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New Ideas for Developing Great Leaders in Education

What makes a great leader in the education system today? It’s a question that I’ve considered at different points in my career -- as a consultant at FSG, certainly, but also as an Education Pioneers fellow with Citizen Schools, as an MBA student, as an Americorps member working at Summerbridge (now the Breakthrough Collaborative), possibly even as a public high school student in suburban Chicago.  The answer has been different at each point. Recently, I’ve been thinking about a few new experiences that lead me to revisit the question.

The Individual and The System

We recently completed an engagement with the National Equity Project (NEP), a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, that develops equity leaders in education so that they can transform results for low-income children and children of color.  With more than 17 years of coaching and leadership development experience focused on individuals in the U.S. public education system, the National Equity Project has come to appreciate that it is not enough to challenge racism at the individual level. Rather, the conditions in the system – the structures, processes, and cultures – need to be transformed as well. The NEP adheres to the wisdom that no leader can succeed in sustaining the transformation that is needed in many public school systems without also addressing those conditions.

To walk into a meeting in the NEP’s offices is to live in the world of “burning patience.” As with many leaders who are committed (or crazy in a good way) enough to take on collective impact, NEP’s leaders embrace the enormity of the task at hand – ending racism in our schools – while at the same time honoring the journey that every individual they coach must go through in order to achieve that big goal. Let me tell you, it doesn’t happen overnight. And yet, to hear the stories of both inequity and transformation that their coaches have witnessed, one would never question why the NEP cares to do the work that it does. This is a group with “burning patience,” as well as perhaps a somewhat overly ambitious sense of one’s ability to move mountains (or school districts, as the case may be).

The Future Is All Around Us

At the end of May, I joined my colleagues Ruchi and David at a Social Sector Boot Camp for fellows of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a career development institution focused on the next generation of African American, Hispanic, and Native American talent in the nonprofit, corporate, and entrepreneurial sectors. In front of a room of rising first-year MBAs, we had 2 hours to give them a taste of real life at FSG. Using our recent report Competing by Saving Lives as inspiration, we led our 25 new friends through a case competition. We gave them a little background – a few data points on global health needs, a large pharmaceutical company as a client, and some ideas about shared value, and invited them to “crack the case” in small teams. Ninety minutes later, we had five very strong pitch presentations that communicated the potential business value, social impact, components of a strategy, and a call to action. The competitors gave the judging panel compelling data and inspiring visions; they made us think and laugh. They were self-assured and confident, but not arrogant. Never did I see them sweat.

Later that afternoon, David joined a panel of education and other social sector leaders from Teach for America, the Broad Center, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Goodwill Industries, and Bridgespan to talk about how to build a career in social impact. Moderated by the amazing and inspiring Rafael Lopez of AECF, panelists talked about the very personal motivations that drive them in their work, as well as the poignant challenges they face in their careers – many in education. Panelists shared stories of childhood friends who didn’t graduate from high school, parents and siblings who didn’t understand or couldn’t relate, and mentors who pushed them to be better. Each one gave us a completely authentic view into their life experiences, though to call it a “diversity panel” would be missing the point entirely. This was about identifying and pursuing what is significant and meaningful in one’s life as a job.

Coming out of this boot camp, each MLT fellow likely heard the message that, essentially, their job is to be a hero. Whether their next job will be in a large urban public school district, at a multinational company, or with FSG, they will be pushed to also have transformational impact on the systems that may not have served them or their communities well in the past. To endow them with that wish is a pretty hefty idea. We all hope it will be enough.

So, coming back to the original question: What makes a great leader in the education system? These experiences have left me with some new ideas about what it takes:

  • Believe in the principle of “burning patience.” Hold both the big picture goals and the process to get there in your sights at the same time.
  • Be a little bit crazy and be willing to jump into something you’ve never done before. Big change needs innovation and, at times, a leap of faith. Be unafraid to take calculated risks.
  • Show your confidence and your humility. In order to influence others, you need to present yourself as a leader – and someone worth following.
  • Pursue what is significant and meaningful in your work. Your work will be challenging on many different levels. Ask yourself what will make your struggles “worth it” at the end of the day.
  • Be a hero. Cultivate your “superpowers” so that you can participate in changing the systems that do not work for certain members of our society.

Clearly, there is an overarching theme in these takeaways to be quite bold and maybe a little unreasonable. It may not be my final answer, but until the question gets revisited, I’m feeling energized!

Ellen Martin

Former Associate Director of Partnerships, Shared Value Initiative