Building leadership that goes the distance

When I’m not working, I’m often running — for exercise or after my four-year-old. And I’ve had my share of injuries, most recently a pulled hamstring that wouldn’t heal. When I complained to the doctor, she shook her head at me.

“Look,” she said, “the hamstring is actually a bundle of muscles. The way you’re moving yourself forward is using some of them more than others. Until you’ve got them all engaged equally, you’ll be hurting. And you won’t be running — at least not as fast as you want to.”

Running the change leadership race

Aches and pains in moving forward — and struggles to move forward at all — are an everyday challenge for education professionals, and for some of the same reasons. No matter the role, we’re charged with moving others from point A to point B. We change how students engage with content and master the work of learning, how fellow practitioners guide young and professional learners, and how fellow leaders exercise sound judgment. 

Put another way, moving change forward is our work. But that doesn’t make it easy. Whether it’s greater emerging needs among a shifting student population, staff and budget cuts that ask public schools to do more with less, new faces on a team, or rapid shifts in standards and other mandates, it all adds up to nearly constant pressure for educators to make complex shifts in how they do every aspect of their work. 

Fatiguing the muscles of leadership

The pace of these changes can be difficult to manage and sustain — sort of like trying to run a half marathon on a hurt leg. In fact, 70 percent of change efforts fail due to isolation from a supportive team, conflicting priorities, confusion about why change is happening or what it looks like, and a lack of individual or collective efficacy in navigating the change. 

Schools and districts often tend to resort to single solutions and single leaders to turn things around. The idea is that pushing on the same programs and people will accelerate progress toward a goal even though the change failure rate and the rising frustration levels among teachers and administrators show us we’re wrong. 

Pressing on the same “muscles” to power change over and over again while others atrophy is a recipe for slowdown or worse. And it’s not as if we have a shortage of options. With one in every four teachers ready to take on school wide leadership work alongside teaching, schools and school systems have lots of leadership “muscles” they can engage. We know collective efficacy is a key to instructional improvement, and research shows that engaging educators in collective leadership is the key to sustaining transformational change in schools. 

Moving forward together

So where do we start? At CTQ, we find that the educators and leaders who are successful make three big shifts to retrain those leadership “muscles” so they work better together: 

  1. From leaders to leadership. Traditionally we think about leadership development as being about developing individual leaders, usually administrators. Given high rates of turnover in these positions, it’s difficult to see the path to ROI or sustainability in that approach. Three-quarters of all principals agree their work is too complex to be done by a single individual anyway. Instead, schools like Stone Creek Elementary and their districts think about how they develop larger and more robust teams to share the leadership load. That way, if one leader leaves, change doesn’t lose its momentum because every leader creates more leaders. 
  2. From compliance culture to rethinking resources. Every school and district lives with mandates to implement programs, manage budgets, and fill FTEs, each of which can feel siloed at best and incoherent at worst. Good leadership manages them well, but great leadership figures out how to reorganize them into a coherent whole. Led by a team of administrators and teachers, Walker-Gamble Elementary did just that. Today, every teacher has at least five hours of weekly learning and collaboration time, staff report increased collective efficacy, and students are meeting both their own learning goals and state standards.
  3. From siloed to networked. These schools didn’t learn how to build this kind of capacity or get this kind of results on their own. They learned from one another. Teachers and administrators from each school’s leadership team visited their partner school as part of a network hosted by CTQ last year. Likewise, we partnered with Northwest ISD to help them find more effective ways for schools to set goals aligned with the district strategic plan and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) goals, break down barriers to collaboration among schools, and engage more of their staff in ongoing innovation and improvement efforts.

We know through these and other partnerships — that collective leadership works where traditional improvement programs have not. And we know that teachers and administrators are equally important to building efforts that are strong enough together to go the distance, creating sustainability for teacher and other educator leadership pipelines that has been challenging to build in other ways. 

But we also know that it takes many, many more stories of those successes to make a movement. Otherwise, we’re working with lone runners instead of a real race. What is your school or district doing to build the power of teachers and administrators to lead collectively? Share your story in the comments via the collective leadership hashtag (#collectiveleadership) or through our website. Let’s share our strengths — and build on them together.


Interested in reading more about collective leadership? Check out the collective leadership roundtable here.

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