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Mindsets, Dispositions and Practices of Highly Effective School Leaders

Over the past 10 years I have had an opportunity to study, research, and work with some very high performing schools. During this time, I was able to coach, network, and learn from the amazing leaders of these highly effective schools. Very often we focused our work and conversations around the characteristics of high performing schools. This approach was utilized so we could develop and articulate a simplistic, yet impactful framework by identifying the strategies for creating a highly effective school. Interestingly, during my research on high performing schools, I also discovered that there are several common mindsets, dispositions, and practices of the highly effective school leaders leading these schools.

The major limitations to creating the school we want and making the desired level of impact on student learning are the mindsets, behaviors, and practices of the school’s leaders. First let me define how I am using  the terms mindsets, dispositions, and practices. A mindset is a leader’s set of assumptions, methods, or notations that the person has and which shape many of his/her beliefs and actions. A disposition is a prevailing tendency or mood. It is an individual’s normal behavior, response and reaction to events. One’s disposition may not be his or her "best self" but it is really who that individual is most of the time. Practices are the key strategies or behaviors that leaders execute or display, even if those practices stretch the person out of his or her comfort zone and does not come natural to that person. 


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MINDSETS

The three most important mindsets for successful principals are 1) All students can learn and grow, 2) social capital and teamwork will always outperform individual talent and 3) happiness is a choice. 

All Students Can Learn. This is certainly one of the most important mindsets a school leader can have. Without it, excuses are made, apathy drives the culture, and students lose out. Many people have become familiar with “Growth” vs. “Fixed” mindsets thanks to the work of Carol Dweck. But even before Dweck’s work, there were school leaders who came to work every day on a crusade to close equity and opportunity gaps for all children by believing all students can learn and do rigorous work. Those leaders who have a mindset that all students can learn are relentless in finding ways to connect, support and reach all students.

Teacher Collaboration Over Isolation. School leaders must stop allowing teachers to work in isolation. The smartest person in the room is always the room. The leaders who have developed this mindset that only through teacher collaboration will the school improve, easily make decisions on how they leverage their time, talent, and resources. There are enough case studies and research that show investing in social capital (teamwork and collaboration) will move a school forward faster and farther than focusing on individual teacher quality. 

Happiness & Optimism. Teachers and school leaders can cultivate the mindset that has been empirically proven to fuel greater success and fulfillment. The old paradigm, “If I am good at my job, my students learn at high levels, and I am highly successful, it will bring me happiness,” has now been debunked by more than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience. Applying the research of positive psychology in our schools is more than telling staff to be happy, focus on the positive aspects of your job, and pretend challenges and obstacles do not exist. To embed these practices, we must change our mindsets that have had a negative impact on success and fulfillment. As Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work explains, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change. It is the realization that we can. Happiness and optimism are the precursors to success, not merely the result.”


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DISPOSITIONS

Dispositions are deep in our DNA. Although some dispositions can help us be more successful, there are other dispositions (impulsive, not empathetic, argumentative) that can have a negative impact on your leadership and relationships. Learning how to leverage your positive dispositions and the skills to mitigate your negative dispositions are the skills that great leaders have. With enough practice and coaching, positive dispositions can be developed or refined. Here are five of the dispositions found in many successful school leaders.

Confidence: The first most common disposition is that the most highly effective principals are very confident. Many work hard to balance their egos with humility. Jim Collins once described the most effective leader as a Level 5 Leader. These leaders must be very confident because Collins describes “Level 5 Leaders” as very ambitious for the success of their organization or their cause. Level 5 school leaders are focused on making decisions based on what is best for student learning and to ensure equity within their school. Successful school leaders are not afraid to make decisions on what is best for “student learning,” even if they are often second guessed or criticized like so many of our leaders. One prominent leader stated, “We live in a society obsessed with public opinion, but leadership has never been about being popular.” Highly effective principals have the confidence to lead, despite their critics.

Risk Taker and Decisive: Recently Forbes listed “Decisiveness” as one of the most important characteristics of successful CEOs. Highly effective school leaders are not afraid to make decisions and take risks. In this era of “risk management,” and of schools suffering from “paralyses by analyses,” highly effective leaders learn by doing and are action oriented. This does not mean that they are careless or make decisions haphazardly, but it means they operate from a “Ready, Fire, Aim” perspective. Those who always operate from a “Ready, Aim, Fire” modality usually do not have the confidence to take risks.  Great schools have teachers and leaders who learn by doing, and are not afraid of failure.

Risk Taker and Decisive: Recently Forbes listed “Decisiveness” as one of the most important characteristics of successful CEOs. Highly effective school leaders are not afraid to make decisions and take risks. In this era of “risk management,” and of schools suffering from “paralyses by analyses,” highly effective leaders learn by doing and are action oriented. This does not mean that they are careless or make decisions haphazardly, but it means they operate from a “Ready, Fire, Aim” perspective. Those who always operate from a “Ready, Aim, Fire” modality usually do not have the confidence to take risks.  Great schools have teachers and leaders who learn by doing, and are not afraid of failure.

