Leadership: Adapt, Innovate, and Inspire

Last week, I read a tweet that mentioned Scott McLeod’s declaration that July 30, 2010, was to be “Leadership Day.” I’m sure many are of the mindset that a 24 hour holiday for leadership is a bit hokey, but I appreciate the fact that a number of really smart people are committed to sharing their thinking about leadership in a purposeful and collective way. And, I’m happy to ride on the coattails of those intellectuals and share some of my thoughts on this day for educators and leaders and bloggers and tweeters and thinkers…

When I think about what actions and behaviors make effective leaders in the area of technology, I’m reminded of a quote I just came across in Gary Hamel’s book, The Future of Management:

To thrive in an increasingly disruptive world, companies must become as strategically adaptable as they are operationally efficient. To safeguard their margins, they must become gushers of rule-breaking innovation. And if they’re going to out-invent and outthink a growing mob of upstarts, they must learn how to inspire their employees to give the very best of themselves every day (p. 11).

As Director of Teaching & Learning at an elementary school in Atlanta, these sentences seem to have very little relevance in my daily work. However, after replacing the word “companies” with “schools,” the picture becomes a bit clearer. For me, as an educational leader, I must strive to adapt, innovate, and inspire.


In March, I spent a week shadowing a head of school at a powerful independent school in the northeast. A master leader and interesting storyteller, this head of school lives in the uncommon space of the Jim Collins’ Stockdale Paradox – she is a leader who confronts the brutal facts of the school’s current reality but retains faith that it will prevail and succeed. She is also open and responsive to feedback about her performance which will help bring the current reality of the school closer to its lofty vision. To illustrate this point, she recounted the advice of a former board member to walk more slowly through the halls because people at the school took her fast pace as a sign that she was not noticing people or even purposefully ignoring them. She noted to me that “that was a great piece of advice…it stuck with me and I am really mindful to do that walk…based on feedback.” A willingness to adapt (in both large and small ways) is, I believe, an essential piece of leadership in the 21st century.


Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, “Bring on the Learning Revolution,” is a must-see for educational leaders. In his lecture, he acknowledges that innovation never easy, and the most intriguing quote (for me) came via Abraham Lincoln:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save country.

Robinson asks an important question: What is it that we, in education, are enthralled with? The obvious answer would be the status-quo, the industrial model of education, and tradition. Robinson challenges us to think about pushing past a linear model to one that is more organic. For leaders, I think it’s essential that we carefully examine how we can rise with the occasion. For example, although many schools talk about personalizing education for students, we are still delivering professional development with a one-size-fits-all approach.  We have made great strides, but if we are enthralled with school-driven “sit and get” professional development, we can not fully innovate in individual classrooms or with our own teaching and learning. Leaders in 2010 must think and act anew and release the dogmas of the tradition and the past.


Last year, I read Visionary Leadership by Burt Nanus, and I’m a believer that a leader cannot inspire without a clear vision in mind. Building shared vision in a school is essential, but even a compelling vision is worthless if the leader is not focused on people and relationships. Nanus writes:

Effective leaders have agendas; they are totally results oriented. They adopt challenging new visions of what is both possible and desirable, communicate their visions, and persuade others to become so committed to these new directions that they are eager to lend their resources and energies to make them happen (p. 4).

As I think about leadership in schools, it’s that eagerness to lend resources and energy that can prove to be transformational within organizations. A while back, Will Richardson wrote a post entitled Transparency = Leadership, and I think that’s where I see 21st century leadership headed. I wrote a little bit about transparency in March but it was more “big picture” than “How can leaders increase transparency to inspire others to achieve their best?” I’m now seeing that it’s more about individual steps toward openness and sharing, which is ultimately why I decided to take a few minutes on a busy Friday afternoon to answer the call of the #leadershipday10.


Relationships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

So, it might just be me, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these two New York Times articles from this past week:

I also just finished reading Jenifer Fox’s book, Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, and while many questions are bouncing around in my head, I keep coming back to this one: What role should we (as educators) play in the social lives of our students? Specifically, how can schools do more educating and less policing around the good, bad, and uglyness of adolescent relationships?

Rosalind Wiseman wrote a response to the lengthy cyberbullying article. I’ll let her words do the difficult work of addressing the parents’ role  as she has many more years and experience than this non-parent. However, her main argument — “adults refusal to recognize how their reactions in these [cyberbullying] situations make the problem bigger” — must be acknowledged and addressed. I applaud Wiseman for initiating conversation around these issues but also doubt that parents similar to the NJ ones presented in her article are taking the time to read blogs about cyberbullying.

Since this is the case (and because I believe that schools should focus on educating the “whole child”), I am growing more and more enthusiastic about Fox’s approach to strengths based education – especially in the context of relationships. Fox writes of adolescents desire to connect with something larger than themselves:

In their adolescent years, kids become aware of themselves as separate and powerful people who have choices in their development. This can be exhilarating at times and overwhelming at others. Hormones awaken and release for the first time the deeply encoded messages about life and death, purpose and meaning, love and rage. Adolescents live in a state of heightened awareness, searching for something bigger than they are to mirror their yearning for significance. They look to adults to be that something bigger, to grab hold of them and pull them up out of the general clamor. They long to know that the world wants them and that life has, in fact, been waiting for their arrival. This is not a rebellion, but a strengths awakening. (p. 63)

Life and death. Purpose and meaning. Love and rage. How many cyberbullying horror stories center on these ideas?

If educators begin to recognize this time of adolescence as a time of strengths awakening, it is essential that we help students understand who they are as individuals and who they are in relationships. Michael Thompson, author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies, presents a number of important points in the NYT article about friendships but here is his money quote:

“No one can teach you what a great friend is, what a fair-weather friend is, what a treacherous and betraying friend is except to have a great friend, a fair-weather friend or a treacherous and betraying friend. When a teacher is trying to tone down a best-friend culture, I would like to know why. Is it causing misery for the class? Or is there one girl who does have friends but just can’t bear the thought that she doesn’t have as good a best friend as another? That to me is normal social pain. If you’re mucking around too much in the lives of kids who are just experiencing normal social pain, you shouldn’t be.”

The balance is essential – and that’s where I see that Fox’s ideas about relationship strengths connect to the reality of what we should be doing in schools. We must be proactive in guiding students through self-discovery exercises which will help them link these powerful (and often polar) emotions to their inner strengths with the goal of having experiences — both positive and negative — which will initiate growth and further self-reflection and discovery. I’m hoping to do that — with the help of our guidance counselor — in our 4th – 6th grade advisory periods (my school ends in sixth grade). As I work this summer of what that actually looks like, I’ll share my thinking and plans. In the meantime, I’ll be reflecting on this quote by James A. Froude: “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”

dults’ refusal to recognize how their reactions in these situations make the problem bigger.