School & District Management Opinion

K-12 Leaders: Look for Lessons Outside Schools

By Andy Hargreaves — October 20, 2014 6 min read
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There is a great rift valley between business leaders and public education advocates.

Business leaders complain about public education and educators: School districts are gridlocked bureaucracies. Unions are vipers’ nests of self-interest. Schools are failing. The system is broken. Charter schools, technology, top-down accountability, and wholesale replacements of teachers, principals, and schools—these seem to be the only answers.

Public educators say their work has nothing to do with business and that corporations should stay out of it. In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, defenders of children’s rights, the 2014 Nobel Committee declared, “Children must go to school, not be financially exploited.” Many U.S. educators might well add: Children must not go to school to be financially exploited by for-profit charter schools, technology corporations, or data-management companies.


But the truth is, all of our organizations need more and better leadership that is responsible, inspiring, and effective. Instead of pitting sectors and people against one another, we need to identify and articulate what the best leaders have in common and to elevate the place of leaders and leadership in all of our institutions—public and private. We shouldn’t be taking our lead from big business and bad business, or from big, bad educational bureaucracies either, but from the best that leadership has to offer everywhere.

This is the challenge that Alan Boyle, Alma Harris, and I took on when we embarked on a seven-year study of unusually high performance in more than 15 organizations in business, sports, and education around the world. We looked at organizations that created something from almost nothing, that achieved a lot with few resources, did so in the face of challenging circumstances, or turned poor performance into impressive success.

See Also

For more opinion writing on school and district leadership, read Barnett Berry’s “Clearing the Way for Teacher Leadership” and Regie Routman’s “What Reflects a Great School? Not Test Scores.”

What these organizations share, we found, was something we call uplifting leadership. It’s a simple idea: These leaders uplift the opportunities or quality of life of the people they serve. They make the world a better place. They raise the hopes, spirits, and performance of the people in their organizations who are responsible for these outcomes. Uplifting leaders don’t motivate people to do bad things. They don’t bully or browbeat people into getting better outcomes. They align their goals with their means. They get the right results in the right way.

The kind of leadership that we uncovered is the opposite of what we’ve seen in the U.S. education reform movement: caricatures of big business, rather than principles of best business. Let’s look at four reform trends and the uplifting alternatives to them:

First, the unusually high-performing organizations we examined don’t want to be No. 1 or race to the top for their own sake. They have a mission. Like Martin Luther King Jr., they define an inspiring dream that raises their people by pursuing a desirable future, while not disregarding an important history. Fiat Auto’s acquisition of Chrysler Motors has been about inserting small energy-efficient cars in the North American market and reducing waste to zero.

Uplifting leaders don't try to beat out all competition and vanquish all opposition. They play well with others."

For the 5 million people in Finland, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and facing 19 percent unemployment, the dream was to reinvent a creative, craft-focused nation into a dynamic and advanced knowledge economy through the development of a high-quality teaching force.

Second, high-performing organizations learn from, but don’t replicate, the work of high performers. They are original. They look at and learn from others, but forge their own counterintuitive paths to success. Burnley Football Club is the smallest club ever to be promoted into the English Premier League, the country’s primary soccer association. It won a place in the Premier League in spite of being the smallest playing squad in its division. Yet it converted this apparent weakness into a formidable strength by developing team spirit among players who knew they would be playing together almost every week, rather than being benched or rotated.

When the tiny island nation of Singapore took just one generation to become one of the world’s most productive economies and highest educational performers, it didn’t rest on its laurels. Singaporeans pushed themselves even harder to become more creative and innovative by implementing a policy of “teach less, learn more.” They also reduced the amount of standardized testing of students.

Third, uplifting leaders don’t try to beat out all competition and vanquish all opposition. They play well with others. The iconic U.S. craft brewery Dogfish Head developed and launched a new craft beer with one of its major competitors, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. As a result, they elevated customers’ taste and passion for unique rather than mass-produced standardized beers. This lifted the entire craft-brewing industry.

The London Borough of Hackney moved from being England’s worst-performing school district in 2002 to topping the national average in 2012. The community did this by expecting and funding principals and teachers in its privately sponsored academies (the equivalent of U.S. charter schools) to help neighboring schools improve. It was the right thing to do: When all the schools improved, parents stopped deserting Hackney for other districts and educated their children locally instead.

Last, uplifting leaders and their organizations don’t ignore statistical data, but they aren’t obsessed with the numbers for their own sake, either. Their metrics are meaningful. Shoebuy.com, an online retailer, moved from a startup in a 60-square-meter converted funeral parlor to become one of the leaders in its sector. The company used real-time metrics to support constant innovations and adjustments to its website. This improved online user experience translating into one of the highest rates of “stickiness” (or staying on the site) in the online-shopping industry. Nearly all members of the staff are involved in the website’s innovative design changes. Unsurprisingly, the retailer has a high retention of staff.

In the successful Vancouver Giants minor-league hockey team, coaches increase players’ blocked-shot ratios (the number of times they are willing to put their bodies between a puck traveling 100 mph and the goal) not by throwing new performance targets at them, but by sitting down with their players and reviewing their performance together and discussing personal- and team-improvement goals.

In the strong-performing Canadian province of Ontario, teachers regularly look at achievement and learning data in their schools. Using their own judgment and professional experience, they consider the data and take collective responsibility for student success and failure, including across grade levels.

Uplifting leaders pursue an inspiring dream that is larger than themselves. They take their own counterintuitive paths. They turn their greatest weaknesses into their biggest strengths to create unexpected and exceptional results. They work with their competitors because it is the right thing to do and also more effective. And they combine good data with good judgment to achieve excellent outcomes and engage the expertise of all their staff in doing so.

In teaching, business, and sport, this is the future of high performance—not by racing to the top, copying competitors, vanquishing the opposition, or being driven by data alone, but by uplifting teams and communities to produce stronger performance that contributes to a greater good.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as K-12 Leaders: Look for Lessons Outside Schools


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