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The Head and Heart of Cage-Busting Leaders

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Scott Morgan, Founder & CEO of Education Pioneers. Education Pioneers is a national nonprofit with a bold vision to transform education into the best led and managed sector in the U.S. to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education. To fuel this vision, Education Pioneers is working to attract 10,000 top leaders, managers, and analysts into the sector by 2023.

There's no question that ensuring that all children are prepared to thrive in college, career, and citizenship requires exceptional leaders - cage-busting leaders - from the classroom all the way to the federal department of education. Cage-busters have the power to create an excellent education for kids, and we need thousands more of them to fundamentally shift the performance of our education sector.

When I reflect on cage-busting leadership in education, I think of what is needed in terms of both head and heart. Transforming education for all students requires that we have the right mindset to get the work done (head), and the unwavering commitment to succeed on behalf of every child in this nation, especially our most underserved (heart). To me, cage-busters possess three characteristics that require this powerful combination of both head and heart: courage, curiosity, and a problem solving mindset.

Courage. At Education Pioneers, our first core value is courage. We made it our first value because, as Winston Churchill once noted, "it's the quality that guarantees all others." When I reflect on the moral and physical courage of pioneering leaders who risked everything to advance the cause of justice and change the trajectory of history - Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi to name three - I am humbled and inspired.

Being willing to challenge the status quo, and to take great risks for a larger cause, takes guts. In education, timid people who tinker with the status quo won't cut it. We need brave, bold leaders who put the interests of students first and keep them front and center while pushing for transformative change to benefit all kids.

Curiosity. Cage-busting leaders ask a lot of good questions. They continually ask, "why?", and they seek to truly understand the most significant obstacles to effecting meaningful change in education. Rick Hess notes this in Cage-Busting Leadership: seeing with fresh eyes, he writes, "requires stepping back and cultivating what Zen Buddhists refer to as shoshin, or 'beginner's mind'--approaching subjects with curiosity and an open mind." To me, cage-busters don't ever believe they know it all, and they continually seek to learn more.

Along with asking good questions, the best leaders and change agents are great listeners. They are keen at hearing what others say (and don't say), seeing reality in a clear-eyed way, and determining what matters most. For only when we can see and understand the full picture are we able to thoughtfully begin to dismantle the cage and create the conditions necessary for success in education.

A Problem Solving Mindset. Cage-busters with a problem solving mindset don't stop at, "why?", but go one step further by identifying innovative solutions and asking, "why not?". Pushing to this next level of thinking is essential because understanding reality doesn't in and of itself change anything. At the end of the day, as Hess highlights, cage-busting leadership requires creative problem solving.

To this end, we need problem solvers from other sectors to bring their mindsets and skillsets to support the important work of instructional leaders. For example, Hess underscores the vital role that smart lawyers can play to support cage-busting efforts by intelligently assessing risks and outlining options to achieve desired outcomes: "What you're looking for is counsel that can assist you when things get rough. You need someone aggressive, wily, and intrepid, who can help figure out what's possible and what's not."

At Education Pioneers, we don't believe that any one industry has a lock on the answer, or that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. That's why we attract, prepare, and advance leaders from law, policy, business, and education, as well as cross-sector and hybrid leaders. (In Wednesday's blog, EP alumna Shannah VarĂ³n will talk about finding her "people" in Education Pioneers' diverse cohorts.) Combining diverse, multidisciplinary perspectives is powerful because it introduces unique lenses to accelerate cage-busting.

Courageous, curious, problem solving leaders in education are advancing our nation's most challenging and important work. Large-scale success in this effort requires a team effort with cage-busting leaders at every level of the sector working together on behalf of the students we serve.

- Scott Morgan

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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