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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why It Takes More Than a Genius to Lead a School

By Liz Wiseman — March 22, 2013 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Liz Wiseman, the author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools.

Do the smartest leaders create the smartest organizations or can the seemingly smartest leaders have a diminishing effect on the intelligence of others?

As educational leaders feel the ever-present burden of doing more with less, many leaders draw on their own knowledge and insights or simply work harder. For example when Suzanne (name changed), a new assistant principal, was tasked with creating an intervention program for the school’s underachieving students, she knew she would need buy in from the staff. So she set up a planning committee of math and language arts teachers. But before convening the committee, she built the intervention plan in totality in her mind. The committee meetings just served as a forum to validate her ideas. The teachers attempted to contribute but were shot down and shut down as she flogged them with her previous experience with these programs. The teachers withdrew and turned their energies elsewhere; meanwhile, Suzanne forged ahead with her plan. The result was a student schedule disaster that took weeks and district office assistance to repair. Students caught in the schedule nightmare lost two weeks of instruction and precious learning.

When leaders rely too heavily on their own intelligence, they can easily underutilize the full genius of their team. Their well-meaning attempts to lead can actually shut down ideas and cause others to hold back. People learn it’s easier, and safer, to let the boss do the thinking. These leaders become “diminishers” of intelligence.

These diminishers are costly to organizations. Why? Because they waste talent and intellect of others working around them. In the research for our book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, my co-authors Lois Allen and Elise Foster and I found that these leaders get less than half of people’s intelligence and capability - 40% on average for the more than 200 educational leaders we studied.

On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go on; ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire teachers and administrators to stretch themselves and surpass expectations. These leaders use their smarts to make everyone around them smarter and more capable. These leaders are “multipliers.”

Because multipliers are leaders who look beyond their own genius and focus on extracting and extending the genius of others, they get more from their people. In our research people reported that multipliers received between 70% and 100% of their capability, with an average of 88%, or 2.3 times what the diminisher leaders did. multiplier leaders don’t get a little more; as you can see, they get vastly more. In effect, they double the size of the brain-force in their organization. We refer to this as the Multiplier Effect.

Why do Multipliers get so much more? It begins with their outlook on the people with whom they interact. They look around them and see a diverse set of intelligence and smart, capable people who can be successful. These are leaders like Erik Burmeister principal of Hillview Middle School who has created positive change and momentum not by having the answers but by recognizing the capabilities of each teacher and staff member on his team. Hillview Spanish teacher Nancy Marsh said, “He is Innovative, smart, and has great ideas but he is values everyone’s input and gives people latitude to take risks and experiment with their teaching approach. The enthusiasm and creativity at Hillview has skyrocketed this year!” Menlo Park School District Superintendent Dr. Maurice Ghysels described the agility with the Hillview team was able to revamp their master schedule as a feat of creativity and design thinking that would make neighboring Stanford University’s design school proud. This is a sharp contrast to the schedule fiasco led by “Suzanne” the know-it-all assistant principal mentioned earlier.

A multiplier’s ability to see the unique genius of each staff member allows them to not only fully utilize each individual but also to build unity and common ground within a school or district. And these mindsets cause them to approach leadership differently and allow them to get dramatically enhanced results. The following 5 areas where we found multipliers operate in fundamentally different ways than their diminisher counterparts.

At a time when educational organizations are expected to do more with less, leaders can’t afford to overlook the intelligence and capability that sits right in front of them. Despite their cost and their often-toxic effect on school culture, why do many of these diminishing leaders remain in positions of importance? Is it because they often do a good job managing up to the superintendent and school board? Or is it because staff and teachers working for Diminishers operate in fear, retreat to a safe place, and learn to tread lightly hoping that “this too shall pass?” Or is it because they create a flurry of determined activity around them and, in absence of clear answers for our most difficult challenges in education, even the pretense of progress can be comforting? It is time to do the math and realize that our school systems simply can’t afford the cost these leaders incur.

A leader’s greatest value comes not from having the answers but from having the right questions. The critical leadership skill of today is not personal knowledge but the ability to tap into the knowledge of others. The heroic leader, a lone innovator, or a single brain at the head of a school is not sufficient to solve our most complex problems.

We need schools where educational leaders draw on the intelligence of everyone on their staff and student body. The educational system needs multipliers right now especially when leaders must do more with less.

Connect with Liz on Twitter or learn more about multiplier leadership at multipliersbooks.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.