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Aurora Institute

Engaging Others: A Short Reflection on Leadership

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

ConversationI’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.

Given that leadership is so important, we need figure out some way to support leaders in building the right set of approaches and skills. Go into any bookstore, and there are rows and rows of books on the subject of leadership. There has been much written about leadership in education, as well. Certainly leadership is frequently raised in conversations with district leaders and principals who are converting to competency education. The challenge before us is to not only understand what leadership approaches might be best suited for the conversion and operation of personalized, competency-based education, but to also think about how we best support people in building these skills.

The first step has to be identifying the values and assumptions that we want in personalized, competency-based districts and determining which leadership strategies are most aligned. District and school leaders who have three years of implementation under their belts can help provide case studies about how they have used these strategies and how to better define and communicate these leadership strategies. It’s possible that we could begin to identify specific functions or challenges that leaders will need to address in implementing competency-based systems. It would be helpful to think about the organizational capacities and management strategies simultaneously, as they go hand-in-hand.

Then the hard part – how do we help leaders build their mindsets and skills to implement these leadership strategies. I think Peter Senghe’s work on personal mastery might be a good starting point. Personal mastery is one way that a leader can embody a culture of learning and a commitment to accountability. It would be helpful to identify the set of qualities that leaders might strive for (no one is ever going to be 100 percent consistent in 100 percent of the qualities we set out for ourselves). I’d start with the following:

  • Holding a growth mindset for oneself and for others.
  • Challenging bias of all kinds and racism specifically.
  • Building courage to do what is best for kids even when the traditional policies and system is constraining you.
  • Empowering others to solve problems.
  • Creating cultures of learning and inquiry, which means asking questions and encouraging dialogue rather than being the one with the answers.

This is just a beginning. I know the list would be longer. However, this very short list of characteristics of leadership is profound. Just think about the difference in schools if leaders focused on these as their primary leadership goals.

As always, we’d be delighted to hear your thoughts about leadership.

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