When the word “collaboration” is spoken in a school, it is not always welcomed with open arms. Educators or leaders who have had success or are comfortable working solo may feel they are being encroached on or that their ideas are being invaded. However, when your school community respects each other and acknowledges individual skills and participation, all staff can move forward in a positive environment while also becoming learners. Effective collaborative leadership provides teachers opportunities for improved practices through increased leadership opportunities and a feeling of being valued in a school environment.
The benefits of collaborative leadership
A collaborative leadership culture is more than merely leading a scheduled meeting, sharing lessons, or sitting through common planning-time sessions taking notes. Collaborative leadership requires transparency, honesty, integrity, dependability, accountability, and educators’ commitment to shared goals. A school or district that supports collaborative leadership must be fostered and supported by administration for lasting success.
Collaboration is a mitigating condition for teachers to grow in the profession and to accept and implement change effectively. Having leadership opportunities will provide teachers with workplace relationships that allow them to develop individual potential. When principals or superintendents support collaboration by seeking teacher input in decision making, offer sufficient teacher support, and create a community that fosters collaboration, teachers are more prone to remain in those schools.
As a principal for 11 years and a district leader for two years, I define collaborative leadership as the presence of opportunities for shared leadership, educator ownership, and sharing of instructional and pedagogical ideas. Collaboration is a talent and skill developed through humility, patience, and vision.
As Michael Jordan said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” My best years as a leader were the years when we had collaborative leadership present in the school.
(Next page: 7 steps to becoming a collaborative leader)
From isolation to collaboration
Here are some of the steps I recommend for moving to a collaborative-leadership model.
1. Establish group goals and norms. To have the highest level of quality interactions, you must establish a safe environment. This initial step involves individual accountability combined with group outcomes. It keeps the group on task and establishes a purpose. For example:
We commit to….
• consistent, positive and timely communication with one another.
• reflect regularly on our own and each other’s productivity and well-being.
• finishing each meeting with action items and deadlines for future work.
• being responsible, accountable, and direct.
• having fun
2. Use discussion and dialogue. We must remember to “use our words,” just like we ask of our students. Your collaborative team may need to select a new curriculum, analyze data, or study new instructional methods. Having a discussion enhances a conversation and allows group members to state their thoughts or ideas as you build consensus or make decisions. Moving from discussion to dialogue allows the team to broaden individual knowledge, incorporate multiple perspectives, listen actively, and stay focused.
3. Work through conflict. With an increase in collaboration there may be an increase in conflict. Dialogue may lead to conflict, so having strategies for your leadership team to monitor conflict as it arises will support individuals. This step takes professional judgment, trust, and often provides growth opportunities for your team.
How to be a collaborative leader
4. Develop problem-solving and decision-making strategies. It is not the principal’s job to decide what to do and then tell the group. That is the opposite of collaborative leadership. It is the team’s responsibility to consider the issues, decide the direction, and then count on the principal to support. Problem-solving and decision-making strategies may vary in different settings, but having a consistent plan on how to move forward and solve problems and support decisions is a staple of collaborative leadership.
5. Assure all voices are heard. This may seem like an obvious statement in collaborative leadership, but knowing and doing are two different things. Being heard is more than participants speaking in meetings. A collaborative leader must facilitate participation from all staff and welcome new participants. Seeking the opinions of many builds trust and inclusiveness from the start. Trust is the belief or confidence that the leaders are reliable and have the best interest of the school at the core. It is the glue that holds together collaborative leadership.
6. Ask, “What if?” Moving from problem solving to solution requires one last conversation about the unknown excitement or consequences of a decision. Preparing for the unknown will assist the team with supporting the decisions. If possible, you should have multiple voices available to lead the discussion around the “why” of a decision. As we all know, there will always be people who push back on collaborative-leadership decisions. Vetting the “what ifs” will build cohesiveness in a group.
7. Communicate openly. Once the above steps are accomplished and decisions are made, it is critical to close the loop and communicate openly to staff. It could be in the form of a short internal email, small group meetings, or a full staff meeting. The purpose of these conversations is to be transparent and reduce any misinformation about what was decided, why, and by whom.
People follow people, not positions. Collaborative leadership is a style supported by an administration that recognizes the importance of interpersonal relationships and cross-functional collaboration for school and student success. Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” I believe these steps will assist in building a collaborative-leadership culture that will have lasting positive effect on your school or district of learners and leaders.