Our most recent adventure began with an invitation and morphed into a book. Along the way, as we spoke to hundreds of educators and administrators and entrepreneurs and students, we had some powerful “ah ha” moments about leadership, and we believe that they cut across the work of all types of leaders in these digitally inflected days, from education leaders to business leaders to athletic coaches to students running clubs.
A little over four years ago, we were working at an institution that had been selected as the Spotlight School at an educational technology conference in Memphis. Being part of the leadership team at the school, we were handed a dream assignment—present on any tech-related topic that you think is important for school leaders.
We could have spoken about 1:1 deployments, choosing the right LMS, or how to design brain-friendly slides. We could have shared some “cool new apps” or digital writing assignments or presented the case for student portfolios. These are all topics that were in our collective wheelhouse, and as such, all topics that would have allowed us to spend more time feasting on Memphis barbecue and less time actually working on our presentation leading up to the conference.
Instead, because we’re stubbornly committed to learning, we decided to fork our own source code, our own default setting, and create something brand new.
We started as we often do—with a question. It wasn’t elegant or grand, because it didn’t have to be. We were exercising an option that all school leaders have available to them but rarely use. We simply stopped and took stock. More specifically, fifteen years into our educational careers, we sat down and asked each other: What’s the most important thing for engaged educational leaders to think about right now?
Head scratching and knee slapping commenced, and after batting a bunch of ideas back and forth, we realized that the most important topic we could speak about—in terms of describing both what we were seeing in education and what we could encourage in others—was leadership. But not just any kind of leadership. We wanted to talk about a form of leadership that seemed fresh and new, or as Pearl Rock Kane wisely put it in an endorsement of our work, we wanted to talk about “a new style of leading with digital intelligence that has been happening without recognition.”
Using “leadership anthropology,” a research term we invented for the occasion, we looked around for leadership behaviors, in digital or non-digital realms, that seemed to inspire others or that helped others organize their work. We looked for those places where learning was actually happening in schools (not where administrators thought it was happening). We looked for where and how teachers and school leaders were learning most actively, most intensely, most vividly. And this search led to our first critical concept.
Leaders of all kinds, whether they lead clubs, athletic teams, divisions, or boards, work in a kind of quicksand. One minute their entire organization is committed to version 1.0 of a platform, digital or otherwise, and the next minute, version 1.0 is being retired because a company pivoted or merged with another or went out of business or something better came along. The best leaders we knew recognized that the leader in these cases is not the one seeking command and control, is not the one grabbing the microphone or mounting resistance. The leader is the one who is learning out loud and in public, tangling with versions by levelling up, by launching experiments in practice, by iterating fearlessly, and by taking others with him/her.
Leaders of today’s organizations, whether schools or firms, don’t try to control learning or corral it in a curriculum; they allow learning to happen rapidly and productively for anyone willing to engage and share.
We gave our talk in Memphis and were quickly invited to deliver a similar version in New Jersey, a lot closer to home. During the car ride down New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, we missed our exit because we were talking so much about what was next for our burgeoning ideas. After we gave our talk, we got back in the car and realized we were still talking, still turning the ideas over, and we knew that we weren’t going to be able to shake ourselves loose from the bug we caught in Memphis.
We agreed to write down our notes and thoughts, and in the middle of that process, decided to move them into a self-financed, self-published book using Apple’s iBooks platform. We drew on recent research on leadership and learning, our experiences as educators, insights from startups and entrepreneurial ventures, and information from education technology experts.
We were living a version of the very concepts we were articulating—leaders iterate, and so, as leader-writers, we iterated our text and our message, we hacked across platforms, we engaged and shared.
To our surprise, our initial book was a hit and won fans. We even earned an endorsement from one of our heroes, Adam M. Grant, who called our text “an innovative, interactive exploration of leadership in the digital age” and said that we “produced something truly original and delightful... a demonstration of how the internet and social media can change the way we lead and learn.” So before putting the project aside, we shared it with a publisher, Wiley Jossey-Bass, who echoed our enthusiasm. We nearly doubled the existing length of the text while rewriting and updating our existing content. We added new sketches from Brad Ovenell-Carter and new images and reflections based on lessons learned while publishing the original version.
Here’s what we chronicled: Effective school leaders see today’s myriad digital distractions—email, websites, apps, tweet—as calls to action and learning opportunities. In Blending Leadership: Six Simple Beliefs for Learning Online and Off, we identified six core beliefs that the blended leader needs to understand in order to succeed in the complex digital world: thought leadership, design, sharing, meetings, mission, and networks.
Below is an snippet from the end of the chapter about thought leadership:
When you listen and respond to thought leaders, especially the digital kind, communication might look messy or sloppy, maybe even confused or crass, but that’s okay. It might unfold in blogs built on free platforms, or in comments (including those lodged in with comments from spammers or trolls) To find one [useful] tweet, you might have had to wade through twenty-five worthless (to you) tweets, fifty worthless tweets, or more. Learning and leading in a blended way means arriving at insights that are not neatly packaged (as if insight could ever arrive that way consistently).
Blended leaders deal with cognitive dissonance and quickly separate digital wheat from chaff. What’s more, they don’t allow themselves to be put off by chaff. They expect it, have names for it, look past it while toggling between being open to possibility and absorptive to value.
Put another way, blended leaders are the ones with their hands on a radio dial, inching through static in order to find the pure melody that will guide their work. The rest of this book is an example of our tuning and retuning the dial to pick up those distant frequencies, the ones we feel are most important for the future of our schools.
Blending Leadership was written for a surface audience of school leaders and a real audience of those who lead the learning at any organization. In general, the book examines and articulates the intersection of organizational leadership, learning, and technology, framing the choices that all leaders have as they attempt to serve the people they lead and their institutions.
Blended leaders are optimistically, relentlessly, and infectiously committed to using online and offline approaches, often in the same workflow or project, to unlock time and talent in their organizations.
If you merely seek and build efficiencies without encouraging people to use the resulting found time to add human capacity to your organization, you are not a blended leader. Likewise, if you allow people to slip back into comfortable routines and defaults, you are not a blended leader. In both cases, our book is for you.
And if, on the other hand, you have organized conversations with people about the apps they use to make their lives better; helped a colleague redesign a student-facing website after helping him empathize with the end users (i.e., the students); helped a colleague refine her email system, and then checked back with her in a few months to make sure she hasn’t slipped back into her old habits; or absorbed the pain—with a smile on your face—of eliminating paper calendars or agendas in favor of cloud based systems that allow for contextual needs and adjustments in the moment, then our book celebrates you. You just might be a blended leader.
Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as the Assistant Head, Upper School, and Director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy and Coordinating Editor of Klingbrief, a publication of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University.
Dr. Reshan Richards (@reshanrichards) is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Math, Science, and Technology department at Teachers College, Columbia University and Chief Learning Officer at Explain Everything, which he co-founded.
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