Instructional Leadership: the comeback

Our new admin just arranged our first head’s retreat.  As a forum for clarifying what the department heads in the school want, I’d call it a resounding success.  Toward the end of the day we had a small group discussion on instructional leadership.  The idea was to define it and clarify what we need to do it.

I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with leadership and leaders.  Much of my time in air cadets as a teen was spent studying leadership techniques.  My experiences there suggest I’m an atypical team member.  At one point we were playing a massive capture the flag game in the woods at Camp Borden.  My Flight Sergeant picked out myself and a few other NCOs.  We were told to locate the flag and harass the enemy, that’s it.  The vast majority of our flight were younger cadets in their first exercise.  The Flight Sergeant kept them all with him and they moved in a large group (like locusts), capturing everyone they saw by sheer force of numbers.

I eventually found the flag after working loosely with the other rangers, but mainly on my own.  I had someone relay back to the large group where the flag was and we ended up winning with this very unorthodox approach.  The other team did what was normally done – everyone had similar jobs in squads.  Afterwards my Flight Sergeant said, “I knew if I kept the keeners in the big group they wouldn’t enjoy it, so I set you all loose and looked after the young ones.”

That lesson in differentiating how you lead has always stuck with me, but my focus when leadership lands on me (I seldom go seeking it) goes beyond catering to helplessness.  I want self determination and personal empowerment in my team, and I expect team members to acknowledge that empowerment with engagement.  I don’t want them to ever feel like they are being dictated to, or are being forced to accept ideas that run contrary to their own best practices.  The leadership structure should exist to empower and encourage self determination in the professionals it manages.

It’s a tough, results orientated  job (like pro baseball),
and you’ve got to find ways to handle the pressure.
Leading people who do this everyday is a challenge.
Talking down to them doesn’t work.

Of course, this assumes that you’re dealing with professionals.  If you’ve got teachers who aren’t willing or able to be competent professionals then I would be looking to teacher training and board hiring practices to weed them, not detuning the entire educational leadership apparatus to cater to a tiny percentage of incompetents. 

In discussing leadership with other department heads at my school I was struck with just how different their idea of leadership is from my own.  I not only step lightly around teachers who don’t like or need to be told what to think, but I also expect competence when it comes to internal communication.  After saying this I was told by another head (in front of many others) that my department has terrible communication.  She said we need to have many meetings where I drill home information, but I should also present it in a way that makes them accept it.  My job isn’t just to inform, it’s to indoctrinate.

Absolutist thinking feels lazy to me, the result of trying to
look for an easy way out of a complex situation.

I couldn’t imagine criticizing another leader like this, let alone in front of a large number of colleagues.  I became angry at her ignorant and callous disregard for my place in this group, so I walked away rather than firing back.  That someone would have this approach to management in my building makes me uneasy (it also explains why the iconoclastic tech teachers in my department would take great pleasure in telling her exactly what she wouldn’t want to hear just to make her angry).  It took me a few days to realize that those comments say much more about her approach to management than it does about the colleagues I speak for at heads.

I was having Costanza moments after this altercation.
Instead of not being able to think of something
I tend to be overly vicious in my comebacks. 
Walking away is a learned response.

In my mind a micro manager is the worst kind of leader.  They constantly interfere and demand consistency with inane details rather than focusing on a goal; they want conformity to process rather than results orientated flexibility.  Some people need that kind of micromanagement but I’m not interested in managing them, or being one, or having much to do with that process.  If you want to alienate the most capable people in your organization, this is a great way to do it.

Another head who had overheard all of this had a chat with me and went back with this idea, “leaders should also include outliers who question and prompt revision in leadership practices.”   The head with whom I seem diametrically opposed thought this a ridiculous idea.  Leadership is about forcing compliance.  Meetings are about beating down resistance and creating that compliance.  Ever hear teachers complain about meetings and wonder why they are so negative about them?  I don’t, anymore.

True Colors helps clarify your social approach to leadership.
I’m a strong green/bit of blue – I’ve got no sense of gold…

There are many different types of leaders all with their own strengths and weaknesses.  My thing is exploring the edges, and I look for highly capable people to share that project with.  If experimentation with pedagogy or learning tools is your thing, then I’m your department head.  It’s why technological change and the social upheaval it causes interest me.

My ideal department is staffed with people who need me to support them without constantly questioning them as they improve the state of the art of teaching.  Put me in an administrative role where I’m supposed to enforce conformity and I’m a disaster.  If that’s what we’re looking for in instructional leadership, I’m ready to step down immediately.  You’re also going to find it difficult to get me into lockstep with everyone around me whether I’m a leader or a follower.

Consensus building is something that I’m terrible at but greatly admire.  Those leaders who can create a sense of direction in a group without alienating anyone are magic.  Whereas I get passionately angry about the asinine people I’m supposed to direct, these patient consensus builders are able to gently take them in hand and find a way through to them. I can appreciate the efficiency they bring to group work and admire them for a skill I lack.

The bureaucratic pencil pusher who holds the-way-it’s-always-been as sacred is the antithesis of everything I consider important, but those people play a vital role in creating consistency and order in an organization.  As leaders I can’t really see the value in them, but I’m sure a consensus builder somewhere could help me with that.

A good bit of reflection here, I think.  I’m no longer angry about the altercation we had and I’m trying to see the value of diverse voices in leadership positions.  If the goal is all of us in lockstep as we produce the same narrow goals in the same way then I’m in the wrong place.  I only hope that people higher up the org-chart recognize the value of diversification in instructional leadership or, as an outlier, I’m in real trouble.