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Embodying Visionary Leadership

-By Garry McKinnon, Superintendent

It is interesting to reflect on the nature of visionary leadership as a starting point for dialogue on school leadership. Who would you identify as visionary leaders who have had a significant impact on the world in which we live? When Barack Obama was campaigning for election as President of the United States he generated a great deal of enthusiasm through his passionate articulation of a vision of what could be. He caused people to join him in pursuit of a dream and a commitment to the slogan, "yes we can". He was effective in giving people hope and building confidence in their ability to make a difference. President Obama arguably provides an example of embodying visionary leadership although some of the initial enthusiasm has waned as he addresses the complexities of his challenging mandate.
Our former Minister of Education, the Hon. Dave Hancock after a long consultation process through Inspiring Education articulated a vision for the transformation of education in Alberta through creating students as: engaged learners (thinkers); ethical citizens and individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit. Our new Minister of Education, the Hon. Thomas Lukaszuk has built on this vision through a new Education Act and an emphasis on being driven by doing what is best for the students as learners. In this blog, I will examine visionary leadership from the perspective of the principal as school leader.

The second Professional Practice Competency in the Alberta School Leadership Framework document deals with embodying visionary leadership. Reference is made to the school leader: communicating and being guided by an educational philosophy; providing leadership that leads to achievement of the school's vision and mission; meaningfully engaging the school community in identifying and addressing areas for school improvement; ensuring that planning, decision-making and implementation strategies are based on the vision shared by the school community and an understanding of the school culture; facilitating change and promoting innovation consistent with current and anticipated school community needs; analyzing a wide range of data to determine progress towards achieving school goals and communicating and celebrating school accomplishments. On reflecting on these descriptors of visionary leadership one could easily conclude that it is a daunting undertaking. Where does the principal begin and what does visionary leadership look like?

I would say that a starting point and a key to success for a principal as school leader is to come to terms with one's values, beliefs, philosophy and what I have described in previous blogs as, "one's essence". I believe that inner leadership precedes and impacts outer leadership. In working with school principals I have encourage them to identify through reflection, the values and beliefs that will guide their actions. I have asked them to identify key words that describe their essence which they could put on a business card. This exercise forces them to focus on what is most important. The other aspect of visionary leadership involves having an understanding of the bigger picture and being able to articulate a vision that will not only be understandable by others, but will also cause them to be engaged in sharing the passion. It is interesting to place principals in the situation of articulating a dream for their school. I suggested to a group for principals to imagine that they have been given two minutes to make a presentation at a board meeting in which they articulate their dream on behalf of their school community. By making reference to the school community, I emphasize that the dream must represent a shared vision and not simply that of the principal. This highlights the challenge for principals to engage students, staff, parents and community members in a dialogue about what they want to see for their school. The principal must be a good listener as well as be effective in raising questions and exploring possibilities. Ultimately, the principal's role in embodying visionary leadership is to articulate the dream and provide the support and assistance that will be needed to transform the dream into reality.

The Calgary Science School as a charter school has clearly articulated goals which are enshrined in the charter document which is approved by the Minister of Education. In the spirit of inquiry, the question was raised by members of the school community, " if we were achieving our charter goals, what would it look like?". The pursuit of this question took place over several months and feedback generated through a variety of consultative processes (surveys, interviews, think tanks) involving students, staff members, parents and members of the Board of Directors lead to the development of the Calgary Science School Descriptors of Exemplary Teaching and the complementary document Descriptors of Exemplary Learning. These documents which incorporate the charter pillars of inquiry-based learning, enhancing learning and teaching through the appropriate use of technology and taking learning beyond the classroom through environmental and outdoor education, serve as a framework for action in transforming the dream for the Calgary Science School into reality. In each document there are four broad areas of focus: Who We Are (relationships and school culture); How We Do It (community of learners); What We Do (exemplary learning and teaching) and Why We Do It (learner engagement and success). These documents which are on display throughout the school, serve as a framework for teacher professional growth plans and professional development and in keeping with the Alberta Education Action on Inclusion the Exemplary Learning document will serve as a framework for teachers and students to work together in developing a growth plan for success for each and every student.

I offer a second example from the Calgary Science School relating to visionary leadership. Through a retreat involving members of the Board of Directors and the school leadership team, a need was identified to go beyond the school education plan and to articulate a dream (vision) for the Calgary Science School which reflects the direction established by the Exemplary Teaching and Learning documents as well as the mandate as a charter school to serve as a centre of research, innovation and the development of exemplary teaching practices. Following a process of continued consultation and dialogue with members of the school community a strategic plan Lead-Share-Transform was developed and adopted by the Board of Directors. This provides an example of what I describe as, "what if thinking". There is a shared vision of what could be, a clearly articulated framework, a plan for achieving the dream and a strong belief that, "yes we can achieve this dream". In keeping with my intent to provide practical suggestions for the consideration of school principals, I offer the following action strategies:
Action Strategies for Embodying Visionary Leadership 
  1. In consideration of the belief that, "inner leadership precedes outer leadership", take some time to reflect and describe your values, beliefs, philosophy and essence as a teacher and leader.
  2. Engage staff members, parents and students in sharing their dream for your school and presenting some, "what if" ideas. 
  3. Involve students, staff, parents and community members in a series of think tanks in which you identify: what you should start doing; quit doing and keep on doing as well as give consideration to the question, "if you could make a fundamental change in what takes place in our school for the good of our students, what would it be?" 
  4. Consider the possibility of articulating a charter for your school and developing documents which will serve as a framework for action for achieving your dream as a school community. 
I welcome your feedback and suggestions. My next blog will make reference to the Alberta School Leadership Framework Professional Practice Competency Three-Leading a Learning Community.


Wendy Baillie said...

Garry - have you considered using an appreciative inquiry-based stance to visionary leadership? As we know, looking from a different point of view can yield some interesting insights, expose different perspectives and lead to innovative outcomes. I think it's there in some of your questions, but could be a powerful tool to explore leadership possibilities.

Garry McKinnon said...

Wendy,thank you for your suggestion. The series of professional development sessions with the Alberta charter school principals which I am facilitating is entitled," inquiry-based leadership". I think there is significant potential to the concept of leadership through a disposition of inquiry. I would like to learn more from you about the term "appreciative inquiry".

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