School Leadership Might Be Like Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road
School leadership is HARD. In my work with school and district leaders, I see that
every day. They face unprecedented challenges and threats to education, many of which could not have been anticipated just a few short years ago. While there is not a single right way to lead a school, I do know it can not be done without a mix of both courage and vision. Recently, I read an Ed Week piece by Joshua Starr, The Best Leaders Know When to Go Fast and When to Go Slow where he discussed the idea of balancing the planning for the unknown with the ability to take immediate action. He shared his philosophy of “slowing down the inquiry to speed up the action” and I wonder just how many of us have built a habit of doing just that. When we get busy and unexpected emergencies fall in our lap, it has been my experience that two things get pushed to the side: Planning and Reflection.
When the concept of “planning” comes to mind, I doubt the first word that would come to many peoples’ mind would be courageous but for a leader, I would argue that planning for change takes a great deal of courage, as well as a vision to see things differently.
One of my favorite stories of courageous and visionary planning comes from outside of education. Every September in Sweden they recognize what they call “H-Day” or Hogertrafikomlaggningen Day which means “the right-hand traffic diversion.” It happened in September of 1967. After more than a decade of planning and discussion, the country decided it was time to switch to driving on the right side of the road (as we do in America) from the traditional left side of the road. The decision was made by the government in 1963 after years of debate and overwhelming opposition from the people of the country. This is the part that catches my attention. We might chuckle at the idea of everyone suddenly driving on the opposite side of the road from what they are used to and imagine all the possible disasters. It might be both humorous and could also go incredibly wrong. I encourage you to reflect for a moment on the courage it takes as a leader to make a decision or implement a change that defies the wishes of most of the people involved. That is exactly what the government of Sweden did.
Why do it then? It was a change many opposed and it wasn’t necessarily needed (although there were several safety issues) and it was going to be quite expensive. Despite the odds against them, the leaders pushed forward with the decision they were convinced was best for the country. In the end, they formulated a very calculated plan, that included thousands of road signs, traffic lights, and road paint that all had to be changed on the one identified day. The entire country shut down on H-Day and all the work was completed. The chaos and accidents many predicted didn’t happen. There were very few accidents and no head-on collisions! Drivers had been training for weeks and they were focused. The safety results dramatically improved, and Swedish consumers had access to more cars from around the world as well as alignment to the countries nearest its borders. It ultimately was a huge success.
How does H-Day compare to school leadership? For me, it has to do with leaders becoming courageous visionaries. Our traditional way of schooling, especially coming out of Covid-19, is being threatened with becoming obsolete or at the very least facing heavy competition from other entities. Dr. Wallace Ting discusses some of these disruptions in a recent article, Pandemic Exodus: Where have public school students gone? In it he chronicles some of the reasons why public school attendance has still not reached pre-pandemic levels. This is a concerning trend and it will not course correct without courageous and visionary leadership by educators at all levels. The leaders of the H-Day movement had a vision for improvement and pushed to do something that would enhance their country, even if it meant pushing people out of their comfort zones. That is vision.
In addition to courageous planning, intentional reflective time is essential to “big-picture” success. A leader must be able to honestly assess their current reality and analyze the root cause of the decisions and actions that created the results they observed.
What outdated practices or sacred cows are we holding on to because it is too much work to push forward and make a bold change? What if Sweden had never had an H-Day? It wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Sweden would have remained a great place to live and visit. However, maybe people are safer now, and maybe that alone was worth all the work. As an educational leader, you have the choice to play it safe. Safe can be good and make people happy. But this story is not just about which side of the road you may drive on. No, it is about having the vision to make things better through planning, and the courage to do something different! This is a lesson to remember. When you believe in something and have the persistence to plan for it, there may still be detractors. But the change will be much likelier to meet your goals and not a head-on collision.
Things to Consider:
Instructional Leadership: Is there a big initiative or idea that has the potential to dramatically improve the learning in your school you believe will work, but it will challenge some staff beliefs? What are the pros/cons?
Servant Leadership: Could you identify one of the “sacred cows” on your campus and its biggest advocate? Have a conversation with that person and honor their back story. The investment in time may pay dividends down the road.
What Am I Learning? Reach out to a colleague or mentor and ask them about a change initiative they implemented and what they thought went well and what they might have changed.
Tell Your Story: At least two days this week, park in a different spot and walk into your building from a different entrance. What do the “other” doors tell someone about your school? What did you see and learn?
Reflections/Celebrations: Do you have a teacher on your campus who needs to be recognized or celebrated for trying something new?