8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader

“Why are we okay that management hasn’t seen innovation in a 100 or 50 years, but we demand innovation in every other aspect of our lives?” Jamie Notter

As we continue to look at teachers, students, and learning becoming more “innovative”, it is important that leadership changes.  As administrators often set the tone for their district or their building, if they are saying the same, it is not likely that things are going to change in the classroom.  Leadership needs to not only “think” different, but they need to “act” different.

For leaders to be effective in changing a school or an organization, they need to change themselves first.  It is way too easy to go a leadership conference and get ideas of things that you are going to do with your staff.  What is important is changing your own practice first.  So along the lines of what is happening within “pockets” of classrooms around the world, leaders must embody the characteristics that they seek.  As my good friend Jimmy Casas says, “what we model is what we get.”

So with that being said, here are some of the characteristics that I have seen in some of the most innovative leaders that I have encountered.

  1. Visionary – When I listen to some superintendents, the vision they share is inspiring and you can tell they see a new vision of school.  Yet what is important about these visionary leaders is that they can take this “powerful vision” and break it down to what it looks like in the classroom.  To create a culture of “innovation”, it takes small steps forward towards a greater vision, not a gigantic leap to the top of the summit.  Innovative leaders help people continuously grow with small steps that build both confidence and competence, so they are more willing to become more innovative themselves.
  2. Empathetic – Along the lines of design thinking, new ideas start with understanding the people they are created for.  When I first became a principal, I did not try to mirror the ideas of the principals before me, but I thought, “If I was a teacher in this school, what would I expect of my principal?”  That trickled down to trying to empathize with being a student in the school, and a parent in the community.  For example, as a teacher, I hated meetings that seemed to go nowhere and went too long.  So to respect the time of others, meetings became shorter and we spent more time learning, than we did on things that could have been simply emailed.  Is having a shorter meeting innovative? No.  But trying to put yourself in the place of those that you serve is where innovation begins.
  3. Models Learning – One of the superintendents that I have the great respect for is Chris Kennedy of West Vancouver.  He has shared his ideas that leaders need to be “elbows deep in learning with their schools”, and I think that is imperative to creating new and better ideas.  It is simple to fall into the trap of doing things that have always been done, or simply going with what you know.  This limits everyone.  If we want to do better things for students, we have to become the “guinea pigs” ourselves and immerse ourselves into new learning opportunities.  We rarely create something different until we experience something different.
  4. Open Risk Taker – This building upon the previous point.  The term “risk-taker” has become quite cliche in our work, as leaders often promote it, but rarely model it.  People are less likely to take risks in doing something different unless they see those above them in the hierarchical structure do the same thing.  If leaders want people to try new things, they have to openly show, that they are willing to do the same.
  5. Networked – Networks are imperative to growth and innovation.  It is easy to think you are doing something amazing when you are not looking beyond the walls of your school.  Great leaders have always created networks, but now this is not limited to face-to-face interactions.  It is also not as limited for those who live in rural areas.  Anyone willing to connect is now able to connect. It is simply a choice.  We can no longer be limited to the ideas in our own school. We need to connect with others outside and choose what works for our organization and remix it to be applicable.
  6. Observant – Great ideas often spark other great ideas.  Things like “Genius Hour” and “Innovation Week”, that have become synonymous with school, were probably sparked by seeing things outside of schools and modifying them to meet the needs of kids.  The power of the Internet is that we have access to so much information, not only from schools, but from outside organizations.  Although a business solution might not necessarily work “as is” for a school, if we learn to connect ideas and reshape them, it could become something pretty amazing.  What I am hoping to see one day is that although we can take great ideas from outside companies like Google, our practices in schools will become so innovative that people will look at borrowing from education.
  7. Team Builder – The least innovative organizations often seem to surround themselves with like-minded people.  Innovation often comes from conflict and disagreement, not in an adversarial way, but in a way that promotes divergent thinking. The idea is not to go with the idea of one person over another, but to actually create a better idea that is often in the middle of the two ideas shared.  If a leader is going to be innovative, surrounding yourself with people that mirror your personality is not the way to get there.
  8. Always Focused on Relationships – Innovation has become such a huge focus of schools, they we often forget that it is ultimately a human endeavour.  I don’t see a smartphone as something that is innovative, but it’s the thinking behind creating a smartphone where the innovation happens.  It is easy to lock yourself in an office, connect with people on Twitter, and appear from your room with some great idea or new thing.  The problem is that if you are want to become an “innovative leader” it is not only about you creating new and better ideas, but your staff.  If you have lost focus on the people in the building, new ideas might appear, but they might not be embraced.  Spending time with people and building solid relationships with them often leads to them going miles beyond what is expected and move away from “what has always been done”.  When people know they are valued and safe in trying new things, they are more likely to do something better.  This is at the core of an innovative school.

Ultimately, an innovative leader should try to create new ideas, but it is more important that they create a culture of innovation.  We often talk about empowering people and then getting out of their way, but what is often missed in the process is removing some of those barriers that they will encounter along the way.  This why it is so important to spend time in the classrooms, see what teaching and learning looks like, and then help to create a better tomorrow for our students and educators.  Again though, at the heart of innovation is people, not stuff.  If we always keep that at the forefront of our work, we are more likely to create an innovative culture.

2 Comments

  1. Tim Moynihan said:

    Thank you for this post, George, and for your thoughts about the characteristics of innovative leaders. I completely agree that successfully fostering a culture of innovation is an essential characteristic of contemporary school leadership. What we model is what we get, and connecting with other forward-thinking leaders is what helps us make sure we are modeling the right stuff.

    December 18, 2014
    Reply

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