Local Leaders Still Have Freedom to Act

The 2012-2013 school year has arrived and the need for real leadership at the district and school level has never been greater. The requirements of the Regents Reform Agenda are in place, the financial picture remains cloudy at best, the Governor’s Educational Reform Commission report looms and school communities are anxious. Not surprisingly, many principals and superintendents are feeling tired, reactive and overwhelmed but the fact is that there has never been a more important time to serve as an educational leader. In crisis lies opportunity.


Though federal and state requirements are necessary to spur action, it is the will and skill of local educators that make the crucial difference for children. Though this is largely unrecognized at higher levels, it is critical that local leaders themselves believe this. Success starts with self- perception. Local leaders must see themselves as more than tacticians, implementers of state requirements, functioning as if they were managers of the neighborhood unit of a fast food chain.


To make sense of all the internal and external pressures in school and district communities today requires leaders who have an internal locus of control and know that they have considerable freedom to act. Adaptive strategic leaders—the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain environment—do several things well:



Yogi Berra once said, “If you keep your eyes open, you can see a lot.” It is crucial to have your antenna up (a really old metaphor) at all times. Network widely, look for emerging strategies within education, scan outside your field. If you restrict your attention to the EngageNY website, you’ll miss a lot. Remember that you are your organization’s scout, and it relies on you to let it know what is coming from all sides, not just what is immediately ahead.



Ronald Heifetz has counseled leaders to get off the dance floor to get a “balcony view”. Once having acquired emerging data, leaders have to look for patterns. They need to think critically, “out of the box”, reframing issues from a variety of perspectives. Remember that every local context is unique with school organizations varying in hundreds of ways—which is why local leadership is indispensable.



Will Rogers once commented, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Don’t just wait for instructions from above and don’t succumb to “analysis paralysis”, waiting for the last shred of data to appear before acting. These are turbulent times and call for courage and calculated risk-taking. Though it is dangerous to act prematurely, leaders know that decisiveness matters. “Ready, fire, aim” is a better strategy than “Ready, ready, ready” any day.



Though diagnosis and decision-making are vital, most improvement efforts fail in implementation due to poor execution. It is important to do the right things but it is equally important to do the right things right. This means using your time, attention and communication with great precision and guiding change processes skillfully.


Learn and Adjust

Someone once said that Americans are the only people who, when they find that they are running down the wrong road, run faster. In changing times, the future belongs to the learner. If as a leader, you have committed scarce organizational energy to an initiative, it is crucial to get regular and accurate feedback about implementation and impact. And, if you find that you are running down the wrong road, stop and have the courage to adjust.


My one wish for you this year is that you recognize your leadership and help others with whom you work to do the same. Our kids need you to do that. As we begin the school year, take some time and ask yourself, “ Why did I answer the call to leadership and choose the harder road?” It’s my guess that, after reflection, you will conclude that you actually got your wish.

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