Creative Leadership: One More Time with Feeling

For the last few weeks, I’ve been posting about leading for creativity within schools as a whole (as opposed to individual classrooms), whether that leadership springs from official school leaders or teachers working to support one another. Last post I mentioned a study by Stoll and Temperley, who examined the dynamics of  leadership in educators’ creative projects. When I titled this “One More Time with Feeling” it wasn’t just an old saying from music class, but a reality. Feelings matter.  As I described in the last post, Stoll and Temperley found that the process was most effective when teachers’ affective needs were attended to before the creative endeavors started. This included things like establishing trust, helping teachers feel valued, establishing professional learning as a priority, and working to develop a sense of shared responsibility for students’ learning. But assuming all those things are important components of school culture, then what? They found that leaders who were most successful in facilitating creative projects did nine things within the process. Think about what these might look like in your school, whatever level your leadership role.

  1. Model creativity and risk taking. Suggest a wild idea. Be ready to try something different. Model willingness to think from different perspectives and consider solutions that might not immediately seem feasible. Don’t shrink from being wrong or looking foolish.
  2. Expose colleagues to new thinking and experiences. Bring something new to the table: an article, a TED talk, even background music for your work sessions. Visit varied classrooms, even within your own school. Consider the new information water for priming the pump. It may not be your eventual solution, but it can shake thinking from long-established paths.
  3. Self-consciously relinquish control. Creativity cannot be micromanaged. Be ready to share leadership, but also to recognize that shared leadership must come with opportunities for shared support and resources, not just more assignments.
  4. Provide time and space to promote the process. No one does their best thinking tired and hungry, sitting in a hard folding chair after a day’s work. Consider times and environments that send the message that participants are valued and respected. Even good food will help.
  5. Promote both individual and collective creativity. Many good ideas can come from group problem solving activities, but other times ideas come later after they’ve had time to incubate. Be sure to leave open invitations for individual ideas, suggestions, and additions to group work.
  6. Set high expectations for creativity. It is OK to dream big—you don’t need to get there overnight. My doctoral advisor was fond of quoting Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; there is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” Use your big dreams to help direct and focus your small steps.
  7. Use failure as a learning opportunity. There is no creativity or progress without failure. It is as much a part of the process as missed shots are to learning to play basketball. There is no other way. Every failure teaches us something that doesn’t work. This is why prototypes are so essential to the design process, including the ones that don’t work as expected.
  8. Stimulate a sense of urgency.  It makes sense to me that feeling a sense of urgency might motivate creativity, but this suggestion makes me a bit nervous because I don’t know a single educator who isn’t full to the brim of stress these days. We don’t need any more. Perhaps another way to think about it is to recognize the value of creativity when things are tough. Use your creative processes on things that matter. Remember creativity isn’t Friday-afternoon fluff. It is the way we solve hard problems.
  9. Keep referring back to your core values. What is your school trying to accomplish? Keep that in sight. If you mean the things in your mission statement, don’t let it be a piece of paper hanging in the hall, use it to guide your creative energies.

Of course, because we are humans, any of us trying to lead creative endeavors will fail in our attempts, even our attempts at these nine recommendations! But refer back to #7. We will be imperfect. But better to move forward imperfectly than to sit frozen by fear of failure. So, however bumpy the path, lead on!

Stoll, L & Temperley, J. (2009). Creative leadership: A challenge of our times. School Leadership and Management, 29(1), 63-76. DOI: 10.1080/13632430802646404  

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