• Allan J. Mucerino

INNOVATION LEADERSHIP: WHEN THE “WHY” ISN’T ENOUGH

Part 2 of a 2-part series.


In the first part of this blog series on the concept of innovation leadership, I considered the leadership challenge of driving leadership in the traditional sense while at the same time facilitating internal innovation and creativity within the organization. That blog emerged as the result of my doodling while reimagining education, like a child submersed in a creative wave, unable and disinterested in stopping. I've concluded that the duality related to organizational mechanisms and processes requires a balancing act on the part of leaders tasked with supporting and promoting both stability and change.

Despite external change forces beyond the control of local education agencies, including federal and state policies, the unschooled movement (part of the homeschool movement), personalized learning, districts of choice, charter schools, and privatization, internal change is not met with the same urgency it is met with among industries competing in the global marketplace.

Even the threat of LEA's losing market share, known as declining enrollment, is not enough to always stimulate systemic change. District of Choice (DOC) law was given a six-year extension in the state's budget that took effect July 1, 2018. DOC law was meant to encourage districts to compete for students by offering innovative programs that fit the interests of parents shopping for the perfect fit (be it for them or their child). While DOC law was touted as opening a new era of entrepreneurship in education, it’s clear that families who have taken advantage of this choice model left poorer, lower-performing districts for more affluent ones that posted higher scores on state exams.


Many districts have suffered, though they are partly at fault for watching their fate unfold and not taking action sooner. Up and down the state, school districts have lost students. Since 2015, the number of students attending traditional public schools has steadily declined statewide. Significant among the most disturbing trends, enrollment in public schools has decreased from 6.2 million in 2014-15 to 6.19 million in 2018-19. Meanwhile, students attending charter schools have risen from 544,980 to 652,933 during the same time period, practically a 20% increase.

Make no mistake about it, district infrastructures were formed ready for growth. The LCFF era has afforded districts great range to feed the very system that statewide is crashing under its own weight. As staffs have swelled, so have challenges to meet the fiscal obligations that have accompanied the growth.

Districts hit hardest by declining enrollment trends, and the lower student achievement data which typically follows in step, have failed to strategically plan to prevent the cascading impact it has had on the efficacy and fiscal health of a school system (see how one innovative school district stemmed a 15-year tide of declining enrollment to reverse the fortunes of its students). Innovation leadership is a useful model during stable or unstable times, but it is most useful when a district finds itself on the most slippery slope of all: declining enrollment.

In a December, 2018 piece as part of a series on strategic planning: Urgency vs. Capacity Building: Build on it, I wrote about the place districts commonly find themselves, seemingly as though they woke up one day and boom!, they were struck with the reality of their condition. Districts famously are in denial. Study any district that has been taken over by the state or was at risk of state receivership and you will find a blind eye was turned towards reality.


It’s referred to as the Stockdale Paradox, and in a nutshell, as Stockdale himself said, “One must never, ever, ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts.” He went on to famously say that his less fortunate comrades died of a broken heart. School districts have not, historically at least, mastered this reality.


While the idea of dying of heartbreak is a foreign concept in education, what it represents resonates. Among my favorite books and authors, Saul Bellow, focused on this concept in his 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak. The theme of reconciling one's ideals with reality and the difficulties of relating to subjects such as mortality touches most people’s lives. Like Admiral Stockdale, the protagonist in Bellow’s novel was a tortured man attempting to work out his fate and worldview. Much about leadership can be learned from fiction, where art and reality collide.

I’ve always found that fictional work more neatly captures the real world in a way non-fiction cannot (plenty books on leadership leave me searching for a narrative). The best of them tell a story, but most do not. My latest project, studying superintendents through a literary lens, will explore this idea in more detail.

OK, let's return to the “place” that Stockdale so eloquently framed in Jim Collins’ classic leadership book, Good to Great, among the books that does tell a story. School district leaders often find themselves in that place - somewhere between urgency and capacity building. Also known as the juxtaposition of a compelling vision and current reality. Unless current reality is “stockdaled” there will be no successful vision that comes to fruition. The challenge in most school districts is that the brutal facts are not usually embraced by those most responsible for creating them.


