I received an email from a teacher the other day that was quite frustrated. They had shared (paraphrasing), that although they were encouraged to be “innovative” in their practice and each had received a copy of my book to promote this from their administrators, they felt that the leadership practice in their organization was more focused on micromanagement than they were on forward-thinking practices themselves. This is not the first time I have heard this, nor will it be the last.
This quote from Jamie Notter resonates:
So what does innovative leadership look like? Well, to be honest with you, if I could give you that answer than it probably isn’t that innovative in the first place. Understand that when I use the term it doesn’t just mean “new,” but more importantly, “new and better.” But “better” is something that has to be determined within the context of your work, past practices, and community needs.
So what are some of the questions that can help promote innovative leadership? Here are three that stick out to me.
1. What practices are we modeling in our work that we want to see in our classrooms?
I have seen administrators encourage teachers to be forward-thinking and create a trust-focused classroom while practicing extreme levels of micro-management. What teachers experience is what they often produce. If you want to see different practices, create the experience within professional learning opportunities and leadership practices.
For example, if you are in a school that educators need to get a certain number of hours for professional learning each year, does that have to be through conferences or could be done through learning in social media groups or blogging? Do you create conditions where people are nervous to try something new, or do you encourage and model risk-taking in your practice?
Modeling what you want to see is more likely to make it happen in classrooms than telling and not practicing it yourself.
2. Where do we have to be firm and where can we be flexible?
As an administrator, there were things I knew that I had to do to fall within specific guidelines based on government standards or superintendent direction. But there was WAY more flexibility than we like to admit in many schools.
For example, I have seen many schools complain about “testing culture” (rightfully so), yet many of those tests are not from the government and are not mandated, but are from schools and districts who are adding more testing to prepare for other tests. There is often too much of a focus on getting good at the test than there is on learning and we can often lose the development of the child along the way. They might be able to do well at the test, but long-term, do they deeply understand and can they apply the information, or were they just good at regurgitating it on that specific day?
There are many places that there are constraints in what we do as educators that are outside of our control. But innovating inside-the-box is crucial to figuring out ways that we can do “our job” while also focusing on what is beneficial to the students we serve in the long-term.
Flexibility is crucial to the growth and development of all the learners that you serve.
3. How are we developing innovative leadership at all levels within our organization?
Leadership is not reserved for administrators only. Allowing, and encouraging people to lead in many different areas in your organization can lead to a) less work for an administrator and b) better solutions than what you would have come up with yourself.
When I was a teacher, one of my principals asked me to go through the tech budget and decide what we should get with the money that was allocated. Usually, this was not a decision left up to a teacher, so I was surprised she was asking. But her logic made sense. She had told me, “You are the leader in our school in this area, so you are the best person to come up with these answers. We hired you to give us expertise, but that means very little if we do not give you ownership over the process.” The amount of time and effort I put into figuring out those solutions not only gave me ownership over the process, but it was like having “shares” in the school. It was more important to me for the entire school to be successful because now I was part of the decision-making process.
But don’t get giving leadership opportunities mixed up with simple delegation. Getting someone else to do something the way you wanted it done isn’t developing leaders but is focused more on simple compliance. When you give over the opportunities, to develop leadership, you have to give over the process. This is hard to do, but if we limit “innovative leadership” ideas to a few, growth will be minimal.
As I said earlier, these are just examples and ideas that might help guide the process, but the direction and modification have to be unique to your community. But if we want to see “innovation” as the norm in our schools, this has to be modeled and practiced ongoing by the administrators that are often asking for this to happen. Otherwise, it will be the exception and never the norm.
*As a side note, here is a “rubrics” I created on “The Innovative Leader” that may extend the conversation.