School Leadership

Cultivating a New Leadership Archetype

Transformative school leaders embrace creativity and play, reimagine meetings, promote a culture of celebration through their daily interactions, and maintain their own health and spirit.
January 29, 2016
Seven young students are squatting side-by-side on a basketball court with their arms extended out at their sides.
Photo credit: Play it Smart Centennial via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Close your eyes and imagine a school administrator. What do you see? We have many archetypes to conjure from film and literature: Angry/Authoritarian (Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller); Protective/Wise (Harry Potter); Big-Hearted/Ineffective (Grease); and perhaps my favorite -- Jeremy Piven's Vindictive/Imperious Dean in Old School. Like most archetypes, these characters don't convey the true depth of the human being behind the position. Yet these characterizations carry grains of truth and offer some deeper insights into the nature of school leadership.

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The work of the school administrator happens on a very public stage. This pressure can have a dampening effect on leaders' willingness to take risks and help their organizations through the exciting (and often uncomfortable) process of looking forward. It can also trigger different survival techniques: Appease/Evade, Command/Control, and an approach we can simply call Teflon. When leadership becomes an exercise in maintaining (and advancing) our position, we fail to nourish school cultures based on creativity, openness, and comfort with ambiguity -- qualities defining many leading-edge businesses that still seem scarce in the world of education.

Fortunately, there are many examples of leaders who are influencing their organizations by adopting approaches and techniques that complement the increasingly dynamic, interconnected, volatile nature of our global village. In implementing these practices and attitudes, they also nurture their own well-being, curiosity, and integrity -- both personally and professionally. And these practices can help us collectively reimagine the archetype of tomorrow's school leader.

Embracing Creativity and Play

Dr. Peter Gray delivered an important TEDx talk on the decline of play in today's culture, a factor in the significant increase in children's depression and anxiety. School leaders from pre-K to higher education should take note: Play is not something frivolous, an "extra" that we take care of during recess and lunch. Play is perhaps the fundamental aspect of how we learn to socialize, think creatively, develop resilience, and cultivate deeper senses of confidence and well-being. Leaders who are attentive to the physical and emotional challenges and joys of working in schools also understand one important fact: Play is not just for children!

Being playful isn't the opposite of being serious or competent. In fact, encouraging play at work can be a tremendous productivity tool, tapping into our intrinsic curiosity and desire to experiment. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has four tenets that his NBA team lives by:

  • Joy
  • Mindfulness
  • Compassion
  • Competition

If this philosophy works for a corporation worth $1.3 billion (according to Forbes), then why can't we give ourselves permission to explore new approaches in educational leadership?

One way to celebrate play as an entire school community (along with kids from around the world) is by signing up for Global School Play Day (disclaimer: I am a co-founder). Last year, 65,000 students participated on six continents. This year, over 100,000 are signed up a week in advance of the February 3 date. Here is what Principal Jesse Woodward of Marshall Elementary (Castro Valley, California) says:

It isn't just the kids who need unstructured play, it is us adults, too. . . even the principal! Let's all get out and play together. It is the best way to form meaningful relationships that will support children when the learning gets difficult.

Reimagine (and Relocate) Meetings

We want our staff to feel and act like a community, yet the way we gather often feels very unlike how a community acts together. After a tiring, exhilarating, stressful, interesting, challenging, and frustrating day of teaching, we ask our teachers to gather in the same location, sit in rows, listen to someone else talk, and not speak except for brief periods. This is hardly a recipe for engagement and connection. An anthropologist of 2116, for example, would look back to identify this as a not-so-subtle demonstration of power and authority. Leaders can turn this dynamic on its head when they take meetings outdoors. After all, don't the outdoors invite a sense of adventure?

Daily Interactions and Acknowledgements: A Culture of Celebration

It's human nature to perseverate on the things that bother us -- we're more likely to talk about our aches and pains than about the things that are working just fine. If school leaders aren't careful, they can limit themselves to handling only the inevitable daily challenges and dramas. The danger here is that the leader spends little to no time recognizing and celebrating the great work going on every day, work often resulting from years of sustained effort and teamwork across the entire organization. By taking time each day to simply acknowledge people -- from asking how they're doing to inquiring about a challenging project that you know they've taken on -- leaders nourish a sense that celebration and mutual acknowledgement are a part of the school's organizational fabric rather than something reserved solely for the monthly faculty meeting.

Take Care of Yourself

The work of leaders is stressful. The stress of leadership can (and does) take a toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We often carry the weight of our work back to our homes and families -- even those of us who project radiant positivity during the workday. The leader that fails to take care of herself is the leader that has gotten too caught up in yet another archetype that we didn’t mention above: Selfless/Sacrificial. While I appreciate the idea of "servant leadership" (helping others is one of the most fundamental ways to feel that we're doing something meaningful in the world), I'm suspicious of any Stand and Deliver model by which the individual takes care of everybody but him- or herself. We must question leaders' Hero/Martyr tendency. While the impulse to "fix" every technical or cultural challenge may come from a true desire to make people's lives easier, it diminishes an organization's capacity to learn from those challenges and reinforces the idea that only the leader has the solution. What message does the leader send when he or she takes time for self-care?

Here’s a quick tour of how some local California principals live a balanced life while nourishing stronger interpersonal connections in their work environments. Catina Haugen (Grant Elementary, Petaluma) talks about the importance of her staff connecting with each other beyond work. Kenneth Durham (New Tech High, Sacramento) discusses how leaders need to focus more on building relationships and less on "being in charge." Jen Kloczko (Natomas Charter, Sacramento) promotes fitness for staff and students with Workout Wednesdays. Leaders like these should be the architects (and archetypes) for the leadership training required of aspiring school administrators.

A leader’s ultimate authority is in setting the tone by which the organization interacts with itself, and establishing by word and deed what is permitted. Is it permissible to be joyful, to experiment, explore, and play? Educational leaders have an opportunity to create a new archetype (perhaps inspiring the films of the next half century!) by becoming what Michael Fullan describes as the "positive contagion." Leaders matter less for the ideas that they possess and more for their ability to connect ideas (sometimes controversial) and people across their organizations. By attending to our human need to create, connect, and play, leaders assure that great ideas can evolve from young seedlings into robust, self-supporting ecosystems.

Not to mention that the journey will be so much more enjoyable for all involved!