Education Opinion

Successful Leadership Models: A Shout Out to ‘Leaders to Learn From’

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 06, 2016 4 min read
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Education Week honors a select group of district-leaders each year in their Leaders to Learn From initiative. Leaders are chosen as awardees for their outstanding work in improving the lives and opportunities for students. This year, as in others, the leaders hail from different parts of the country and are recognized for a wide variety of successful initiatives. This year they included:

  • Improving real world experiences for students
  • Parent and community engagement
  • Digital transformation - HS laptops and digital only resources
  • Student input for informing district decision making
  • Adding more time for enrichment in low performing schools
  • Elevating learning standards and opportunities for all students
  • Creating multiple pathways for English language learners to bilingual and biliterate HS graduates
  • Creating a safe culture of experimentation to improve teaching and learning
  • Inviting and using district and community resources to support academic and social-emotional success of African American males
  • Improving special education services
  • Using an accountability system that values more than test scores
  • Draws on community resources to alleviate obstacles to learning caused by poverty
  • Developed a more robust science, technology, engineering, and math opportunities with expert help from business and community partners
  • Uses a customized leader development process for the development of leaders within the district
  • Manage a cost conscious budgeting process

A Focus on One Thing
Education Week recognizes these leaders for their accomplishments and so do we. Their successes, all, involved vision, providing resources including time, and, although not said specifically, the ability to invite participation and empower others to join the journey. Leading is a calling that requires being able to stand alone, stand behind, stand with and step away. It requires an inner sense of knowing to guide that dance of steps. It demands vision and strives for sustainability. It offers others both invitation and support. It demands integrity. An observation about the Leaders to Learn From is the value of choosing one thing.

In a recent post, we wrote about goals and indicators. Thinking about these recognized leaders offers an opportunity to apply that thinking. These leaders embody the goal we all hope to share: improving the opportunities for ALL children to be successful in school and beyond. What these leaders did was choose a place in their district that was calling for attention in order to narrow the gap between where they were and that goal. While continuing to do their ‘whole’ job, they chose one area for hyper-focus change efforts. Interestingly, if one took all of the 15 efforts outlined in the work of these 16 leaders, it is the whole package. A district that had all of these efforts in place would be, notably, a beacon for all.

Sometimes, a shortcoming of leaders is the inability to hold the big picture landscape while attending to many urgent demands of the moment. That results in dissipated or scattered focus. Little or nothing can change; few know how or whom to follow. Choose one focus as these leaders did and give other demands peripheral vision attention. Let everything come into the decision making of the leader through the major focus. Contextualize this focus in the larger picture of the mission of the school/district and the horizon as you see it. Gather people around that effort with intermediate measures in place to inform progress along the way. We’ve often referred to the work of John Kotter, and here we believe it is worth repeating his eight-stage process for leading change:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create the guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture

To successfully lead a school or district in the never ending process of forward movement, each step brought to successful fruition merits applause that supports the sustainability that makes change. It is not about an individual leader but for and within the system. Leaders are jugglers, multiple balls in the air all the time. So while focusing on one thing well, without letting others drop, describes the realism of the leader’s role. Every leader knows that issues don’t arrive in order or in the sequence we’d like or when we are ready; often they walk through our door or arrive on our phone when we feel least prepared and have the least time. Then, we say “anybody can do it on a good day"; those worthy of admiration also do it on a bad day.

Improvement May Not Be What’s Needed
The tricky thing about change in schools right now is that ‘improvement’ can be misleading. If improvement is the goal, we may very well simply build on ‘what is’. For us, that is a long term mistake. It prevents calling into question whether ‘what is’ may need to be changed. Building on the old model can improve the old model, and result in exactly that, an improved old model. Ask, “Do we need to improve this or create something new in it, now, for its future to be strong and bright?” Ask, “How does investing time, effort, and human capital on this goal bring us a step closer to realizing the mission/goals of the district?”

Honoring Magnificent Work, All
And, finally, the availability of resources in our interconnected world offers models unlike anything we’ve known from the past. These 16 leaders and their work become just that, models. Their work, their choices, and their journeys can be a source of inspiration for the rest of us. And, for each of them we also acknowledge that out there in our world of education there are many, many more doing the same, magnificent work every day. We shout out to each and all of you with admiration and encouragement to stay the course.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.