Photo courtesy of "Dyanna" via Flickr

The always engaging and dynamic Dr. Troyce Fisher with the School Administrators of Iowa asked me to be a provocateur for a state group working on leadership in education. Troyce specifically asked “What do Iowa education leaders need to do to restore Iowa’s schools to best in the nation?” With hopes of raising the discussion on the meaning of leadership across our state, I am presenting my words here. The listing below contains what I consider the essential qualities real education leaders must have.

1. Get the goals right.

The question posed of “what must Iowa leaders to to restore the state’s education system to best in the nation” isn’t the right goal.

It’s not St. Paul; it’s Shanghai. It’s not South Dakota; its South Korea. Our expectations have to be higher. Best in the world – that is the only goal. We can accept no substitutes.

The October blueprint we released contained a huge number of strategies and ideas. Some of them made sense for the state, some didn’t. Some made it to the Governor’s plan, some didn’t. While we continue to argue about those strategies today, they weren’t what was most important. The first page of the document, which contained the title and the vision, was the most important.

We called the blueprint “World Class Schools for Iowa – One Unshakable Vision.” People had a lot of fun with that. It was a good punchline for those who wanted to disparage the effort of dramatically improving our schools in Iowa. Despite the detractors, we set the vision and the tone. It is about getting our schools to be among the best in the world. There can be no other goal.

If Iowa loses this focus, this “unshakable vision,” then we are finished before we even really begin.

2. Be adaptive.

The pace of change is just going to keep accelerating. Get used to it.

The world is faster now. It demands that we change, and then change again, and then change again. And this world is relentless and merciless when it comes to whether or not we adapt and improve.

Workers in other nations are now entering the global economy with the same, or superior skills, to Americans. In this era of intellectual commerce and instantaneous data transactions – location and natural resource advantages mean less and less.

We should ask ourselves: “Why will employers continue to pay American workers higher pay for the same quality they could get in other places at less cost?” We already know the answer … they won’t, and they increasingly aren’t. We have to adapt as leaders and push our education system to adapt to the furious pace this global economy demands.

3. Reject “change without change.”

We must never accept the appearance of improvement while actually perpetuating the status quo as any substitute for meaningful change.

Iowa is very guilty of this. While incremental change is laudable, it is also expected. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves for a “job well done” because we made incremental improvements. If you aren’t getting better, you are getting worse. So, incremental change only allows you to keep the pace. Don’t confuse incremental change (which only allows you to survive) with real improvement.

It’s not enough to inch things along, call it a victory and pat ourselves on the back. For Iowa to build a world class school system, we’ve got to reject “change without change” as a viable long term strategy.

4. Find the courage to risk.

It’s always easier to say “no.” It takes guts, leadership, and determination to find our way to “yes.”

We shroud ourselves in “no” because it creates the illusion of safety and security. We might console ourselves by saying at least we know what to expect, or things will at least be predictable and this somehow justifies a position of blocking or saying no.

But that ignores the slower and more insidious danger of failing to risk. Failing to risk makes us, and our schools, more outdated and ineffective by the moment.

Again, it’s easy to say “no.” It takes guts, leadership, and determination to find our way to “yes.”

5. Fail – but (and more importantly) get up and go at it again.

Everyone gets tired of sports analogies, so I apologize in advance.

Arguably and perhaps the greatest and most successful athlete of our time is Michael Jordan.

Jordan said “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

We can’t be afraid of failure. Meaningful change involves things going wrong. Let me emphasize again … if you are enacting a meaningful change SOMETHING is GOING to go wrong.

Our future leaders will need to fail, learn, and go back at it again, and again – as many times as it takes.

6. Go big.

What we don’t need – more pilots, programs & small scale projects. We need ideas that take people’s breath away. We are already behind and we need rapid advancement in dramatic ways. Arguments for tinkering when major change is needed are just cowardice in disguise.

We need changes, improvements, and investments on the scale of the problems we face and this lesson goes beyond just education.

7. Take the heat.

You are the leader – it’s your job to take the shots, handle the pressure, be abused, be unpopular … and still keep pressing for improvement.

If you aren’t making people uncomfortable, you aren’t doing your job. Let me clarify, if you aren’t making “the right” people uncomfortable, you aren’t doing your job.

If you aren’t confronting the meaningful problems – you aren’t doing your job. We have lots of in-name-only “leaders” confronting problems that don’t really matter.

If you aren’t causing a commotion, causing a debate, causing a stir … you aren’t doing your job.

We need leaders who are willing and able to (gracefully, intentionally, respectfully) apply the pressure … and take the heat.

Acknowledgement to Phil Wise for some wisdom related to this post.