As you all know, the school districts that thrive over the long run in today’s rapidly changing, challenging world are the ones that take command of highly complex, high-stakes “out of the box” change that can’t be handled through traditional operational planning. Such change can relate to educational issues such as a failing school or unacceptably high dropout rate, to leadership issues such as a dysfunctional board-superintendent working relationship, to financial issues such as the need to get a capital construction tax levy passed, and to external relations issues such as a badly frayed working relationship with the county commissioners.
One of the most important lessons I learned early in my career as a public/nonprofit leadership consultant is that at the helm of every organization that succeeds in leading out of the box change is a chief executive officer – the superintendent in a school district – who’s passionately committed to playing — and well prepared to play — what I call the “Innovator-in-Chief” role. Superintendents who excel at the Innovator-in-Chief role first and foremost make accomplishing out of the box change a top-tier chief executive leadership priority. They also bring to the out of the box change game substantial technical planning know-how, strong psychological and political skills, a large dollop of discipline and courage, and the internal stature to lead the change charge.
The superintendent is the only district executive who can wear the Innovator-in-Chief hat for the simple reason that no one else brings to the out of the box change game the formal authority, influence, access to resources, and time required to spearhead an out-of-the-box change effort and to overcome the inevitable inertia and resistance that can sink a change ship early in its voyage. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that out-of-the-box change is just a top-down process or that the superintendent could get the change job done on his or her own. Of course not! Without strong backing from the board, the superintendent couldn’t possibly succeed in the Innovator-in-Chief role. And it’s obvious that the bulk of the nuts-and-bolts work of planning and developing out of the box change initiatives must be done by district administrators and faculty. But the fact remains: Without a committed, capable Innovator-in-Chief sitting in the superintendent’s seat, out of the box change is almost an impossible dream.
One of the most important roles of the superintendent wearing the Innovator-in-Chief hat is to work closely with the board’s planning committee in designing processes for engaging board members in a meaningful fashion in the change planning process. For example, the school board might participate with the superintendent and senior administrators in a daylong planning retreat at the very beginning, at which district values and vision can be re-visited, strategic challenges and opportunities can be identified, and potential change initiatives can be brainstormed.