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Innovation Leadership

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By: Lyle Kirtman

America is a country that has flourished based on innovation. The worlds of medicine, private industry, and nonprofits are now embracing innovation as a key to solving age-old problems. Unfortunately, the policy makers in education are creating an environment where leaders in the areas of greatest need—our cities—are being left behind.

Can a leader in education be innovative, get results, and stay alive in their job in today's public education world of compliance and accountability? Yes, but it takes courage, commitment and focus! Our attention nationally has shifted to hiring and developing instructional leaders in order to ensure that the focus is clear on improving student achievement. The premise is that if all our leaders in education concentrate on the classroom we will finally straighten out the educational problems that have existed for many years.

We have once again focused too narrowly on symptomatic solutions. Yes, instruction is key to improving student achievement. However, our educational leaders need to broaden, not narrow, their leadership competencies to be successful in today's world. Other sectors are emphasizing innovation, external partnerships and customer service. Is education that different that the focus needs to be so internal? I propose that we realize that the true instructional leaders are our teachers and we broaden the concept of leadership to improve our school districts and schools. Innovation and leadership have been separate terms for years as were instruction and leadership. If we broadened our viewpoint and begin hiring innovative leaders that are focused on sustainable results for customers (students), we would transform our educational system.

I have found in my research of 1000 leaders in education nationally that we have already begun to transform our cultures slowly. In fact, our most successful leaders have a broad base of skills and competencies. Yes, they realize the importance of instruction and are skilled at developing teacher leaders who inform decision making and create innovative opportunities for students. These high performing leaders embrace innovation and have the curiosity to learn from their teachers, colleagues, leaders in education and even other sectors about building truly creative learning environments for staff and students.

Unfortunately, too many of these high performing leaders are in our suburban districts. While there is great potential for innovative leaders to emerge in rural and urban districts they are often discouraged by the national obsession for accountability and compliance as the key to improving student achievement. They feel they can't be innovative because their schools and districts are being declared under-performing and must focus on meeting state and federal requirements to survive, leaving no room or time to transform their cultures into exciting and innovative places for true sustainable learning.

The policy makers seem to think that leaders in urban districts can't be trusted to find new ways to improve student achievement. They are wrong! The best leaders are the ones who are not afraid to try new ways to get results. In fact, these great leaders even reach out to both public and private sector partners to increase their bandwidth to include new opportunities for the students in their districts.

The following are 7 Competencies that will help produce innovative leaders that build creative, sustainable learning environments with high expectations and great results for students.

Seven Competencies for High Performing Leaders in Education:

1. Challenges the Status Quo

2. Builds Trust through Clear Communication and Expectations

3. Creates a Commonly Owned Plan for Success

4. Focuses on Team over Self

5. Has a High Sense of Urgency for Change and Sustainable Results in Improving Achievement

6. Commitment to Continuous Improvement for Self and Organization

7. Builds External Networks and Partnerships

Let's change our focus now before it is too late and hire and develop leaders who can motivate our students and staff to achieving great results!


The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America's great cities. We're writing a book about what we're learning-- and you can help.

Lyle Kirtman , CEO Future Management Systems, has consulted with 700 organizations on leadership development in the public and private sector (300 school districts). He served as the Chairperson of the Governor's Task Force on Innovation in Mass. Lyle's recent book entitled; Leadership and Teams: The Missing Piece of the Educational Reform Puzzle (Pearson Publishing) has been the basis of his presentations and consulting nationally. He is now co-authoring a new book on Leadership with internationally renowned author and speaker Michael Fullan.

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