaders in districts in schools. So this must be referring to leadership skills. Second, it is not clear if it is inadequate leadership skills or the wrong type of skills.
- Managing Personalized, Student-Centered Organizations: We know that district and school leaders need to tap into both leadership (motivate, inspire, and nurture culture) and management (plan, coordinate, monitor, and develop employees) skills, sometimes using both at the same time. It is very difficult to manage something if it is totally new to you, which is the case when we are in the midst of the conversion process. So this might be referring to leaders who are learning and need to become more adept to be able to manage new technologies, new systems, and new metrics. In addition, if we want schools to be more responsive to student needs, leaders will need to learn how to manage an agile organization – an entirely different approach from managing a bureaucratic one.
- Paradigm Shifters: We believe that in order to fully and effectively implement competency education, the community, students, educators, and staff need to become comfortable with a new set of values and assumptions, including growth mindset, strategies to develop intrinsic motivation, cultural responsiveness, and empowering students (student agency). Neither a memo nor a speech will help people jump from one paradigm to another. There needs to be dialogue, experiences, and reflections as they understand the implications of the previous values and seek understanding of the new ones. Thus, leadership draws on facilitative approaches that can create experiences for others and nudge people toward new values, navigate the blindspots, move past discomfort and fear, and nurture leadership in others so that they might take active role in helping colleagues and the community embrace the new values.
- Leadership that Engages Others: Perhaps the concern of lack of leadership means that leaders are using traditional leadership approaches when what they need is a different approach. It is going to be nearly impossible to introduce and guide the conversion to personalized, competency-based education using the traditional, hierarchical leadership styles based on the deployment of positional power over those lower down in the organization. In talking to leaders in competency-based schools, the concept of shared leadership is often raised. Leadership strategies that create shared leadership, including distributive, adaptive, and transformational leadership. These strategies depend on engaging others in solving problems. They are also very aligned with the values and assumptions that form the foundation of competency education. Thus, a very cohesive organization can be formed. Engaging others can also include engaging the community in on-going inquiry and dialogue. Continuous improvement means learning never ends.