Leading with Creativity and Innovation

I am enrolled in what I hope to be a Doctoral program at a local university.  In the latest course, “Leading Creativity and Innovation” we have spent time researching and discussing the topics of creativity and innovation as it relates to school leadership.  The topic, and the ensuing discussions, were multifaceted and led us all to reflect on our current practices as well as where we envision ourselves in the near future and beyond.  The Critical Task at the conclusion of the course was to reflect and answer the following questions, What are my strengths as a creative and innovative leader? What are the concerns I need to think about and address that will help me to be a successful creative and innovative leader? and What will be my plan to understand the culture of a district I am a leader in and move it in a direction to be a culture that more deeply embraces creativity and innovation?  The following is my response to these questions.

As George Couros points out in his book, The Innovative Mindset, failure does not create learning, reflecting on it does.  Reflection is very important, not only does it increase metacognition, but it creates a foundation to build your next steps on.  As I reflect on the first question, it is fairly simple to list a set of skills that are my strengths as a creative and innovative leader.  I believe myself to be a risk taker, a creative thinker and lesson designer, and I am adept at technology.

However, more important than those skills, what helps me most as a leader, is that I try to have a humanistic approach in my decision making and leadership.  While the question, “Is this best for kids?” is always on the forefront of my decision making, I work to keep in mind the nature of who we are as people, and make decisions that maintain dignity and reasonableness of our staff and parents.  This strength has been key in building trusting relationships, which is a vital key to a creative and innovative leadership style. Building a positive professional level of trust forms the foundation that allows staff, students, and communities to take risks, succeed, fail, and find success again.  While all staff need to be vested in building positive trusting relationships, it is the school’s administration that has to model this and set a trusting tone.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have conversations with educators from different schools and the matter of building trust is a frequent topic.  I have learned that while there are probably as many ways to earn trust as there are schools, there are a few tenants that I hold and actively work on when it comes to earning trust.

Sincerity and believability are paramount. You have to show that you honestly care about your staff, and this takes time, and has to be genuine. You don’t do this by the occasional one minute flash of “good morning, how was your weekend?” but by repeatedly trying to understand the lives of your teachers and community. Certainly greeting teachers can be part of it, but do it in an organic fashion, one that doesn’t feel like you have scheduled time to walk around the school and say good morning. You can however, create times to have those conversations with staff and still make them feel organic: use the first 10 minutes of a staff meeting to have snacks and conversation, have lunch with staff on a semi-regular basis, talk about life during “duty”, or attend a ball game or event with staff and strike up a conversation. Share of yourself honestly.

I was once told (by a Superintendent I respect) that when it comes to administration, “visibility is credibility”. I believe there is truth in that, however credibility is definitely also measured by the type of visibility. For example, one minute classroom walk-throughs do little to build credibility and can even serve to annoy teachers rather than support them. However, ten to fifteen minute walk-throughs are beneficial and can serve to inform instruction and send a message that you care to know what is going on in the classroom. The shorter walk-throughs are not bad if they’re done in conjunction with a ten to fifteen minute walk through program (one designed to provide feedback), but 1 minute walkthroughs alone say you’re doing it just to be seen, not to see.

In order to build a team you can trust to go into battle with you, and will trust you to lead them, you need to be on the front lines with them. Valuing their time by attending meetings, being on time, conducting meaningful staff meetings (PLCs?), and attending in-services with your staff to model learning and shared experiences, are vital. This last one can be hard to do, but if you expect your teachers to participate in an in-service then you need to be there learning right alongside of them, and no matter what you think that may seem more important, to your staff, it’s not.

One of the best things you can do to build trust is to solicit feedback from your staff and utilize it. It is the utilizing of the information that is key. It is not enough to take the feedback or collect the data, you need to actually show that it means something. It is when you, in a transparent fashion, base your decisions on that data, that gives your decision making process credibility and builds trust.  Otherwise if you’re just asking for input and not using it, you will soon have people deciding not to engage in feedback, or giving you what they think you want to hear, rather than the truth.

Lastly, to take this trust to a level that inspires your staff to be creative and innovative, you will need to be willing to take a risk, thus creating an opportunity that demonstrates you understand trust and are willing to trust your staff. Perhaps it’s letting your staff decide on something that is historically the principal’s decision, or sending out a performance survey or trying to learn something new alongside your staff, such as taking an in-house class or workshop about a new technology or initiative. The key is you have to “unhinge” the positional authority that comes with the title of “boss” and open the door of vulnerability and open-mindedness.

