The Attributes Desired of the Head
Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
( This is significant rework of our 2014 article of the same name that addressed the attributes of those principals leading successful digital schools.
Two years on and we have been able to examine the attributes in what are now mature digital organisations – with many of the traits being the same as the ‘CEOs’ of all successful digital organisations.
Tellingly what has become that much clearer is that many of the heads struggling – or not wanting – to lead a digital school lack many of the attributes to lead a good school – full stop.)
Not only is the role of principal critical to the digital evolution of schools but so too is having principals with the ability to successfully lead an ever evolving digitally based socially networked school.
Not just any head can play that role.
Rather it is requires principals with particular attributes.
In the same way the operations of a paper and digitally based school differ significantly so too do many of the attributes required of the principal.
The last decade plus has witnessed the emergence globally of a cadre of principals who have of their own volition been able to build upon their considerable leadership skills and grow the attributes required to successfully lead these very different organisations.
Equally it has also revealed that the vast majority of the existing heads have not as yet demonstrated the ability to do so.
In a digital and socially networked society clients can rightly expect every school to be digitally based, and well positioned to continually meet the rising digital expectations.
Australia has in the region of 10,000 schools. For each to become digital – to become a mature digital organisation (Kane, et.al, 2016) – it invariably requires a principal – indeed a succession of principals – willing and able to lead the digital evolution of the school.
The same equation holds in every nation.
The critical question every government, education employer, every school board and council must address is how does it find or grow those principals and thus ensure the continued viability of its school/s? How does it both ready that very sizeable proportion of existing heads that have thus far been unable or unwilling to lead a digital school, and grow the future generation of principals?
Part of the answer lies in better understanding the attributes desired of the heads of digital schools.
With a digital and socially networked school community one is very much looking at a new and distinct higher order environment, requiring of the leader a particular skill and mindset, that will blend the time honoured attributes with those particular to leading a digital school.
One should not assume – as do likely many employers and unions – that the heads of traditional paper based schools, with their current skill and mindset, can lead and grow a mature digitally based school ecosystem. The vast majority of those transferred will fail unless they appreciate they have to adopt a skill and in particular a mindset compatible with the new environment. Without that change they will likely destroy years of astute and concerted organisational growth and take the school developmentally backwards. Such an appointment would be unfair to both the individual heads and the school and its community, and professionally and economically irresponsible.
The distinct nature and challenge of leading a digital school needs to be recognised and every effort made to ready and select appropriate heads.
Ever evolving schools operating on a digital base, experiencing significant natural evolutionary growth that has to be constantly shaped to realise the desired benefits, requires the school principal be the conductor of an increasingly sophisticated, ever-larger quality ‘orchestra’. In addition to the professional players there will be a sizeable parent, student and community membership, with all the ‘players’ expected to continually lift their contribution to the workings, growth and evolution of the school’s desired ecosystem.
It requires the principal as the conductor to understand the total score, the finer nuances therein, to have a mindset where anything is possible, and the skills to continually challenge a highly capable group, to manage them, and assist them grow. It requires the principal, the head teacher, to have a macro understanding of the desired totality and all the school’s increasingly complex workings, a strong educational base, an intimate awareness of all the key school operations and its digital ecosystem and the people skills to manage an empowered school community. The critical word here is ’empowered’ for though the principal needs to understand the desired totality, they will not control and develop it but will trust others to do so.
The contrast with the traditional relatively simple silo like operation where the principal often has limited understanding of the work of the siloes is pronounced. The understanding of the totality is necessary because activities in different areas of the school interact in new ways.
In employing the metaphor of the chief conductor it most assuredly does not mean the principal needs to be the sole conductor or to have the ability to play every instrument. Like all good orchestras the school needs very capable deputies able to take the baton when required, but both the principal and deputies need understand the many variables impacting the success of the school’s desired ecosystem.
It requires the empowerment of the total ‘orchestra’ and the constant monitoring of the part that all members of the ensemble are playing.
Attributes of principal operating in digital and networked mode
Many, possibly most of the attributes required to undertake this kind of whole school conducting are those that have been enunciated in the school leadership and literature for decades and are evidenced daily in the performance of transformational principals. Attributes like a strong educational philosophy, the willingness to lead, the facility to articulate the desired vision, high level communication skills, an in-depth understanding of the instructional program, strong people and management skills, the setting of high expectations, political acumen, attention to detail and the capacity to manage the school’s finite resources are as important as ever.
