Schools are experiencing a dramatic shift from how they’ve been run and structured for over a century. Leaders must establish direction, influence others, and initiate sustainable change as they navigate the ever-evolving landscape of education. Such leadership requires a dynamic combination of positive mindset, influential behaviors, and effective skills. Stepping into a leader role requires a change in thinking from “How can I be the best for me?” to “How can I be the best to help my people do their jobs more effectively?”
School leadership, which is the process of enlisting and guiding the talents and energies of teachers, students, and families toward achieving common educational goals, is about thinking differently, not just acting differently. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
All too often, we focus on what we’re comfortable with—the strategies and methods we’ve used for years. But as education evolves, we must be willing to modify or update our approach. As hard and uncomfortable as this may be, we must think about our approach to think like a leader.
To think like a leader is to design a blueprint for success that is cyclical, dynamic, and able to change in time with the reality of the school environment. A blueprint for success is not a strategic plan that sits in a binder on the shelf. Rather, it is a process whereby a leader thinks though all the steps and plans an effective implementation strategy.
Blueprint for success
I believe a blueprint for success consists of five stages: a vision, goal, action plan, action, and reflection.
Effective leaders vividly describe their vision for the future and paint a clear picture of that destination to others. A vision inspires people to work towards a common goal. They build teams and define the steps to get there. A clear vision helps get the team back on track if along the way you go astray with your action steps or attitude.
You hear a lot of people say: “I will believe it when I see it.” Think of vision as the reverse of that statement. If you believe in your vision and model it every day, others will see the vision and have clarity on your direction. True vision provides a roadmap for the school and its stakeholders by providing a picture of success. Effective leaders clearly communicate this vision to the school as a means of inspiring, motivating, and engaging people.
By setting high, clearly defined goals, effective leaders can measure the process and take pride in the achievement of those goals. Seeing forward progress helps motivate you to keep at it, even when the going gets tough. Small victories will give you the self-confidence you need to recognize your own abilities in achieving the goals you’ve set.
Ensure goals are set high. I like to say if someone doesn’t laugh at your goal(s) because they think it is out of reach, then the goal is not set high enough. Les Brown wrote, “Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars.” I encourage you to set your goals sky high.
An action plan is a roadmap for how you are going to achieve your goal(s). The goal(s) should be broken down into steps and an assigned priority. Identify a person or team responsible for the completion of the goal and a way to track progress; consider a method to make notes to document said progress. Additionally, a starting and ending date should be a part of each action plan. A leader can have an amazing vision and clear goals, but without the plan to get there, the blueprint is not solid and will lead to a lack of clarity and unorganized implementation.
Developing an action plan cannot be done in isolation. Look at all aspects of your vision and be sure to enlist a cross section of voices and personalities. These voices will be the champions and cheerleaders of moving from action plan to action.
What separates an effective leader from an unsuccessful one is the implementation of ideas into action. The time to act is when the vision is set, the goals are developed, and the action plan is strong. Effective leaders stay true to the vision and action plan because the time spent developing the plan will pay off and the results will be miraculous. Don’t overthink this step. When you’re ready, turn your action plan into action.
How to think like a leader
Almost everything we do in education requires an evaluation and reflection. Reflection takes many forms and is an integral part of education and personal growth. Great leaders/teachers constantly reflect on their practice. They alter their plans, units, interactions, and attitudes. In a profession as challenging as teaching, self-reflection offers leaders and teachers an opportunity to think about what works and what doesn’t. Creating time for reflection gives leaders a chance to see their vision in action and determine next steps with actual data.
Effective leaders focus reflection on the impact of the actions on the school/district, the staff, and on him/herself. Reflection can take many forms. It can be a few minutes at the end of each day (who you talked to, what was said, what happened as a result of the vision and actions) or it can be an assessment of data collected over many days/weeks.
It may help to have a set of reflection questions to guide your thought process:
- How frequently am I communicating my vision and priorities?
- Can my staff articulate my vision and priorities?
- Am I supporting my staff on our path to achieving our goals?
- Am I leading or managing?
- How am I making a difference?
Regular check-ins on the action items help you see where you are in the cycle of progress. Are you on schedule? Did you budget correctly? Is the work aligned with the goals and intended objectives? If the actions are a little off course, you might need to make a simple change or do a deeper recalibration. Regardless, you won’t know until you’ve reflected on your progress.
A leader’s success is about helping others grow. It’s about making you staff smarter, bigger, and bolder. Nothing you do as an individual matters as much as how you nurture and support your team and help increase their self-confidence. Success starts with thinking like a leader and creating and sharing a blueprint for success.