By Jamie Frye
Great educational leaders are hard to find. Literally. Not only are elite leaders rare (and vibrant and passionate), they’re also hard to find because they don’t frequently darken the doors of their office during school hours.
Though it may seem contrary, exemplary leaders who affect growth and systemic change in learning do not always prioritize the “shallow work” (e-mails, phone calls, meetings) over, as Cal Newport describes it, “deep work” (2012). Good leaders (like the one who led me to this revelation!) know that the depth of that creative-intensive work is what, ultimately, leads to positive change for students (note: this isn’t to say that checking e-mails or having meetings are bad, but they should take up less time than your creative work).
The best leaders don’t endorse “best” practices. Instead, they encourage limitless attempts to grow “better” practices. Articulating a vision of growth is a skill that is more effectively modeled, not simply taught—and modeling takes time. As my incredible director and mentor has taught me, sometimes people grow more by observing others’ actions than they do by just listening to an explanation of a plan (of course, I’m talking about my own experience).
How better to lead human beings, who were once also students in schools, than by modeling examples and expectations experientially? This is something I call illustrative leadership.
The mission of a leader to ensure a sound, basic education—and to facilitate continuous school and district growth—is more important now than it ever has been. All of the most important visions, initiatives, and incentives—from personalized learning to STEM education—flourish with time. However, to ensure all staff members can promote our visions in classrooms and beyond, we as leaders must be careful to model our leadership with purpose.
Of course, truly illustrative leaders are few and far between, and the passing of the torch from experienced to lesser-experienced leaders doesn’t always involve discussions about how to establish emotional connections with constituents or how to model “better” (not best) practices. In times when leaders are overtly consumed with ensuring the basic survival of their schools and districts due to budget crises, it has become easy to lose sight of the importance of modeling/illustrating the pinnacle of purposeful, intentional leadership. In the words of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, “Leadership is an affair of the heart” (2010).
With this in mind, here are five tips for transforming culture and learning by putting illustrative leadership into action:
- Articulate Your Vision
“The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders…keep in mind that your constituents…want to share in that glimpse of the future.”
—Kouzes and Posner, 2010.
As leaders, our vision is our foundation. If you’ve ever seen Legally Blonde (or studied philosophy), you know that Aristotle wrote in Politics that “the law is reason free from passion.” Sometimes, we become so lost in the enforcement of law and procedure that we forget that it is our primary job to be evangelists of learning.
By combining reason in decision making, passion in action, and modeling in servitude, we create a culture of open-door illustrative leadership. It is one thing to speak of passion for our work, but to be passionate and articulate it with vibrant visibility is unique. Passion without vibrancy is useless—vibrant visionaries are illustrative leaders who can get others on board, guide a shared mission, and produce large-scale results.
- Share Your Creative Process
“[M]odeling requires and therefore teaches many imaginative skills.”
—Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 1999
Perhaps one of the most crucial components of modeling through illustrative leadership is sharing your creative side. Sometimes considered one of the more challenging skills in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ 4Cs, creativity helps great leaders shape learning and culture every day. By sharing our creative process, the steps we take to reach an idea, and how we transform our ideas into long-term plans, we can teach our teachers how to reimagine their own visions for learning.
To learn more about creative ways to illustrate your creative-intensive deep work, I highly encourage you to visit the Sparks of Creativity wiki, collaboratively constructed by Michigan State University instructors and students.
- Become Your Vision
“[Leaders] need to be curious and search for a deeper meaning and understanding of what’s going on around [them].”
—Kouzes and Posner, 2010
One of the most incredible principals I’ve ever had the opportunity to see in action, Julia Styers, transformed the dynamic of an elementary school with her implementation of the Leader in Me program. This visionary woman created a culture that continued well after her departure by modeling her expectations. Each week, she spent three days coaching teachers in their classrooms greeting students as they walked in the building, helping with routine duties, and ensuring that all students were truly learning. Then, she dedicated her two remaining days to shallow work such as e-mails, phone calls, and meetings. This approach clearly illustrates how she prioritized her vision for facilitating an innovative learning environment. By her example, this “lead learner” created a persistent culture of love and learning that empowered teachers and students alike to become “servant” leaders and learners. By being a leader who made time and not excuses, she modeled what dedication to whole child success looks like—and her staff and students followed suit.
- Teach with Your Actions
“. . . when working at their personal best, leaders transform their followers into leaders.”
—Kouzes and Posner, 2010
As a leader, a great way to strike your vision to the ground is not to practice what you preach. If your school is focused on the transition to digital learning, your professional development for staff should use those digital learning tools and mindsets to demonstrate their potential. If you ask a group of teachers to redefine formative assessment, you should begin your professional development meeting with a Kahoot!, for example, to assess their prior knowledge. This illustrates both the value of formative assessment and your expectations of those teachers.
Another method of teaching with your actions involves letting others see you at your weaker points. Allowing your coworkers and constituents to see you in times of stress or uncertainty (to an extent)—and letting them see how you positively react to and handle it—strengthens your constituency and builds their problem-solving skillset.
- Embrace Problems and Solve Them Together
“Love creates the desire to serve others and to see them grow and become their best. . . . People do their best when there is an opportunity to change how things currently stand. . . . [Good leaders] motivate others to exceed their limits and look for innovative ways to improve the organization.”
—Kouzes and Posner, 2010
As an educational leader, I know how easy it is to become a pessimist—especially when the New York Times writes an article called “The Decline of North Carolina” about your state’s “dismantled” educational reputation. This outlook is the bane of illustrative leadership.
However, you may find that your optimism is fueled by sharing your thoughts with new circles in your building that have fresh perspectives. You can unveil the answers to some of your greatest problems if you engage in conversations with people who don’t normally have a seat at “the table.” By having collective and inclusive conversations about your vision with everyone who has a stake, you can show that you value competency over credential—and you’ll learn quickly that the stories your custodians and cafeteria workers share provide valuable insight into your decision-making process. As David Stegall, one of my greatest mentors and inspirations, says, “Everyone deserves a seat at the table”.
And, according to Daniel Willingham in Why Don’t Students Like School?, problem solving is rejuvenating for your staff, too: “When you solve a problem, your brain may reward itself with a small dose of dopamine” (2009). Problem solving is dope!
You don’t have to tattoo the name of your newest initiative on your forehead, but effective illustrative leaders should act in a way that puts their beliefs into practice. Picasso said that “[t]o model an object is to possess it.” Combine this with the notion that perception becomes reality, and it becomes obvious that illustrative leaders who share their vision, model expectations, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
How are you working to practice illustrative leadership?
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2010). The truth about leadership: The no-fads,
heart-of-the-matter facts you need to know. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Root-Bernstein, R., & Root-Bernstein, M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of
the world’s most creative people. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
The Decline of North Carolina. (2013, July 9). New York Times. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from
Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jamie Frye is the instructional technology facilitator and public information officer for Newton-Conover City Schools, a North Carolina school district with the highest graduation rate in state history. Frye enjoys serving North Carolina’s students and teachers on the NCASCD board of directors and the leadership team for #NCed chat, and he is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Connect with him on Twitter @mrjamesfrye.