13 May 2016

Barrier Busting Leadership

Barrier Busting Leadership

Dr. Springston is the Chief Collaboration Officer with the education consulting firm Strategic Education Collaborators www.scottspringston.com

To be a truly impactful transformative leader in today’s schools is arguably tougher today than it has ever been.  The stakes, accountability, scrutiny and little opportunities for “misfires” make being a school leader an uncertain endeavor.  Also, now more than ever, our students need barrier busting leaders as their teachers, principals, superintendents and Board members.  Success is a blend of courage, knowledge, intuition, planning, data and luck.  This endeavor is not for the faint of heart or the egotist rather, it must be approached with a servant’s heart.

Barrier busting leaders know the greatest factor working against them is a century old industry pressure to maintain status quo.  Change is innately seen as a threat avoided or rallied against feverously.  Leaders who truly get it understand schools lag behind the rate of change required just to keep up with the world outside of the school building.

Role of Barrier Busting Leadership

The principal and superintendent are vital to the success to leadership sustainability- flipping leadership.  Arguably, at no time in our history have there been more pressures working against education reform efforts of school leaders. School administrators are expected to be Superman or Wonder Woman and to produce measurable results in shorter amounts of time. This responsibility is tasked of them to complete within a leadership vacuum.   Threats abound that act against their ability to not only identify the change that is needed but to implement processes necessary to evolve the school district into an adaptable organization.  A courageous and effective superintendent or principal recognizes this need and develops the organizational capacity to transform their school district.  Institutional knowledge and capital cannot rest solely with an individual rather, must be ingrained in the culture of the school district.  The average tenure of a superintendent is 3 years necessitating the need to shift power from individuals to the organization. There is no greater force acting against the ability of principals and superintendents’ abilities to initiate reform measures than change.

The Greatest Barrier is Change

Change is the greatest individual and institutional barrier acting against the ability of individuals and organizations to pivot to meet the rapidly emerging pressures facing school reform in America. Public school systems in America are very entrenched institutions with clearly defined leadership distribution models. In traditional school systems the authority and responsibility for distribution decision making rests with a few individuals and not the collective much like typical teacher driven instructional practices. For school systems to be able to address the 21st century changes necessary they must flip leadership from a distribution leadership model to a distributive leadership culture that connects espoused leadership with enacted leadership.


Distributive Leadership Approach

Traditional distribution leadership approaches focus on confining and defining leadership roles to a few anointed individuals within an organization thus, creating a systemic leadership vacuum. There is a distribution of tasks to individuals much like the traditional non-flipped classroom. This lack of clarity and empowerment throughout the organization acts as an impediment in traditional distribution leadership systems which tend to focus solely on task assignment and completion. Often time’s, sustainability of reform initiatives break down in this model when there is little to no attention paid on the actual work.

Barrier busting distributive leadership structures can and must be flipped from task distribution to a distributive model. Distributive Leadership processes establishes formal leadership positions, structures and processes for all members of the organization.  The process grants authority and not just responsibility, to each member of the organization by creating a broad leadership community. This model is rooted in the interconnectivity between individuals, defining roles and articulating the responsibilities of the collective. While the task and results are still part of a distributive leadership model there is equal attention given to the interconnectivity of processes, people and culture within the building or school district. Much like the flipped classroom, teachers and support staff understand the task and their individual roles and responsibilities to achieve the desired results. The staff is empowered to be active participants in the process.

Leaders are not Alone

The good news for superintendents and principals is the fact there are current bodies of research and field applications of the distributive leadership model in place. Work out of the University of Wisconsin’s Leadership for Learning division (www.leadershpforlearning.com) studied the critical role distributive leadership design has on a school or district’s improvement processes.  In particular, they identified key areas embedded within successful distributive leadership practices. Their research and field application identified social distribution tasks, situational distribution of leadership, contextually actionable responses, embedded progress monitoring and reflection on engagement impact as critical components of successful distributive leadership models. Through their research they identified the need to connect all individuals to the leadership decision making process. The focus is not only on what roles leaders play but equally as important, on the interactions of all individuals within the system. They developed an on-line leadership assessment tool. The Comprehensive Assessment of Leadership for Learning (CALL) assesses the perception and impact of existing leadership practices and beliefs at the school building level. This data is invaluable in assessing current practices to then develop improvement plans designed to flip existing leadership structures from distribution to distributive.

Once schools have the CALL data the next question is “Now what do we do?” There are strategic partners available to assist in transforming leadership structures and beliefs. WestEd, based in Sacramento, California is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency who works with education and other communities throughout the United States and abroad (www.wested.org).  Within WestEd’s Comprehensive School Assistance Program (CSAP) they have identified the need to assist schools with transforming leadership development practices through their School Wide Leadership for learning division.   They work as collaboration partners with schools and districts in using the CALL data to flip existing leadership structures to a distributive model.

The Change Doctrine

The break neck speed of change facing school leaders, combined with high levels of accountability necessitates all hands are on deck.  Having clearly understood goals, definition of role responsibilities and most of all, an inclusive leadership development focus, schools will be more efficient and effective in positive changes to student achievement and work force satisfaction.  Superintendents and principals can and must model classroom instructional changed by flipping leadership models to leverage the talents of the collective. The result will be an embedded continuous improvement culture free of isolated leadership and one that will achieve sustainable student achievement growth.


Dr. Scott Springston’s Bio:  Dr. Springston is the Chief Collaboration Officer with the education consulting firm Strategic Education Collaborators www.scottspringston.com

He spent 23 years in public education with 9 of those years as superintendent of schools.  His education, experience and passion is in sustainable leadership development.   Current projects Dr. Springston is working on are assisting WestEd’s  School Wide Leadership for Learning division as well as serving as the Director of Higher Education for  Grand County, Colorado. 

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