Is Leadership Transition the Weak Link of School Innovation?

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Is Leadership Transition the Weak Link of School Innovation?

imgresTwo remarkable, leading schools I know of are undergoing leadership changes.  Many people have spent time, treasure, and, most importantly, professional risk capital to lever these schools off of the a worn out path and on to visionary trajectories of the future of learning.  Now comes the test: will these schools survive a leadership transition with their visions for a deeper learning, student-focused learning experience intact? Or will they fall backwards into the gravitational pull of tradition and safety?  Is an entrepreneurial model of school transformation possible?  Or is the inertial pull of the status quo just too powerful for most schools to break free?

90% of start up companies fail in the first ten years, many because they are not able to make the transition from entrepreneurial to sustainable mode. Much of this failing is due to poor leadership development. Start up entrepreneurs are notoriously weak at sustainable management and maturing organizations just work differently than start-ups.  If transforming schools requires an entrepreneurial leader, one willing and eager to take risks, should we expect a 90% failure rate amongst transforming schools?  Will most “innovative” schools fail to build the kind of systematic, sustainable culture of innovation that will overcome the transition from a charismatic founder/leader?

The obvious answer is “yes”, which does not bode well for those courageous educators and community leaders who are forming the brushfires of school innovation. So what can schools do to improve the odds, to build a culture that enables them to overcome leadership transitions when they are in the early stages on real innovative transformation?

Based on what I see at many schools with which I work, here are a few key recommendations:

  • Distribute leadership capacity amongst the ranks.  If teachers and non-executive leadership have the skill set of strategic thinking, they can provide the continuity required to jump the transition gap. Leading sustainable change is a learned skill set; it is just one that we don’t usually teach in graduate education programs.
  • Build and implement a “north star” vision, a manifesto developed and validated by the community about what is really most important at your school. These are non-negotiables, embraced by all stakeholders, which transcend the transition and guide new leadership.
  • Re-brand the role of executive leader (principal, head, or superintendent).  If the weight of school transformation really lies on one individual, then any progress arc is fragile, just like at a for profit company if only one person knows the formula or recipe.  Today, school executives should be “lead leaders”, not royalty.

I will be watching these two schools, and others, closely.  The future of a truly transformed K-12 education landscape may very well rest on the success of these early stage leadership transitions.


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