I kept a blog from Tom Olverson pinned to my browser for most of a week, letting it stew to see if I could add anything to what is already a tremendously elegant argument on school leadership. I think I can, but only because I am building on such well-crafted thinking by Tom, and by the original authors of “The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School”. Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard conducted a study of leadership and impacts in underperforming public schools in England. Tom’s blog correctly suggests that the results are highly relevant to American independent schools. I would like to take it one step further: the results are highly relevant to ALL schools and, most importantly, ALL educators, not just those tasked with “leading” struggling schools.
Please read Tom’s blog, but I must summarize the key findings here so I can get on to the extension of my thinking. The authors identified five types of leaders, but only one that had real success in turning around a struggling school.
- Surgeons, who try to find that one thing that will produce quick and measurable results. They are often successful in this in the short term, but there is no meaningful long-term change in the organization, particularly if the leader leaves.
- Soldiers, who squeeze more out of the organization, without adding additional resources. The authors say that people in these schools are often left with low morale, forced to sacrifice quality to meet a bottom line outcome.
- Accountants, who “try to grow their school out of trouble”. Olverson rightly points to the failed hope in American tuition-charging schools over the last two decades that there is some magical non-tuition source of revenue that will mitigate a school’s financial woes.
- Philosophers, who believe that good, well-supported teachers alone are the solution to pretty much all problems. They are loved, of course, by the faculty for having strong educational vision, but are not competent at actually running a large, complex organization.
- And, finally, architects, the one group that was by far the most successful at dealing with the full range of issues facing a troubled school and, in my opinion, any school. Quoting here from both Tom’s blog and the original article:
these leaders “combine the best parts of other leaders, but they make these changes in a different sequence and for different reasons—to transform students and communities.” Just as importantly, architects possess humility: “They are visionary, unsung heroes. Stewards rather than leaders, who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.” According to Hill, et al. these are the only educational leaders that bring about long-lasting change and often they go unrecognized for their performance.
I have worked with some extraordinary architects, including Greg Papay and Brandi Rickels of the firm Lake/Flato in San Antonio. I learned a great deal from them, particularly when architects “design charrettes” were a relatively unknown forerunner of what now call “design thinking”. In my experience, good architects are good because they:
- Observe and listen.
- Create a vision for the future that meets the needs of the user.
- Work from a large pallet of options, not one cookbook solution.
- Want to build for the long-term.
- Create solutions that work for all members of the team—plumbers, roofers, electricians, landscapers, framers, etc—not just for their own aesthetic sense.
- Are willing to make changes after a first iteration, even if those changes run contrary to their initial ideas.
I think the research showed that this kind of leader was most successful not because the schools studied were struggling, but because this leadership style fits today’s challenges in education and the other leadership styles simply do not. We know we are dealing with rapid changes and a vastly more VUCA world (look it up if you don’t know the acronym), and the architect-leader has the tool kit and DNA to succeed in VUCA world. Organizations outside of education have understood this for about the last two decades; schools are just now starting to realize the critical importance of this leadership style, for both successful and struggling schools. One of the seven big levers of school transformation I write about in my new book, Moving the Rock, is simply to make modern organizational leadership training radically more accessible for educators, something that is just now starting to evolve.
The other critical point is that, while both the original researcher and Tom Olverson focus on leadership “at the top”, I think virtually every bit of the argument is just as relevant for other administrators and for teachers. We all know the “surgeons”, “soldiers”, “accountants”, and “philosophers” who teach at our schools, and I would argue that school transformation requires that each of these add a chunk of “architect” DNA to their genes. That does not mean that we totally discard the value of the other archetypes, but when we ask teachers to lead rather than always follow; to take risks rather than play it safe; to create rather than just consume; to work as a member of a learning organization, not as a separate cog working in an isolated silo, then the value of the “architect-leader” DNA is highly evident. When we get enough of this DNA into the gene pool, the school changes in very positive, unthreatening, even joyful ways.
Thanks to the original authors and to Tom for bringing this work to my attention and allowing me to add a few pinches of spice to the stew!