That point bears underscoring. Indeed one could postulate that many of the heads struggling to lead digital schools are those lacking many of the aforementioned skills.
There is no need to reiterate them, but it is important to single out those that in a digital and networked operational mode assume greater importance, and those new to the set.
Many have already been addressed in separate articles but one needs to view them within the wider schema, understanding that all are closely connected and at times are near impossible to uncouple.
Tellingly many of the new attributes desired of the head of a mature digital organisation are antithetical to those exhibited by many principals in traditional insular highly hierarchical paper based schools.
Before moving to the analysis of the attributes special mention needs to be made of the principal’s ability to communicate, and the related capacity to ensure there is excellent on-going communication between all parts of the empowered socially networked school community Communication is as always critical. The point remains the principal has to constantly to communicate the expectations, to articulate the narrative and to create an environment where an empowered community can readily communicate. While not explicitly stated virtually all of the following attributes include a strong communication component.
- Digital and networked mindset
What sets the digital leaders apart from the traditional – in the same way as it does with the digital and analogue leaders in business – is the leader’s shaping mindset.
The principal must adopt have a digital and networked mindset (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 28).
Bhaduri and Fischer (2015) in the Forbes business magazine asked, ‘Are You an Analogue or Digital Leader’? The succinct comparison of attributes they provided (http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfischer/2015/03/19/are-you-an-analog-or-digital-leader/) to help business leaders answer the question holds equally of school leaders.
The attributes bear close scrutiny.
While for convenience they provided a black and white comparison the reality is that the shift in thinking from the analogue to digital perspective occurs over time, with the digital evolution and transformation of the organisation. It is quite possible for the school leader to learn and develop the digital ecosystem skills as that ecosystem develops, provided they have the mindset to do so.
The principal of a rapidly evolving digital school working increasingly in the new frontier must be both visionary and a leader, able to assist envision the desired totality, to articulate the shaping school and digital vision and to lead an empowered school community in its quest to provide apt schooling for each child in a rapidly evolving digital and socially networked society.
Without labouring the point, principals as the chief conductors have to take charge (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 12) of all facets of the school’s evolution and growth and ensure they are shaped as desired.
They have to lead – and not simply manage – the school’s digital evolutionary journey, neither waiting for the ‘system’ to give the green light or delegating the responsibility to other staff. This leadership it must be stressed is not leadership of technology developments but leadership of how human activities and interactions will become more effective for learning through the impacts that technology enables
They will at times, after all the listening and consultation have to make the hard final decision.
The ‘CEO’ of the digital school needs to be an instructional leader, an educator with the deep educational understanding required to take ultimate responsibility for growing an increasingly effective and productive digitally based school ecosystem (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 18).
While that instructional leadership has long been important it becomes increasingly so when the school moves to a digital operational paradigm, socially networks, integrates its operations, dismantles the old siloes, lowers the school walls, empowers all the teachers of the young and adopts a 24/7/365 mode of schooling.
It is critical to have a principal who understands what is entailed in educating the young 24/7/365 in a socially networked society and who can play a lead role in providing an apt education for each child. The focus has to be on enabling and stimulating learning to happen beyond class time and the school walls, with class teaching increasingly designed to complement this as the pupils’ independent learning develops
The rapidly evolving uncertain nature of the schooling makes it very difficult to envision a school administrator with little or no educational training or experience leading the digital evolution and transformation of the school.
- Focus on the totality: not the parts
Allied is the importance of having a head focussed first and foremost on shaping the desired totality (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 17), on creating a tightly integrated ecosystem, that increasingly merges the in and out of school learning, teaching and resourcing and which ideally enhances the learning of each child.
The corollary is that the digital school does not want a head whose focus is on tinkering with the existing parts, believing by so doing she/he is improving the totality.
- Strong shaping educational and digital vision
More than ever it is imperative to have a head who fully comprehends what is entailed with the school’s shaping educational and digital visions, who can see the big picture, who has a strong understanding of the macro workings of schools and is able to both articulate and assist the school’s community realise the vision (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 5).
