3 Myths About Innovative School Leadership

Guest post by Bill Ziegler

School administration is often missing innovative leaders who are willing to make the courageous decisions, think creatively, and use the vision casting necessary to move schools and student learning forward. Perhaps we don’t fully understand what it takes to be an innovative leader and we buy into the societal idea that innovators are risk-takers searching for their next new thing to create or design. 

We are constantly reminded of innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of school or risked everything to follow their passions. Our idolization of these entrepreneurs can mislead us into risk-taking that loses everything, or we become frustrated with the slow pace of innovation in our work. It’s time that we shatter the common myths about innovative leadership to free school leaders so that they can innovate in a way that empowers and inspires them, and those they lead, to new heights.

Here are three myths many of us believe about innovation in schools:

Myth 1: Innovation is for crazy people.

Though there might be some crazy school leaders who innovate, you don’t need to be crazy to be an innovative leader. Innovation is for everyone and we can no longer afford to ignore it as students prepare for a complex world. Innovation is now a job requirement for leaders to design and lead schools in a way that truly prepares students for the future. If you think you do not have the ability to be an innovator, you are wrong. Anyone who has the passion, desire, and fortitude to be a school leader has what it takes to be an innovator. I see innovation as looking at and doing things in a new way that is creative and focused on improvement. It’s seeing things differently, challenging the status quo, and working to improve the world.

You may be innovative in your thinking about how to increase attendance in your school, design a new traffic flow at lunchtime, or engage students in a new way. We have a huge misconception that innovation requires the use of technology. Don’t get me wrong, innovation will often align with advancements in technology, but it’s not a requirement. Principal Darren Ellwein, for instance, works to innovate the learning spaces in his school for collaboration. He paints green screens on walls for video, works with parents to design and build furniture, and regularly examines every inch of his school to ensure it is used for learning and collaboration.

Myth 2: Innovation is high-risk.

Why do we get sucked into believing that true innovation requires us to take risks that could cost us a great deal? We buy into the notion, “The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.” Instead, calculated risk is the best kind of risk that leads to innovation for school leaders. This risk requires school leaders to examine the costs, the connection to mission, and the value on student learning. I like to think of it as living “safely dangerous.” This is when we can take a risk but have measured the safety concerns over the risk.

For example, I’ve always wanted to jump out of an airplane, and someday I will get my wish. However, I can assure you that I will not be flying solo; I plan on being tethered to an experienced and highly skilled person. You see, I will take the risk of jumping out of a plane, but I’m not doing it alone. I don’t trust my own skills to transport myself to the ground safely. The same can be said with innovation in schools. Let’s create a risk-taking environment that allows our students to grow and achieve without setting them back further. Let’s take the time to risk safely, not dangerously.

Myth 3: Innovation is trailblazing.

In his book Originals, Adam Grant introduces the pioneer and settler principle. When pioneers rush into something new, they blaze the trail for others and are often the first to break into the industry. We admire these kinds of leaders and businesses and see them as trendsetters. According to Grant, “Research shows that in American culture, people believe strongly in a first-mover advantage. We want to be leaders, not followers.” However, Grant also says that the majority of these leaders find short-lived success. Instead, it’s the settler who watches the pioneer break into the industry who, in turn, finds lasting success. It’s this settler who learns from the pioneer’s failures, understands the market from observation, and then builds a solid plan to introduce a new product.

You don’t need to be the trailblazing school leader who finds constant struggles in moving forward. It’s alright to watch, evaluate, and then move thoughtfully into innovation. A focused, thorough, and strategic plan strengthens school innovation as it builds large capacity with staff, students, and parents. It makes you no less of an innovator to learn and watch what other school leaders are doing and then try it in your school.

Our students deserve innovative school leaders who are willing to try new things and think differently to lead them in solving today’s complex problems. You don’t need to be a crazy, high-risk-taking trailblazer to be an innovative leader. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Be a thoughtful, reflective, and focused leader who pioneers new ideas for innovation in your schools.

What other school innovation myths need to be shattered?

Bill Ziegler, EdD, is the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. He was a 2015 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and the 2016 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. He is the co-author of Future Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational ChangeFollow him on Twitter @drbillziegler.

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