The Principal as an Innovative Leader 

In March we celebrated Women’s History Month, which gave us the backdrop and motivation to do a bit of research regarding women innovators from four very different industries but who any school principal should know about as a leader. There is no substitute for effective leadership and taking the time to read and learn from diverse people from all industries helps to expand a school principals’ ability to view complex issues through a broad yet critical lens.

We’ve discovered that schools often fail to innovate and employ a number of diverse practices from inclusion to blended learning because of the organization’s culture and not the people. In fact, it’s misleading, and somewhat of a leadership cop-out, to believe that the teachers and the staff in the organization are the ones thwarting or blocking new ideas. 

There’s only one person in an organization who can truly squash innovative thinking, and that one person is the leader. It’s only the principal, the chief officer, the managing supervisor, or anyone directly in charge of a group of people who can actually suppress innovation. 

We are not suggesting that there aren’t what we call roadblocks of resistance, but the leader is responsible for developing a culture where innovation is core value. Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed how one department within a school can be cranking out new ideas all the time, working right alongside another department that is stifled and cannot make any forward progress. As John Maxwell says, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” 

The good news is that great leaders know how to create a culture where teams are working together, thinking together, and innovating together.

Two Elements of Leadership Success 

Tony Robbins, a success expert, once said that the only two things that matter in business are 1. Marketing, and 2. Innovation. He draws this conclusion for two reasons: 1. Regardless of how great the product or idea is, if you can’t market well and sell, it’s worthless. And, 2. Sometimes an innovation is so creative and so inspiring that it doesn’t really need marketing to sell. The product itself is so desired by the market that it moves all on its own. 

Although we are writing about school leadership, there are distinct parallels when developing a culture of success in any school. Any school leader must know how to effectively market ideas, changing priorities, new programs, and so on. They have to be able to communicate to many different stakeholders for successful implementation of any new change. On the other hand, effective leaders also need to move forward with innovative ideas that may put pressure in the system but that are fundamentally necessary to change processes and practices in a positive way.  

The challenge is harnessing both–effective marketing and quick innovation–for maximum impact. This requires a style of thinking that great leaders innately possess and that principals can use in schools. Most leaders want this type of innovative thinking to permeate the organization and to spur change, but we know that it takes deliberate practice. At TheSchoolHouse302, we’ve uncovered four powerful strategies that any principal can use to create a school culture that is grounded in innovation.  

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4 Strategies to Drive Innovative Thinking in Schools: 

Strategy #1: Value New Ideas Over the Status-Quo

According to Megan Tull, “Risk taking is an increasingly critical element of leadership and essential for a leader’s effectiveness.” The schools and districts that capture our attention for innovation, such as High Tech High, didn’t become successful by playing it safe. To create system-wide organizational success, calculated risks must be taken and rewarded. Principals can’t expect teachers to try new tools or instructional strategies if they work in an evaluation-driven environment. There must be room for failure.  

The play-it-safe mentality in workers will always win-out over risk-taking when mistakes are seen as a performance problem. Risk-taking, of course, cannot become reckless, but the value of teamwork and employing great people has to be placed on idea-generation and trying something new. The culture has to be grounded in earning and exploring, not the status quo. This means that leaders have to place extreme value on a continual flow of ideas so that thinking is new and not stagnant. Complacency is the death of progress. 

So that principals can see this by example, we can’t think of a greater innovative leader for valuing ideas than Sarah Blakely.  

Sarah Blakely is Our First Innovator Spotlight: 

Sarah Blakely’s success and innovative thinking is downright jaw dropping. Why? She listened to herself, solved a problem, and then pursued her invention. Spanx was born. 

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

We are constantly running into issues and obstacles in education. Rather than just tolerating them, like a pebble in our shoe, work to identify the issue and then solve the problem. Don’t jump to the solution without first analyzing the core of the issue. 

Strategy #2: Inspire Creativity by Creating Challenges 

In his book, Pure Genius, Don Wettrick outlines the fact that innovation is cultural and schools, classrooms, and organizations can all spark innovation through teaching the foundation of innovative thinking. It’s important for organizations to explicitly inspire people to take risks, to collaborate for synergy, to connect so that ideas are curated and then synthesized, to engage in a creative process that isn’t linear, and to always reflect on both the product and the journey in getting to it. Creativity is not a congenital trait but rather something that can be inculcated by culture and expectation. 