While the shaping vision has always been important when schools go digital, socially network, become increasingly ‘virtual organisations’ and lessen their dependence on the physical school site it becomes central to every school operation.
Schools require heads able to ‘ensure’ all the operations within the ecosystem are focused on realising that vision.
- Organisational integrator
It obliges the principal to be the one who ultimately ensures that all the elements in the evolving ecosystem are integrated and vitally are directed at realising the desired education.
Principals do have to know the total orchestral score; the finer nuances therein and constantly address the desired totality. It is a huge and growing expectation. Mention has been made in this collection of articles of some sixty plus key variables to be addressed, largely simultaneously in successfully shaping the desired ecosystem. As the ecosystem evolves, matures and moves to a higher plane so that number will grow.
Digital congruence is the crux (Kane, et.al, 2016, p3).
The principal needs moreover to quickly decide – often on the fly – if a proposed addition to the school’s operations is consonant with the school’s shaping vision and can be readily integrated into its ecosystem.
Yes all the empowered school community need to support that work but ultimately it has to be the head, the principal who ultimately ensures the desired integration occurs.
The principal of a digital school – as Lee and Gaffney articulated in 2008 (Lee and Gaffney, 2008) – must have a high level of digital acumen.
As the chief architect of a digitally based organization, where every facet of the operation, in and outside the school will be increasingly reliant upon and impacted by the many digital technologies it is imperative the lead designer understands the technologies with regard to how they might best be applied educationally and administratively.
They have to be able to play a lead role in shaping an apt digital ecosystem for the school.
But they don’t have to be digital experts. They should have normalised the balanced use of the digital in their daily work, be able to interrogate the data and have a macro understanding of the technology and its application – to the level where they can assist shape the school’s digital vision and not be ‘conned’ by the latest iteration of digital sales people, external or internal.
On first glance all this might seem blindingly obvious but in Australia at least that is still not evident in the literature or national standards for school principals. Digital acumen of any type is not mentioned in those standards.
Principals who delegate the technology to a middle manager are in reality abrogating their role as the school’s chief conductor and any hope the school has of going digital.
Tellingly every one of the successful pathfinder schools studied over the last decade plus was lead by a principal with that digital acumen (Lee and Boyle, 2003), (Lee and Gaffney, 2008), (Lee and Winzenried, 2009), (Lee and Finger, 2010), (Lee and Levins, 2012), (Lee and Ward, 2013), (Lee and Broadie, 2013) (Lee and Levins, 2016) (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 12).
- Ability to understand and ride the megatrends
Linked with the digital acumen is the importance of the head being able to read the swelling societal and technological megatrends, to know when to catch those waves, how to ride them and get the most from them and vitally when to get off and catch the next.
Interestingly while it is undoubtedly a talent many a school principal has had for some time it is an attribute until recent times that was rarely mentioned in the educational leadership literature, shaped as it has so often been by the sense of constancy and school insularity.
The societal and technological megatrends allied with the wider continued evolution of society have had a profound impact on the transformation of schools and are on track to have an ever-greater influence.
Principals need not only to have the personal wherewithal to thrive in a world of constant change and natural evolution but also to assist create throughout the school and its community a culture of change, where the staff can thrive on the seeming chaos and rapid organisational evolution and transformation (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 10).
Tom Peters identified this necessity for business back in 1987 in his Thriving on Chaos. Thirty years on and the message is finally understood by the principals of the pathfinder schools.
All have evolved a ‘start up’ like organisational culture, where anything is possible, where risk taking is encouraged and the professionals are supported in their quest to take advantage of the teaching and learning opportunities opened by increasingly sophisticated digital ecosystems.
The contrast with those traditional schools where the principal is so often risk adverse and focussed on micro managing the status quo is pronounced.
- Client focus and school viability
Digital schools – like their counterparts in business – wanting to remain viable very much require principals focussed on continually meeting, if not exceeding their clients needs and rising expectations (Lee and Broadie, 2016, 29). One is looking at heads who are willing to network, to listen, to refine, to mine the data, to research the trends in the quest to provide the best possible education for their clients in a digital and socially networked society.
Once again the contrast with the mindset of traditional head is pronounced, with few having anytime for the concept of clients. Many firmly believe society through its schools is providing a public service, where only the educational experts know what is required and that the parents and students – the clients – should simply accept their expertise.