A few years ago, after ten years as an administrator, I decided to go back to the classroom.  This was a challenging personal decision, as I had very young children and needed to better balance my life around them and my wife.  It was wonderful, both personally and professionally. Spending time in the classroom, as well as spending more time with my family and community, reminded me about what is truly important in education and life.  “Rigor, relevance, and relationships” are words we hear often in education. Of them, relationships, is the most powerful, as fostering trusting, caring relationships with students, staff, and community helps to open up teaching that is both rigorous and relevant.  

Leaders must work hard to foster a culture of trust in a district if they expect the stakeholders to embrace creativity and innovation.  You can have the best strategic plans and professional development, but as Peter Drucker is often credited as saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.   In addition to building positive relationships and trust there are other factors that one must consider when creating a thriving culture of creativity and innovation.  Schools are all unique places largely due to their unique student population. Depending on the make-up of the school, it students undergo vast social, emotional, intellectual, and physical changes and while it is the role of schools to provide an academically challenging curriculum with developmentally appropriate instruction and assessment practices; they must also assist students in becoming knowledgeable and socially aware of themselves and the world around them. Furthermore, schools that employ practices that inspire and empower their students to take ownership of their learning will enable them to make better decisions about their personal and educational lives as they grow toward adulthood.

Academically, schools work to provide students with a vigorous curriculum that will, simply stated, move them through their own development from predominantly concrete thinkers to primarily abstract thinkers. This needs to be done by well-trained educators who are not only experts in their specific disciplines but are artisans in the area of teaching children. Studies suggest that successful students are taught by teachers who are not only proficient in their discipline (history, math, art, science, etc.) but also have a high level of understanding and training around working with the specific age and development of their students specifically. The same is true about school administrators.

Educators, specifically trained in the proper pedagogy, can create developmentally appropriate curricula that utilizes existing skills while scaffolding opportunities to broaden content and expertise. It is necessary to possess a wide assortment of methods to teach and assess the variety of thinkers that make up the varied students in our schools. These educators will use technology, project-based learning, interdisciplinary links, and more to provide opportunities for authentic learning that fits better with the natural curiosity of children.

In a school and district culture that fosters creativity and innovation, administrators embrace academic rigor, balanced with creating relevance and trusting relationships, to guide the practices in the classroom and the school. Many of these practices are outlined in the Carnegie Corporation’s Turning Points 2000.  Turning Points 2000 specifically encourages practices that support schools where every student is enabled “to think creatively, to identify and solve meaningful problems, to communicate and work well with others, and to develop the base of factual knowledge and skills that is the essential foundation for ‘higher order’ capacities” (p. 10-11). Practices that support these recommendations fit in with today’s educational initiatives to prepare students for their future. These practices should encourage staff to take risks and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.

District leaders can also support creativity and innovation by supporting the learning that occurs outside the classroom setting; encouraging faculty and students to take advantage of field trips, extracurricular activities, “real world” academic opportunities, and social events. Participation in these activities can be risky for some educators, but they are often successful when they are supported by an administration that allows staff to make mistakes, fostering a culture where failing is a “first attempt in learning”, and getting back up and showing grit, is rewarded. Some of the best learning I have witnessed has been part of outdoor “ropes” course programs, where students and staff need to work together, take risks, and encourage each other. All aspects of education benefit when teachers are open to seeing risks as opportunities for growth and challenges as obstacles to overcome.

Whether starting out in a new district, or continuing in my current role, the steps to creating a culture of creativity and innovation is not a “one size fits all” proposition.  That said, creating a culture of trust, student centered pedagogy, and where risk is rewarded and failure seen as an asset, are truisms that I intend to take with me.



George Couros (2015) The Innovator’s Mindset. Published by Dave Burgess Consulting, San Diego CA.

Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. The Report of the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2000)

Chris Sousa and Robert C. Spear Ed.D. (2007) Academic Vigor and Meeting the Learning Needs of Middle Level Students, Middle Level Issues (NELMS Vol. 7 #1, January 2007)

Chris Husbands and Jo Pearce (Autumn 2012) What makes great pedagogy? Nine claims from research. National College for School Leadership. Nottingham, UK.

What makes a teacher effective. (2010-2014) A summary of key research findings on teacher preparation. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Washington DC

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