In a culture of innovation, the leader goes first and then expects others to innovate as well. Going beyond the status quo is not only the expectation, but sticking with old practices, especially when they’ve been recognized as ineffective, is met with disapproval. 

For our second spotlight innovator, we feature Jane Chen. 

Jane Chen is Our Second Innovator Spotlight: 

Jane Chen, a co-founder of Embrace Innovations, set lofty goals aimed at improving the quality of life for those in the developing world. The tagline says it all, healthtech with a heart. Their genius was born from a classroom challenge and evolved into an incredible purpose designed to help premature babies have a chance at life. 

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

As detailed on their site, in one of their Stanford classes, they were “challenged to come up with an incubator that costs less than 1% the cost of a traditional incubator.” We want to recognize and honor the tremendous research and hard work this must have taken to discover and create, but we also want to direct principals towards the purity in that the team was explicitly charged with solving a problem. That works in schools as well. 

Strategy #3: Always Start with WHY 

As Simon Sinek explains in his book, Start with Why, great leaders know that inspiration comes from purpose, not from the product or process. The bottom line nature of profitability, following specific processes, and top-down management practices are just some of the reasons that contribute to an innovation void. These are put in place for a reason but also need to be challenged by going back to our purpose, choosing impact over compliance. 

When organizations have a clear set of communicated core values that drive shared decision-making, it allows for innovation to ensue because people are focused on the importance of the work and the mission at hand. This means that organizational culture has thinking and acting at its core rather than just following policies and gathering data. Great schools identify clear core values that serve as the filter for decision-making.

Our third spotlight is Grace Colon of Incarda Therapeutics. 

Grace E. Colon is Our Third Innovator Spotlight: 

Grace E. Colon is the CEO of Incarda Therapeutics. Dr. Colon earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT. One main reason for highlighting Incarda is their purpose: Committed to developing transformative therapies for cardiac conditions. Talk about a clear WHY.

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

One thing that Incarda preaches as an organization is that their team members complement one another, demonstrating the power in hiring for innovation and other values. At TheSchoolHouse302, we often argue that filling vacancies goes well beyond the position itself. In education we are not looking for someone who can teach a subject but rather the right people to fully live out our core values. Read more by checking out our newest book

Strategy #4: Allow Innovation to be Incremental

Going back a couple years ago, we interviewed @dougtimm34, an elementary principal who values innovation and leadership and who believes in what he calls “incremental innovation.” Innovation doesn’t have to be a massive change. It can be iterative. Doug explained that innovative thinking doesn’t have to be about introducing something brand new but rather allowing yourself to have a process of revision where the end product is new and creative as a result of the effort to refine ideas over time. 

The refinement process includes feedback from others and is used in top creative organizations like Pixar and Disney Animation where everything from the storyline to the characters of a film go under extensive review by teams of people before accepting a new product for development. Tiny tweaks are always at the core of great change. 

For principals to understand this in action, we introduce our fourth spotlight, Lynn Le. 

Lynn Le is Our Fourth Innovator Spotlight: 

Lynn Le is the founder of Society Nine, which centers on boxing and sports apparel for female users. The company champions the uniqueness of women and the original product-line offered women’s boxing gloves that were really non-existent before they brought them to market. This demonstrates the effectiveness in taking something that exists and putting a completely new spin on it. 

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

Pay keen attention to how and why things are changing. Always work to ensure that you are representing all students. Boxing gloves have been around for over a century but were designed for men. As the boxing and mixed martial arts world evolved, with more and more women competing, the equipment and structures that support it must also change. Think about this in terms of curriculum, school calendars, grading, and other aspects of schooling that haven’t undergone enough scrutiny and change. 

We challenge principals to use these four strategies in your school so that you can create a culture of innovation where new ideas are paramount to the fabric of what you expect as a contribution from everyone on your team. These strategies are complex by the nature of doing business with people but they are not complicated. Any school principal can put them into place with thoughtful consideration and focus. 

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at theschoolhouse302.com to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCloud. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 

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