In a market driven digital economy schools led by that mindset have a limited life span, with the clients very likely taking their custom elsewhere.
In a rapidly evolving complex adaptive system where the scene and the processes used are changing at pace it is vital to have a head focussed on the children’s learning, rather than as now on the teaching.
By placing the learners at the centre, and giving each greater agency for their own learning the school positions itself to readily adjust its teaching strategy to best meet the changing circumstances.
One is looking at principals comfortable to distribute the control of the learning, teaching and resourcing amongst an empowered school community and actively collaborate with all within that community to improve their contribution.
One is seeking heads with moderate needs who recognise and respect the contribution of all the teachers of the young, often from birth onwards and who are willing to trust, empower and genuinely collaborate with those teachers in the 24/7/365 schooling of the young.
The leadership comes primarily from the principal’s expertise and leadership, and not as now far too often from the principal’s position,
The last person a digital and socially networked school community needs to lead its digital evolution is an autocratic head who insists on the school – and in particular the head – retain unilateral control of all school operations.
Increasingly the school will require principals with the people skills to continually get the best from the many hundreds of people in an empowered school community.
In moving from a strongly hierarchical mode of schooling unilaterally controlled by the head to an empowered school community where leaders at all levels are encouraged to contribute to the school’s workings and growth the leader has to astutely manage those human resources.
It is a potentially huge but vital new task the principal needs oversee.
Part of that management entails controlling the school’s pace of the evolution, carefully monitoring the load on each staff member, allowing the natural growth to run its course and if needs be to slow the tempo of evolution for a time.
The contrast with many of the traditional paper schools where inertia is often the norm and teachers have to be energised is dramatic.
The pathfinders comment on the very real issue of slowing down highly committed teachers and parents anxious to grasp every opportunity for their students, of ensuring senior staff constantly monitor for signs of stress, applying due stress relief measures and when apposite applying the brakes.
While principals have always needed to be good networkers within a digital and socially networked school community, where the school’s work transcends the classroom the ability to network, to understand the workings the social networking and to work its unbridled power astutely in growing the school ecosystem is evermore important.
The organisational change literature (Kanter, et.al, 1992) suggests up to 20% of a leader’s time can be spent directly or indirectly in politicking the desired change.
It could well be appreciably more.
Principals have to posses the art of politicking the digital evolution of the school.
It is a critical attribute that along with the social networking probably will likely never appear in the selection criteria or a duty statement but which is needed if the school is to overcome the myriad of impediments that have to be politicked if the school is to develop in the desired manner.
- Commitment to enhanced educational attainment
The principal needs the drive; some might say the passion, to continually enhance the learning of every student.
It is the belief that anything possible.
It is appreciated this has been to the fore in all good schools for aeons but it appears to be that much more up front in the pathfinder schools, with all openly expressing the desire to continually provide the best possible schooling for each child, and to match that schooling with the best internationally.
One of the many benefits of mature digital organisations is the body of performance data generated in their everyday workings. The head requires the demonstrated wherewithal to use that data astutely in enhancing the attainment.
Collectively these attributes when coupled with the apt generic leadership skills go to create a distinct kind of principalship.
As yet they are relatively few in number.
That said, the attributes desired are not dissimilar to those of the CEOs of all mature digital organisations globally.
With a little thought and professionalism they can – as the pathfinder schools have demonstrated – be readily grown in those with strong leadership skills.
Moreover they can be largely readied on the job.
The key is for society – for the clients – to want this kind of principal leading all its schools, and to ensure the schools select the right principals.
- Kane, G.C, Palmer, D, Phillips, A.N, Kiron, D, Buckley, N (2016) Aligning the Organisation for its Digital Future. MIT Sloan Management Review, July 2016, Massachusetts MIT SMR/Deloitte University Press – http://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/aligning-for-digital-future/
- Kanter, R.M., Stein, B.A. and Jick, T.D (1992) The Challenge of Organisational Change NY Free Press
- Lee, M and Gaffney, M eds, (2008) Leading a Digital School Melbourne ACER Press
- Lee, M and Winzenried, A (2009) The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools, Melbourne ACER Press
- Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community, Melbourne ACER Press
- Lee, M and Levins, M (2012) Bring Your Own Technology Melbourne ACER Press
- Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls, Melbourne ACER Press