The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it. --William James
The work of a school leader can be tireless. And to what end? Especially in international contexts, where the lifespan of a school leader at any given school can be so fleeting (Hayden, 2006, p. 103), the need for sustainability in leadership is of paramount importance. How can international school leaders ensure that their long hours of hard work towards school improvement won’t end up dust in the wind at the end of their contracted tenure?
Decentralizing leadership and building a high capacity to lead throughout the school can help to ensure sustainability (Lambert, 2007, p. 312). In a school with high leadership capacity, all stakeholders develop and are responsible in part for leadership, including students, teachers, and parents, information is used to guide inquiry, and institutional growth is guided by a shared vision (Lambert, 2007, p. 313). Removing the ownership of leading the school from a single individual and distributing it across the institution and its systems and processes helps to ensure that initiatives can survive the changes in leadership that are so frequent in international schools.
Clearly defined roles and interdependencies are important to ensure that organizational growth initiatives are maintained over the long term (Adelman & Taylor, 2007, p. 61). Ideally, the distribution of roles and responsibilities should support independence and empower teachers as leaders in the school (Lambert, 2007, p. 315). Leaders may act as organization facilitators who train and empower teacher-led change teams to catalyze and actualize change towards the school’s vision (Adelman & Taylor, 2007, p. 67). Purposeful near- and long-term action towards change goals can also be facilitated through the use of collaborative action planning (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 390). Ensuring that plans and change visions are clearly linked to the school vision and outline progress through series of milestones and intermediate steps can ensure that a sense of need and urgency is maintained beyond the tenure of any one member of a change group (Cawsey et al., p. 408).
Transitioning an organization from a state of low leadership capacity to a sustainable structure of distributed leadership and structured planning is not a simple task: it involves moving through a number of different stages (Lambert, 2007, pg. 315). A forward-thinking board or school head could use the aforementioned action planning tools and practices to create a sustainable leadership development plan to guide the organization through the process of learning and empowerment required to raise leadership capacity throughout the school as an organization. Planning ahead for periods of instructive capacity development and collaborative culture building, transitional periods of dependency breaking and school-wide gap closing, and finally monitoring and system building can allow a school leader to ensure that the school’s leadership structures can become increasingly sustainable past their time in the lead. The possibility of choosing middle and senior leaders based on the stage of development of the organization provides a powerful lever through which to ensure organizational development. A school leader could even get an early start in planning for their transition out of an organization by training future leadership from within or seeking future candidates from outside the organization based on the needs present in the organizational long-term sustainability plan. The leaders truly seeking to create sustainable leadership in their school would resign when their skill-set no longer served to move the school forward through such a plan and invite another to bring it to fruition. In this sense, the mobility inherent in the field of international education could serve to support sustainable leadership and consistent progress rather than hinder it.
Adelman, H.S. & Taylor, L. (2007). Systemic change for school improvement. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(1), 55-77.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [Google Books Edition] (pp. 428-471). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=cU0dCAAAQBAJ&pg=GBS.PT459.w.8.0.4
Hayden, M. (2006). Administrators. In Introduction to International Education: International Schools and their Communities (pp. 93–112). London: SAGE.
Lambert, L. (2007). Lasting leadership: Toward sustainable school improvement. Journal of Educational Change, 8(4), 311–322.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.