4 Lessons on Leadership
Lesson 1: Exceptional Leadership Development Focuses on Real-World “Practice”
Most principals in the United States are self-selected. Most master’s degree programs they graduate from focus on theory—and are disconnected from the real world that principals face.
By contrast, the military grooms its leaders by providing job assignments with the mix of experiences that will prepare them for their next promotion. Likewise, strong businesses do not rely on MBA programs alone to prepare their future leaders. They supplement employees’ book training with increasingly challenging job assignments that provide junior staff members with significant real-world learning experiences and that allow them to grow into their next jobs.
NISL designed the Executive Development Program to address the needs of districts as they strive to improve school leadership and to provide school leaders with opportunities to apply what they learn to real situations in their schools.
Lesson 2: Leaders Belong to a Learning Community
Most school leadership training in the United States occurs in a classroom or seminar format where future leaders gather with a different group of people for each learning experience. But other professions employ a very different approach. In medicine, for example, future doctors function as medical interns under the close supervision and coaching of a doctor. Future military officers complete their training with a group of other future leaders.
The Executive Development Program is organized for this same type of cohort-based training. A group of 20 to 40 school leaders meets regularly every month or two over the course of the program. NISL recommends that these cohorts comprise a mix of experienced and inexperienced leaders, as well as those from struggling and high-performing schools that have ambitions for greatness. This mix creates an environment where participants are comfortable discussing their fears and weaknesses and where participants can learn from one another. The cohorts become a Professional Learning Community and support network for participants during and after the program. Many NISL implementations integrate coaches for intensive, one-on-one support.
Lesson 3: Leadership Development Focuses on a Current Vision of Best Practice
State and federal efforts to bolster standards and accountability place increasing demands on schools and aim to transform the role of the principal. Yet most leadership preparation programs in the United States are obsolete; they have not been updated to reflect new research or changes in the field. It is inconceivable that the medical profession would train doctors based on anything other than the latest and greatest knowledge of best practice. The military meticulously measures the results of its leadership training and incorporates lessons learned into the content and delivery of its training programs. Large corporations created their own training programs when many MBA programs failed to keep current with best practice.
NISL’s $11 million research and development effort resulted in a state-of-the-art training program—one that continues to be updated with new research that reflects current challenges. Today, NISL trains school leaders to become turnaround artists focused on improving student achievement or to take “good” schools to “great,” rather than as mere building managers responsible for delivering a curriculum.
Lesson 4: Great Leadership Programs Incorporate Powerful Learning Methods
Most leadership development programs in the United States rely heavily on outmoded instructional methods such as lectures and readings, while other fields incorporate more interactive techniques and practical lessons. Military trainers pioneered the use of case studies and simulations to provide future leaders with the knowledge and experiences that would be difficult to obtain outside of combat conditions. MBA programs now also frequently use case studies, simulations and group exercises. Meanwhile, the medical internship consists almost entirely of “case studies” involving real patients, under the careful eye of an expert.
The Executive Development Program and Leadership Institutes incorporate these kinds of best practices in adult learning, using case studies and simulations to provide participants with experiences that mimic real life. School leaders participate in projects and exercises that are job-embedded, forcing them to apply their new knowledge to their urgent school challenges. The Executive Development Program includes highly engaging, interactive activities, including carefully constructed online curricula, group exercises and applied games to take advantage of the latest findings on adult learning.
A Singularly Comprehensive Attention to Best Practices
NISL’s researchers did find a few education groups that had created programs in the United States and abroad that incorporated some of these best practices. However, the researchers failed to find a single country or school system that had incorporated all of these practices into a cohesive and comprehensive approach to the preparation of school leaders. The Executive Development Program serves as a unique and powerful contribution to the advancement of education.