Sense of Humor: While sense of humor is not as prevalent as the other four dispositions, it certainly was one characteristic that stood out among many of the highly effective leaders. If you are going be leading a school, working with teachers and students, and partnering with parents, a great sense of humor is advantageous. You can ease tensions, deescalate conflict, increase positive interactions with others and reduce stress. Having a sense of humor allows leaders to have a positive impact on others as well as themselves. There is a difference between having a sense of humor and just being funny. A sense of humor is an attitude you adopt where you find humor in even the most challenging circumstances instead of getting upset about everything.

Empathetically Assertive: Highly effective principals know how to balance patience and persistence. They know how to view things from the perspective of others and understand the human challenges associated with change. While understanding the challenges, highly effective leaders are not afraid to move forward, even with only a few early adopters. People resisting change wait for positive leaders to become frustrated, exhausted and give up. While leading change, these principals praise and recognize those moving forward and continue to coach those reluctant to change by building relationships and being empathetic. The leaders who do not display empathy for those that are asked to change behaviors and attitudes, can sabotage their own efforts. The most highly effective principals are empathetically assertive when leading their schools. This disposition is associated with emotional intelligence.

Learner: To effectively lead a learning organization, a school leader must be a learner. In fact, I often state that it is more important to be a “learning leader” rather than an “instructional leader.” Highly effective school leaders keep current in the field by reading journals and books, being active in their professional organizations and/or going to conferences and workshops. They observe data from other high performing schools and are always exploring strategies to help their school get better. But the learning does not stop there. These leaders share and practice what they learn. These leaders know the real learning happens when knowledge is put into practice.


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PRACTICES

While there is certainly a prerequisite of having strong interpersonal skills, constructive mindsets, and positive dispositions to be a successful school leader, these attributes by themselves are not enough. Many education researchers and coaches talk about mindsets, disposition and skill and knowledge. However, we know from years of research that there is a huge knowing and doing gap and those with skills are not always disciplined enough to use their skills on the regular and consistent basis.

Focus & Prioritizing: Great school leaders have the courage to say no, to not get distracted, and to choose simplicity over complexity. In nearly every piece of school improvement literature, the school leader prioritizes his/her time around important goals and objectives. While some people mistake this with just being disciplined, it’s much more. It’s about identifying and communicating with clarity a few high leverage vital behaviors and practices, monitoring those practices, and demonstrating the courage to stop doing most everything else. 

Examining Feedback and Data: Successful school leaders are hungry for school data and for feedback. They make time to sit in data meeting with teachers, put systems in place to monitor student learning and solicit feedback from students, parents and staff. It’s not that there is a scarcity of data currently in our schools; it’s that the right data are not collected, reviewed, and acted on it with intent purpose of making an impact. Highly effective school leaders do not collect data with little relevance, but are always pursuing data that will give the school an edge on being better on what they agreed to prioritize and focus.

Emotional Intelligence: Every interaction a leader has with someone either leaves that person inspired, motivated or demotivated. Every interaction is a moment that matters for the leader and that person. Successful school leaders know this and constantly practice the skill set and behaviors that are required for leading and engaging others. This does not mean that the leader enables staff members not to be engaged, ignores behaviors that sabotage a thriving culture, or fails to have the courageous conversations that move a school forward. What this means is that the leader will always put his/her best effort into treating people with dignity and respect, always make them feel safe and valued, and be attuned to every conversation regardless of the message. Great leaders are always reflective on their interactions with others and review if the desired outcomes of the conversation were achieved.


Conclusion: The role of the school leader is more challenging than ever. As we thrive to promote equity and opportunity for all children, there will always be challenges and possibly setbacks. However, school leaders can thrive in this environment with the right mindsets, disposition and practices.  While you may or may not possess all or any of these dispositions at this moment, they can be developed through coaching and feedback.

About the Author Bobby Moore has spent more than 25 years in education as a teacher, principal and superintendent. As President & CEO of EPIC Impact Education Group, he partners with schools and professional associations across the country to implement high-growth strategies, professional learning for leaders, strategies for creating high performing and positive cultures, as well as keynoting at conferences and school districts. Please contact him at Dr.BobbyMooreed@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @DrBobbyMoore.

Some content for this blog was authored by me as an employee of Battelle for Kids.
© 2017, Battelle for Kids. All Rights Reserved

About the EPIC Impact Education Group EPIC Impact Education Group is a national education organization that partners with and provides strategic counsel to national and state organizations, education organizations and businesses, as well as urban, rural, suburban and community schools to leverage strengths, accelerate growth, and increase efficiencies for maximum impact. Maximum impact may be measured by increased morale, employee engagment, increasing value to members, or accelerated student learning and growth.

Bobby Moore