Born that way?

These days it seems like all I ever talk about is transforming schools.  A couple of phrases keep rising to the top of every conversation – “a great teacher in every classroom” and “a great leader at the head of every school”.

Recently, I attended an interesting panel discussion hosted by SMU’s Simmons School of Education and The Dallas Morning News.  The panel was about developing and recruiting great teachers, but the importance of great leaders kept coming up. Great teachers are most effective when they work for great leaders.  Makes sense…so can we do it? Can we have a great principal at every school in Dallas ISD?  Absolutely. But how do we identify great leaders or leadership potential? Are some principals born leaders or is great leadership a learned behavior? According to Kerri Briggs at the Bush Institute, the answer “depends on the school.”  Kerri shared that with coaching, commitment and the right staff, a good leader can become a great leader at a small or mid-sized school. At a huge urban high school with limited tools and a culture of failure, evidence shows it is highly unlikely a principal can learn to be a great leader unless the school culture is radically changed.

There is a new adage going around – culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is driven by leadership. If this is true, and I believe it is, then every change-driven leader must ask: Am I the person to change our culture or am I convinced we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances?

Every leader must know that vision comes from the top.

In my experience, being visionary is learned behavior. Visionary leaders are needed at every level from the trustee, to the superintendent, the principal, the department head and the teacher who brings MindUp or ARK to his school.  Leaders become transformative visionaries by stepping out of their safe zones and into their discomfort zones. When we built new safe zones, we then step away from them, too. We can become visionary leaders, but we have to be willing to be uncomfortable and we have to be willing to make other people uncomfortable.

The upside is, when the organizations we are transforming are our public schools, thousands of small people who don’t yet know how to be visionaries learn from watching us do it.  They learn to step out and transform their own cultures. In my book, that is worth a lot of discomfort for the rest of us.

Written by Regina Nippert, Executive Director, CCE

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