Leading with sustainability in mind

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Here’s an interesting question. As an educational leader, if you were to be away from your school for one day, a few days, a week, a month, or longer, how would your school cope?

Perhaps we consider the shorter periods of absence and make plans just before we leave for a conference or other school business, but I am reasonably sure that many leaders do not give too much thought to sustainable leadership, or if we do give it some thought, we do not follow through with specific plans to guarantee sustainable leadership in our schools.

There is plenty of literature about how change efforts fail but I was recently shown an ACSD Educational Leadership article from 2004 by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink that discusses 7 Principles of Sustainable Leadership. This article goes beyond the change the process and looks at the idea of how changes in schools and elements of a school’s culture can endure the test of time and, as opposed to not lasting and falling by the wayside.

The article got me thinking about what has been said in terms of the importance of leaders leaving a legacy, which I feel is deeply connected to the notion of sustainable leadership. As leaders, if we are to leave a legacy in our schools, it must not be about us but it must be about others. Principally, we want to do what is right by students but we have to invest significantly in our staff teams in continuing the work that goes on to improve our schools after we move on.

Hargreaves and Fink point to research conducted in schools in the US and Canada, where changes in schools implemented by leaders fall away, in most cases, once the leader moves on or changes their role within a school or district. Of course, it is important for new leaders to come in an build upon what has gone before but this research suggests that too often change efforts that have gone before are not recognized by new leaders and teachers get frustrated when they are asked yet again to make anther different change or the existing change is abandoned, which can be exhausting especially if there is not much evidence of improvement.

It is, therefore, vital that if we wish for change to stick in our schools and for positive learning cultures that we build to last, we must plan for sustainable leadership. So, what can we do?

It is most important to recognize that all leaders within the school are responsible for sustainable leadership. It is not just the role of the Head of School to ensure that we lead with sustainability in mind. Schools are made up of a large team of staff, with many smaller interdependent teams within it. The practice of sustainable leadership applies to all teams. While it may be the responsibility of a Head of School to facilitate discussions about sustainable leadership with the various leaders in the school, every leader has an obligation to consider and implement sustainable leadership practices that smooth out, as best possible, a continuum of school improvement that does not stutter, or stall, every time a new leader comes into the school at any level.

Secondly, the building of professional capital and ownership of the school’s vision, mission and goals is crucial in that organization knowledge is shared and does not rest with a privileged few. Systems and structures for the sharing of organizational knowledge must be established as part of a school’s culture. The sharing of this knowledge goes beyond the school’s employees and may have certain elements shared with the school community and governing body to secure the longevity of improvement efforts for the benefit of students.

So, what would happen in your school, if you left tomorrow? Would the improvements that you have led and overseen last a week, a month, or longer? Would your successor know what the plan is and how they can share in the already established vision and build upon it to enhance the school for all concerned?

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