3 Characteristics of Authentic Leadership that Inspires Innovation

Although it is impossible to think that one could or should have all the answers, too many of us often feel inadequate when we don’t. It is hard to get away from the idea that the teacher, principal, superintendent or whoever is “in charge” should be the expert and have all the answers. This was reinforced in an activity where teams were reflecting on what they wanted to start doing as well as what they wanted to stop doing to lead change, one group’s response stood out to me:  “Stop feeling like we need to be experts!” This expectation of “leader as the expert”  is not only unfair but prevents us from being open about what we don’t know and working with others to solve the challenges that exist to make change a reality in so many contexts.  Instead as Brene Brown shares, “Across the private and public sector, in schools and in our communities, we are hungry for authentic leadership – we want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire and be inspired. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement.

This is true across all levels of education but the irony is that although we crave this authenticity in leaders, we are also hard wired to protect our ego and this can prevent us from actually taking risks and admitting that we don’t know it all, which can create tension between what we say and what we do.  Nobody is perfect and there are times when we don't measure up but if we can be authentic and open to learning and growing with those we serve, we can collectively achieve much more than if we assume we have all the answers.  

Here are 3 examples of authentic leaders whose actions inspire others to admit mistakes, take risks, learn from challenges, and share their learning process. 

Lead by Example

One of the most authentic leadership examples I know is Katie McNamara, superintendent in South Bay Union Elementary School District, who put herself out there in front of teachers, students and principals to better understand the perspectives of her teachers. As the district was working with the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project to shift their literacy instruction, she led the way by modeling for teachers and trying it out.  What I love about Katie though is she didn’t strive to make it perfect, she put in the 10 minutes of prep time that she knew teachers would have and worked through some struggles with students.  She also reflected and shared what she learned with teachers so they saw her as a learner who truly wanted the best for everyone, not the expert. Katie gained an appreciation for what teachers were dealing with and are able to connect with teachers and principals about their challenges and successes in their reading instruction as they move forward. Katie led by example and although many expected her to be the expert, she gained more from being vulnerable and taking a risk. Her authenticity has enabled her to build stronger relationships and lead more effectively.  

A true testament to the impact that Katie has is when one of her teachers shared that she was really excited about trying genius hour.  She told the group, “I launched genius hour last week, invited parents in and told them how we could all work together to support the student in their projects.” Then she explained how she told the students and the parents that this was new to her and she was learning too.  It was awesome to hear how she was taking risks and empowering students while embracing her role as a learner and a leader.  Even more powerful than her willingness to put herself out there was that she was sitting with her superintendent and was able to admit she didn’t know what she was doing in front of her and was celebrated for trying something new. The example that Katie has set has paved the way for others to take risks and lead by example.  

Empower Others to Lead, Not Follow

Another leader that is committed to change the program focussed approach and develop teacher leaders is David Miyashiro.  I remember in his first few weeks as the superintendent of Cajon Valley Union School District, he had convened teachers across the district to develop a shared vision and design learning experiences to support the desired shift.  A program provider was scheduled for a three-hour session to help teachers better understand the resources and facilitate the design of the projects.  About 10 minutes in it was clear that she was disconnected from the audience and not meeting the needs of the group.  He recognized that the time would be better spent through the discovery of the resources rather than listening to someone talk about it. He stopped the presenter and redesigned to day to facilitate small groups of teachers to design the projects and explore the resources together. This signaled to teachers that he valued their time and expertise and that they weren’t going to learn about how to create better learning experiences by listening to someone tell them what to do, they had to explore, discuss and try some things out.

As a result, the teams of teachers dove into the resources feeling that they were valued and were motivated to create something better. Instead of using the prepackaged curriculum, they leveraged the expertise in the room to remix the ideas and build on what was provided to create learning experiences that were tailored to the students in their community.  At the end of the 3 days together, the team was inspired and felt a deep sense of ownership over the work.  They were excited to go back to their schools and share what they had developed with the teammates and continue to build off of what they had started. As Terry Grier once told me, “Those who create the work support the work.” This shift was the beginning of empowering teachers to lead and he has continued to develop the expertise of teachers to develop more leaders in Cajon Valley.

Open Lines of Communication

You know the people who say my door is always open but you don’t ever see it open or feel like you can go in? Opening lines of communication to listen and learn from people is a critical part of being an effective leader. Rather than creating a vision and sharing it with all stakeholders, as Devin Vodicka began the journey in Vista Unified to create a new model for teaching and learning, he intentionally brought people together to explore various models and collectively define what it means to personalize learning. He created multiple avenues for diverse stakeholders to collaborate and learn from each other through the process. Together- leaders, teachers, families, and the community are pushing boundaries and supporting each other to design learning experiences that meet the needs of their unique population.

One by one, each of the leaders shared how they were challenging the status quo- whether it was through creative scheduling, allocating resources, use of space, or what they were using (or not using) for curriculum. As the committee listened and even cheered each other on and nobody got “in trouble”, I noticed more sharing and more confidence in their efforts. Students and parents alike spoke up to question ideas too. A community has been established to explore new ideas and support one another along the way. They support one another but will also challenge ideas to continue to innovate to improve student outcomes. “It’s sometimes a struggle to work through” and as one teacher told me, “some days it seems as if there is nothing that is worth replicating but I always learn from our challenges.” Through collaboration, reflection, and multiple iterations, there are lessons learned that inform next steps in powerful ways.

Authentic leaders not only inspire others, but they lead by example. They create more leaders who have the competence and the mindset to step up when necessary, not just follow. Leadership is not having all the answers or having all the power, it is about developing others desire and capacity to move beyond where they have been.

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