Thursday, December 13, 2012

Crawling Out-of-the-Box: 5 New Skills for 21st Century School Leaders

I received an email from Best Buy today that is indicative of what happens when businesses and organizations are stuck with "inside-the-box thinking" instead of “out-of-the-Box Thinking.” The email from Best Buy offered me $25 if I would spend $500. My immediate reaction was, “That’s not a deal; that’s an insult.” You would think a company that is in Best Buy’s predicament could come up something better than that. Sadly though, I am sure that email is a product of inside-the-box thinking and not outside-the-box thinking. It is apparent from this offer why they are struggling as a retailer. I would say their “Marketing Department” suffers from a bad case of “Inability to get outside-the-box.”

When it comes to “getting out-of-the-box,” Paul Houston had this to say in an essay entitled “Out-of-the-Box Leadership.”

“It might be argued that finding ways to crawl out of the box has become a basic skill for leaders.”

I would argue that “Crawling Out-of-the-Box 101” would be an excellent course for 21st century leaders, but what would the course syllabus look like? What exactly does a school leader need to know to be able to master “crawling out-of-the-box” as a leadership skill? Here’s a few things that come to mind:

1. Bridge Building: To use a phrase Paul Houston uses, 21st century leaders need to be able “build a bridge and lead people across it, because it is only by crossing that bridge people can find a new place to stand.” Bridge construction requires knowing how to foster the development and creation of elements necessary for that bridge. Things like vision, mission, and core values are a part, but also courage and integrity are needed to lead people to new places. Without “bridge-building” skills in their leaders,  people stand in the same place, a recipe for doing the same old thing.

2. Pushing the limits and expanding personal perspectives, or engaging in lateral thinking: To crawl out the box, you have to change the lens with which everyone in your organization views the world, including your own. You have to entertain new perspectives and points of view that haven’t been entertained before. Once that is done, courageously pushing the limits of current practice is necessary. Engaging in practices that hover around author Milton Chen’s “edges of innovation” are a must. You can’t crawl out of the box without trying on new perspectives, engaging in lateral thinking, and pushing beyond current limitations.

3. Engage in the business of school leadership as a creative process: Too many school leaders still see their job as maintaining what is. Anyone who dares think differently or venture outside the parameters of declared thinking is, at worst, exiled from the leadership pack. At best, they are simply ignored. Being a 21st century school leader requires creativity, not just maintenance management skills. The issues and problems our schools are engaged in require a different kind of school leader: one willing to view leadership as a creative process of fundamentally finding new ways to engage in the business of education effectively for all students.

4. Barrier and Obstacle Reduction and Removal: Being able to effectively remove barriers and obstacles to innovation is a key 21st century school leadership skill. The world inside the box doesn't like the innovative, the new, so all manner of roadblocks appear in the way. It takes a 21st century school leaders skilled in barrier  and obstacle removal to lead the way through these and onward outside-the-box. Finding ways to innovate in a system resistant to innovation is a key 21st century school leadership skill.

5. Focus on the smallest “big-changers”: To crawl out-of-the-box doesn't necessarily mean blowing it up. Too many leaders try to change everything, when a focus on a few things can dramatically bring about the kinds of innovation we seek. This skill means 21st century school leaders need to focus on the fewest things that make the biggest difference. Choose to engage and focus on those strategies that will help you crawl out-of-the-box effectively without blowing it up at once.

Best Buy’s offer to me suffers enormously from “inside-the-box” thinking. There is absolutely nothing in that offer to entice me to spend more money, unless I was planning on spending $500 anyway. Education too often suffers from this same kind of “locked-in-the-box thinking” too. Evidence of this can be seen in many of the reforms being currently pushed by policy makers and politicians. The standards and testing movement is just one example. Another would be ideas about changing graduation requirements, which in North Carolina is redone every time we have changed governors over the past several years. None of these things fundamentally change education because they are not outside-the-box thinking; they are inside-the-box thinking. Crawling out of the box in which our education system finds itself will require more than any of these reforms which only continue to tweak the edges. Twenty-first century educational leaders desperately  need skills that will help education “crawl out-of-the-box.”

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