Ever Expanding Horizons of Possibility: The Leaders We Need Now

We agree there is no such thing as good guys and bad guys when it comes to education.  That is the old way — education is far too important to cast some in white hats and others in black hats.

Turkey, tryptophan and sleep: my two week non-technological odyssey over, I enter into my first week back at school.  As I prepare my psyche for the ‘first thing in the morning’ rhetorical question I will inevitably receive – “Hey, Gino, do you have a second?” – I do so comfortable in my understanding that within a school context, leadership involves the complexities of people and as Bruce Bearisto, former Superintendent of Richmond, once wrote, this leadership is “much more creative and conceptual than technical and, and requires broad understandings and deep insights rather than merely particular knowledge or specific skills.”  Broad understandings and deep insights.

As we start 2011, what is crystallizing in clarity for me is that what we’ve thought of as educational leadership skills – setting direction, having the answers, monitoring data, organizational control – are less relevant in this environment of constant change.  Increasingly, leadership has become about creating a context for innovation and inclusion in the face of ambiguity and the unexpected.

One of the first articles I read this year (ok, I only read this last night, but the “this year” does provide a nice dramatic flair) was Tamara J. Erickson’s, “The Leaders We Need Now.” Erickson writes about Gen Xer’s and how the “who they are” is helping to redefine what leadership is looking like.  It’s not very often that I read an article that seems to capture who I am or what I believe in but, having been born in 1965, being an Xer who vowed never to work in a veal fattening pen, this was an article that ‘spoke to me’ and the ideal of what leading change within a changing world could and should look like (if you grew up in the 70’s, this article is a must read).

Erickson expounds upon five context-creating leadership activities that are well suited for both teachers and administrators today:

1.  Increase Collaborative Capacity

  • Networks based on strong, trusting relationships, are essential for mobilizing intelligence:  fostering innovation through the contributions of many

2.  Ask Compelling Questions

  • The need to frame challenges in ways that are intriguing and memorable – and that catalyze an organization – represents perhaps the most significant departure from the conventional conception of leadership.  Rather than focusing on independent decision making, leaders must now make room for broad participation in finding answers.

3. Embrace Complexity and Welcome Disruptive Information

  • Leaders need to deal openly with complex issues and seek perspectives that challenge the established point of view.

4.  Shape Organizational Identity

  • Today, perhaps more than ever, people want to know what ties them together.  Addressing this human longing – shaping organizational identity and maintaining consistency between work and personal values – is the key to creating discretionary energy and is therefore a key leadership skill today

5.  Appreciative Diversity

  • Recognize the legitimacy of multiple perspectives and acknowledge that there is no reason to grant any one viewpoint special significance or value.

Erickson provides a good starting point with regard to modeling leadership. It is a leadership of inclusion so greatly needed now in that many in our schools are apprehensive and to some degree mistrustful of the change as outlined by the Ministry of Education.  Having bluntly stated what is quietly resonating at staffroom tables across the District, it would be very easy at this point to get lost within the ill conceived political paradigm of good vs. bad, white vs. black hat which seems to punctuate the historical landscape of the VSB.  However, as I prepare to enter the school this morning, I find solace and strength in our shared belief that relationships are the primary medium for success; that the trust and belief we have in each other is real and special; that the success of our students is far too important and does not allow us to buy into a misguided ‘Oliver Stone conspiracy theory’ around educational change.

In the end, by increasing collaborative capacity, asking compelling questions, embracing complexity and welcoming disruptive information, shaping organizational identity and appreciating diversity, I see that effective leadership, like effective teaching isn’t at all about changing teachers or students; it’s about challenging them within a supportive, trusting and non-judgmental environment.  In this regard, leadership and teaching are not so much about easing people into knowing something they don’t know (like a new Ministry mandate), but about challenging them to notice in ways they might not have noticed (like a new vision contextualized to respond to the needs of the respective learners within our community).  If we view leadership, teaching and change in this light, there are no specifiable ends to learning, only ever-expanding horizons of possibility.

  1. Great post Gino!

    Your thoughts around ‘challenging’ teachers and students, really resonates with me.
    “Challenging them to notice in ways they might not have noticed” in a “supportive, trusting and non-judgmental environment” relies on having developed positive and trusting relationships.

    I also think it is important to remember the other side of this. We must expect and encourage teachers and students to challenge us and help us “notice in ways that we might not have noticed”. I believe this is crucial if we are to extend our own thinking and grow as educators.


    • Aaron, you’re right, it always comes back to the relationships.

      As school leaders we need to respect diverse standpoints, engage in honest, focussed dialogue with all stakeholders (students and adults), listen to their stories and relate to their uniqueness: divergent views never being collapsed into a general amalgam.

      All of us – regardless of job ‘title’ – need to continue actively particpating in designing schools that encourage reflection and introspection – creating knowledge and not merely acquiring information.

      Thanks again Aaron – looking forward to your next post and continuing to learn with you

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