Sustainable School Leadership: Creating Systems to Outlive our Leadership

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), 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). 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). 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). Ideally, the distribution of roles and responsibilities should support independence and empower teachers as leaders in the school (Lambert, 2007). 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). Purposeful near- and long-term action towards change goals can also be facilitated through the use of collaborative action planning (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016). 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., 2016).

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). 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.

Resistance is Fertile

“Resistance is part of the job of leadership, it’s not an interruption. If you don’t have resistance, you’re probably not leading.”

--Andy Hargreaves

An ongoing challenge that change leaders face is how to deal with inevitable pockets of resistance that threaten to stymie change initiatives and slow progress towards goals. Rather than viewing resistance as a negative, change leaders can find value in an approach that embraces resistance by seeing it as an opportunity to make better sense of change and to sort out what actions are required to achieve it (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016).

Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols (2016) note that truly expert change agents understand that individuals in an organization may have limited capacities and that commitment to change is something that takes effort to build. They describe a number of different approaches that change leaders can take to build and reinforce commitment, all of which involve engaging in sense- and meaning-making with regard to the sought after change, either through emotional calls to action in pursuit of a vision or logical explanations of the underlying strategies and systems (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016). These actions serve to mold perceptions of the change among stakeholders and ensure faculty that efforts are worthwhile and in ultimately in their favor (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016). In addition to drumming up support, reflective action and questioning practice are characteristics of effective school leadership (Davidson, 2013). Resistance can motivate reflection and deeper understanding of the reasons for and ways to achieve change that support its eventual achievement.

In describing sustainable leadership practices, Hargreaves (2007) asserts the value of learning from the past and retaining the parts of past practice that have been proven effective. Change leaders should avoid ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater,’ so to speak, and creatively combine the best of what an organization already is with what it is envisioned to become. Systems that support successful change encourage sharing concerns, mutual accountability, and learning across all levels in the organization (Fullan, 2006; Harris, 2011). Negative reactions to elements of proposed change initiatives can be useful to make change leaders aware of issues they didn’t initially consider, and engaging in discussion early on in the process of development can help to address them (Cawsey et al., 2016).

Change can be a traumatic experience for some and provoke responses similar to grief (Cawsey et al., 2016). Change leaders should exercise patience and focus on problem-solving and addressing resistance as a normal part of the change process and avoid singling out individuals for blame (Cawsey et al., 2016). Approaching change leadership through collaboration and reflection across all levels in the school can help to ensure that what might have been seen as ‘resistance’ can be viewed as useful critical feedback to strengthen planning and encourage deeper reflection on our goals.