How K-12 leaders can cope with a ‘stunning’ power shift

Author and lecturer Nicco Mele reveals how technology has changed the power dynamics of school district leadership—and how K-12 leaders should adapt as a result

The traditional power structure is changing in ways that challenge school leaders’ authority.

Technology is transferring power from institutions to individuals—and this shift has huge implications for K-12 leaders, says Nicco Mele, a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Mele, author of the book The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, spoke to senior school district leaders during the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education in Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 13.

“We’re living in this time of incredible opportunity, but it’s also kind of scary, because it opens up new issues—and our institutions aren’t equipped to keep up with these changes,” he said.

Mele, who addressed conference-goers via Skype because the snow left him stuck in New England, said the Cray supercomputer of the early 1970s cost $5 million and filled an entire room. Today, we walk around with computers that are significantly more powerful in our pockets.

“That’s a stunning shift of power” from institutions to individuals, he noted.

But this shift brings enormous challenges for superintendents and other institutional leaders. For instance, what happens when the process of an institution conflicts with the agendas of the people it serves? “We have to figure out what we’re going to do about this,” he said.

As an example, Mele told the story of a neighborhood park whose slides were damaged in a storm. When the local city government said it would take three years to fix them, an enterprising parent put up a flyer urging others to donate $50 toward new slides, using an online fundraising site—and soon they had enough money for the project.

But it turns out the city had a good reason for the delay, Mele said—something to do with drainage issues on the land in question.

“On the one hand, I love that parents had the energy and the desire to give $50 to repair these slides—but on the other hand, it’s the government’s role to set priorities” that make the most sense for their communities, Mele said. It’s easy to imagine how the priorities of a school system and the parents it serves might come into similar conflict.

So, how can superintendents and other school district leaders cope with the fact that the traditional power structure is changing in ways that challenge their authority?

Mele offered a number of key suggestions:

Rethink relationships.

“Every time you walk into a room, you should think, ‘These people have more power than me,’” Mele advised. Consider how to set the right tone that engages stakeholders in a conversation and earns their support, and choose your words carefully.

Combine traditional, top-down leadership with distributed power.

Barack Obama used the internet to build an alternative power structure that challenged the traditional institution of the Democratic Party, becoming the surprise Democratic nominee on his way to winning the election in 2008. He did so by leveraging the power of volunteers in an unprecedented way, Mele said.

“The Obama campaign … pushed more power to volunteers,” Mele explained, using a combination of language and technology to set clear expectations and ensure the accountability of volunteers—and school district leaders can learn from this approach.

“We have to open up our processes and our leadership” to more people, he said—but in ways that preserve the integrity of the decision-making process.

Figure out a process, and then drive people to it.

This might be an online form for soliciting community feedback, or a monthly town hall event.

Whatever your preferred method, Mele said, you should figure out a process for involving the community in school district decisions that will work for you as a leader, and then drive stakeholders to it using all the channels at your disposal. That way, you can minimize the disruption that happens when people circumvent this process.

Use eMail wisely.

eMail isn’t flashy, like Twitter or Facebook—but it is “the most powerful political tool available to you,” Mele said.

Think of your eMail list as your own personal cable TV channel, he said. Use it to mobilize support for your district’s initiatives.

For more coverage of AASA’s 2014 National Conference on Education, see:

Experts: Here’s how to turn data into achievement

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