The missing component in the process of moving from one “place” to the next is strategic planning. Whether or not school districts are effective in identifying their reality, that reality becomes inescapable when families transfer to neighboring districts, regional charter schools, or choose to become part of the burgeoning home school movement, which has grown from 3.4% in 1999 to 6.5% currently, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Today’s homeschool environment is not what some people think. While it might have started as a platform to provide religious or moral instruction, it’s now primarily concerned about the school environment (such as safety, drugs, negative peer pressure) and dissatisfaction with academic instruction at the average neighborhood public school.

Now, back to the focus of this blog: innovation leadership and the impact of strategic planning to facilitate meaningful change. Part of the failure in PK-12 education planning as an institution related to change can be squarely placed on the shoulders of higher education. Christopher Loss, a member of the Peabody Scholars Program faculty at Vanderbilt University and the author of Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the Twentieth Century, described higher education as a 19th-century system relying on 20th-century policies to operate in the 21st century. Equally responsible for the failure of PK-12 relative to the pace of change, are institutional barriers that do not support the transition from the uncertainty and disorder that precede innovation. Initiatives regularly die on the vine.


Uncertainty and disorder are benchmarks of change, not symptoms of it. The literature uses terms such as chaos and havoc to describe how actors swept up in the process feel and commonly respond. Organizations that seek change prepare to deal with the uncertainty that is inevitable as a result of it. Education as an institution is not historically conditioned to experience uncertainty well. Most scholars and practitioners agree that the institutional DNA of education does not include adaptation as a common chromosome, though the most successful of school districts have overcome this genetic predisposition to beat the odds as outliers.

When established habits of thought, expectations, assumptions, and beliefs are challenged, uncertainty always follows. Innovation leadership facilitates an intentional release of those established habits in exchange for an embrace of “what could be.”

Without skilled innovation leaders, however, change fails. There’s a long history of it. When change efforts are peeled back and studied, it’s not uncommon to learn that the effort was leader-centric. Despite abject rejection in the popular and research literature, leader-centric models are still relevant, despite its multiple limitations, most notably the general consensus that centricity fails to adequately comprehend the dynamics of leadership in complex organizational settings, particularly critical during periods of change.


On the other hand, Innovation Leadership, informed as it is by Path-Goal theory, Leader Member Exchange (LMX) theory, and Diffusion of Innovations theory (DOI), remains an outsider among popular and common approaches to leading school districts, despite its high regard in the rhetoric related to school district leadership and its support in the research literature as a shared emergent process revolving around individual and team interaction. The likelihood of building the adaptive capacity for innovation is greatly enhanced when innovation leadership is understood in the context of individual organizations.


Why? Because the non-linear and discontinuous pattern of interactions between individuals in any social system leads to the emergence of leadership. The foundation of PLC’s, for example, is based on the idea that leaders will emerge if a team is assembled with a set of norms, goals, and objectives to guide their work. The success of the PLC is interdependent on the team members. The productive well-being of each member, or of the team, is dependent on the productive well-being of the other members. Adaptive tension is created to build leadership capacity, usually by a combination of leadership pressure and conflicting constraints. In the education workplace, and in all teamwork settings, innovation emerges from these conditions.

The key variable is the pressure to change. Establishing the “Why” isn’t always enough: witness state and federal accountability measures. Successful systemic change depends on how well leaders understand power distribution. Innovation leadership values the thoughts and actions taken by the people most affected by the change. Building the relationship between the existing social structure and the agency is a skill that advanced innovation leaders possess.

While the education leadership marketplace may not currently value innovation leadership, it will be a cornerstone of its foundation in the near future, as consumers continue to drive the education marketplace. In the California State University, Fullerton doctoral program in educational leadership, our commitment to just, equitable and inclusive education demands it. If change doesn’t happen, the same students who historically have been underserved, will continue to be underserved.


Read Part 1

255 views