Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

The Four Steps to Becoming a ‘Leadership Artist’

Rebuilding education through the Japanese art of kintsugi
By Matthew Montgomery — May 05, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of a school district repaired in gold.
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After more than two years of leading our districts through the pandemic, many superintendents are faced with the reality that there is no “returning to normal.” Instead, we have a remarkable opportunity to pick up the pieces around us and build something new.

I am feeling optimistic about the future and what could come of rebuilding, but I empathize with how overwhelmed many leaders in education feel about the work ahead. The pieces around us right now can often feel more like sharp, broken shards than neat, stackable building blocks.

Superintendents are still navigating the effects of the pandemic, community division, staff burnout, and a growing talent gap. On top of that, the strategic plans, visions, and goals we once imagined for our schools, agencies, and educational institutions have shifted dramatically. So, now what?

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Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

I believe the answer is in an ancient Japanese art form, kintsugi, the art of purposefully reconstructing broken pieces of pottery with gold lacquer to create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

One of the most significant impacts of pursuing the kintsugi art form is the personal journey of the artist. Through the process, artists realize that although cracks can be painful, they provide opportunity for reconstruction and a stronger and more beautiful result. I think the same is true for us; each leader who has served during the pandemic is stronger than when we began.

Each flaw is an opportunity in the art of kintsugi, and every imperfection is embraced for its possible potential to be reimagined. What I believe education needs now are leaders with the fortitude to make something beautiful out of the pieces we are currently holding.

Think of the pieces on your table: curriculum, DEI, remote learning, critical race theory, contentious board elections and meetings, innovation, LGBTQ+ students, COVID-19, social-emotional needs, widening achievement gaps, greater economic disparity.

Yes, many of us are tired beyond imagination, but we have made tough decisions and continued to show up day in and day out. Pandemic superintendents are defined by our resilience. And we must continue to tackle this next season as sage leaders who inspire trust and can proceed forward with clarity and bravery, guided by the keys to kintsugi.

How do we superintendents begin to become leadership artists of kintsugi?

1. Acknowledge it is time to reevaluate our vision and goals.

How, where, and when education happens has been challenged and changed over the past two years. We cannot simply go back to the plans we put on hold in March 2020. The world we are working desperately to prepare our students for has shifted tremendously, and we must respond accordingly.

We can value where we have come from, keep what is working, and look for ways to strengthen the parts of our education system that are broken. As we acknowledge the broken pieces, it is vitally important that we maintain connection to others, emulate a positive mindset, and stay resilient through the changes ahead.

2. Cultivate, connect, and care for internal staff and teams.

Our ability to reenvision the future of our schools relies on the health of our teams. Kintsugi teaches that every piece has value and that there is inherent worth in stopping or slowing a process to show care for others and display gratitude. We cannot afford to skip this step of the reconstruction process.

Building a pipeline of leadership artists within our organizations will also assist in the future stages of the rebuilding process because they will also be poised to ensure the reenvisioned future becomes a reality by taking the helm when it is time. As a profession, we cannot undervalue the expertise and the potential in our buildings today.

3. Engage the community in our reconstruction efforts.

Gone are the days of presenting a packaged visionary plan with a bow on top. Our communities want a seat at the table. Our parents have become partner educators throughout the pandemic. Our stakeholders have new insights to offer. They want, need, and expect us to take them seriously and value their opinions.

We will have to artfully facilitate difficult conversations in which people may have competing views and priorities while maintaining value, caring for others, and having a positive mindset. Our primary goal of this step is to assiduously ensure the best interest of students is at the core of the community discourse.

4. Seize the moment to begin constructing something new.

Teachers and superintendents today are facing the single most transformative time in modern-day educational history. Now is the time to lead truly transformational work in an institution that has long been resistant to change. It is time to make some changes that we know are needed for our students to succeed.

The students I speak to are begging the adults to listen—they want independence in their learning, flexibility to take their learning beyond the traditional classroom environments, and acknowledgement that they are capable thinkers.

As for me and my community, we have chosen not to miss this moment for innovation, working together and reimagining the future of our schools.

In the Lake Forest school district I lead, we have launched new community-engagement opportunities where open discussions focus on the future of our students. Our rebuilding process may take time, but as long as we maintain a positive mindset and remain resilient, we will build a version of K-12 education that is stronger than what existed before.

The last two years have shattered long-held traditions and beliefs in our industry, and education is now uniquely primed for reinvention. Innovation and the beauty of reconstruction will only be possible if you and I can step into our roles as leadership artists and rebuild our broken system into one that is stronger, more beautiful, and more resilient.

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