“Flipped” Leadership

10/21/2016  |  Dr. Scott Springston

Across the country classroom instruction is being “flipped.” Instruction is infused with technology as a tool used by students to individualize their learning. At the core of this flip is the individualization of instruction where the students are able to be a more active participant in their learning rather than a passive recipient. The use of technology allows the teacher to provide instruction and resources not provided in the traditional model driven by a single entity — the teacher. The teacher acts largely alone in responsibility for distribution of instructional decisions. In current school system leadership models superintendents and principals also are alone to follow a distribution model of system leadership. There is a more effective way. System leadership must flip from a distribution leadership model to one that is distributive, focused on creating a continuous improvement culture of the collective.

Role of Leadership

The principal and superintendent are vital to the success in leadership sustainability. Arguably, at no time in our history have there been more pressures working against education reform efforts of school leaders. School administrators are expected to be Superman or Wonder Woman and to produce measurable results in shorter amounts of time. This responsibility is tasked of them to complete within a leadership vacuum. Threats abound that act against their ability to not only identify the change that is needed but to implement processes necessary to evolve the school district into an adaptable organization. A courageous and effective superintendent or principal recognizes this need and develops the organizational capacity to transform their school district. Institutional knowledge and capital cannot rest solely with an individual. Rather, it must be ingrained in the culture of the school district. The average tenure of a superintendent is three years, necessitating the need to shift power from individuals to the organization. There is no greater force acting against the ability of principals’ and superintendents’ abilities to initiate reform measures than change.

The Greatest Barrier is Change

Change is the greatest individual and institutional barrier acting against the ability of individuals and organizations to pivot to meet the rapidly emerging pressures facing school reform in America. Public school systems in America are very entrenched institutions with clearly defined leadership distribution models. In traditional school systems the authority and responsibility for distribution decision-making rests with a few individuals and not the collective — much like typical teacher driven instructional practices. For school systems to be able to address the 21st century changes necessary, they must flip leadership from a distribution leadership model to a distributive leadership culture that connects espoused leadership with enacted leadership.

Distributive Leadership Approach

Traditional distribution leadership approaches focus on confining and defining leadership roles to a few anointed individuals within an organization thus, creating a systemic leadership vacuum. There is a distribution of tasks to individuals much like the traditional non-flipped classroom. This lack of clarity and empowerment throughout the organization acts as an impediment in traditional distribution leadership systems, which tend to focus solely on task assignment and completion. Oftentimes sustainability of reform initiatives break down in this model when there is little to no attention paid on the actual work. 

Leadership structures can and must be flipped from task distribution to a distributive model. Distributive leadership processes establish formal leadership positions, structures and processes for all members of the organization. The process grants authority and not just responsibility to each member of the organization by creating a broad leadership community. This model is rooted in the interconnectivity between individuals, defining roles and articulating the responsibilities of the collective. While the task and results are still part of a distributive leadership model there is equal attention given to the interconnectivity of processes, people and culture within the building or school district. Much like the flipped classroom, teachers and support staff understand the task and their individual roles and responsibilities to achieve the desired results.  The staff is empowered to be active participants in the process.

Leaders Are Not Alone

The good news for superintendents and principals is the fact there are current bodies of research and field applications of the distributive leadership model in place. Work out of the University of Wisconsin’s Leadership for Learning division (www.leadershpforlearning.com) studied the critical role distributive leadership design has on a school or district’s improvement processes. In particular, they identified key areas embedded within successful distributive leadership practices. Their research and field application identified social distribution tasks, situational distribution of leadership, contextually actionable responses, embedded progress monitoring and reflection on engagement impact as critical components of successful distributive leadership models.  Through their research they identified the need to connect all individuals to the leadership decision-making process. The focus is not only on what roles leaders play but also equally as important, on the interactions of all individuals within the system. They developed an online leadership assessment tool. The Comprehensive Assessment of Leadership for Learning (CALL) assesses the perception and impact of existing leadership practices and beliefs at the school building level. This data is invaluable in assessing current practices to then develop improvement plans designed to flip existing leadership structures from distribution to distributive.

Once schools have the CALL data the next question is, “Now what do we do?”  There are strategic partners available to assist in transforming leadership structures and beliefs. WestEd, based in Sacramento, California is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency that works with education and other communities throughout the United States and abroad (www.wested.org). Within WestEd’s Comprehensive School Assistance Program (CSAP) they have identified the need to assist schools with transforming leadership development practices through their School Wide Leadership for learning division. They work as collaboration partners with schools and districts in using the CALL data to flip existing leadership structures to a distributive model. 

The break neck speed of change facing school leaders, combined with high levels of accountability necessitates an all hands on deck. Having clearly understood goals, definition of role responsibilities and most of all, an inclusive leadership development focus, schools will be more efficient and effective in positive changes to student achievement and work force satisfaction. Superintendents and principals can and must flip the leadership models in place to leverage the talents of the collective. The result will be an embedded continuous improvement culture free of isolated leadership and one that will achieve sustainable student achievement growth.

Dr. Springston is the Chief Collaboration Officer with the education consulting firm Strategic Education Collaborators (www.scottspringston.com). 
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