Saturday, September 1, 2012

9 Principles of Courageous Leadership for 21st Century School Leaders

“A common requirement of leaders at all levels is having the courage to make tough decisions and take difficult actions,” write authors David Cottrell and Eric Harvey in their book Leadership Courage: Leadership Strategies for Individual and Organizational Success.  A big part of courage in 21st century leadership is standing up for what is right. As Cottrell and Harvey correctly describe, “The true measure of leadership is the ability to look in the mirror and know that you had the courage to do what you felt was the right thing to do.” 

Our ability as school leaders to look at ourselves in the mirror each morning and feel that the actions we took the day before regarding our students and staff is a measure of our own 21st century leadership ability. This contrasts starkly in an American culture that wants to turn schools into clones of businesses where maximization of self-interest is a virtue, often at the expense of many others. The problem is, these philosophies are at cross purposes in educational establishments. Ultimately though, as a school leader, I feel at my best when I have successfully passed a test of courage with integrity intact.

What are some “Guiding Principles for Courageous School Leaders in 21st Century"? No doubt we all have core values we hold dear, but here’s some principles I have taken the liberty of modifying a bit from Cottrell and Harvey’s book. I think they accurately describe what we have to be willing to do in order to be Courageous 21st Century School Leaders.
  • Accept responsibility courageously. This includes accepting responsibility for all the actions of our schools from students to teachers and our own. When an unfortunate event happens under our leadership, we publicly accept our responsibility.Looking for places to cast blame is a weak, short-term strategy. If you want your school to be one where responsibility is important, then be responsible yourself.
  • Implement change courageously. Courage comes from being able to step away from the status quo and enter into new possibilities. Courage is demonstrated in convincing others to move beyond their own comfort zones to stretch toward new horizons. Courage comes from leading change in the face of fierce resistance and even potential political peril. Change takes courage, and 21st century school leaders act courageously when leading change efforts.
  • Hiring people using strict standards. Lowering one’s standards to just “fill a position” does not promote excellence. A weak person on your school staff can pull down the entire team. Hire only those who fit your school’s standards and principles. Surrounding yourself with talent makes the school or district successful. Hiring out of political expediency, or due to friendship connections is a recipe of organizational weakness. Also hiring only those who will rubber stamp your ideas or agenda is a recipe for long-term failure. Courage comes from hiring people who often are smarter and better equipped than you are, and who aren't afraid to express their opinions. Courageous hiring means getting the right people in place is a much higher priority than scoring political points or returning political favors.
  • Keeping everyone focused on what’s important. Cottrell and Harvey call this “Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.” Courageous 21st century school leaders fight to keep the focus on what’s important: the learning of students. Real courage is demonstrated in those school cultures where this is lost, and the school leader courageously reminds everyone of what they are truly about: "Keeping the main thing, the main thing!"
  • Communicate for understanding. The purpose of communication in a 21st century organization is understanding. This means making sure what you have to say is clear, concise and on-point. There's not room for murky, unclear messaging. Courageously saying what needs to be said means there's only room for understanding, not misunderstanding.
  • Coaching others. School leaders have a responsibility of coaching those within their schools or districts. This means setting aside the title of "boss" and giving your organizational members the information necessary to improve their performance. It means inspiring those within to reach for higher levels of performance and providing them with the direction to do just that. Coaching is not playing "gotcha games." Coaching means you genuinely want others in your school organization to be successful, and you work hard to help them improve.
  • Effectively address conflict. There is no room in 21st century leadership for avoiding conflict. Minor conflict can paralyze a school or district so that nothing is accomplished. Effective 21st century school leaders take conflict head on. Courageous school leadership means having the difficult conversations. It means not passing the task of addressing a performance issue to a subordinate, or waiting on someone else to say something. Courageous leadership also means not sending "nasty-gram" emails instead of sitting down, face-to-face and talking with someone about an issue.
  • Keep focus on the positive. This can be difficult. Trying to get everyone to see that things are still positive in a toxic environment is quite a challenge. Keeping the focus on the positive isn't about lying to people and building up a false sense of the positive. It is about fostering a "positive" belief that together we're going to succeed. School leaders who keep the focus on the positive, don't dwell on the negative and drag others down.
  • Instill a culture of ethics and integrity. An organization without integrity that has as its purpose educating children is a frightening thought. Twenty-first school leaders work diligently to foster ethics and integrity in their schools or districts.  Principles are never sacrificed for political reasons or any other reasons. Organizations educating children that lack ethics and integrity have no business teaching children.
In the fast-paced environment of the 21st century, school leaders, from principals to state education leaders, courage must be a part of our leadership practice. These guiding principles make an excellent starting point to begin fostering that kind of leadership.

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