Powerful Leadership Learning: Five Lessons from The New Heads Leadership Lab

With Monie Hardwick and Stephanie Rogen

As GLP enters a new year and the start of the 2017 edition of our Leadership Lab, it is a good time to report on the conclusion of our pilot Lab. In the 2016 cohort we worked intensely with first time heads as they prepared to enter headship and begin their work at school. Each new head worked individually with a GLP coach throughout last spring and summer, coming together as a group in July for an intense and productive three-day learning retreat. After returning to their schools for the opening months, supported by executive coaching, these new heads reconvened for the last formal part of the Lab with a December session in Washington, DC. During this final session, the participants gave presentations and discussed their first five months of their new headship, its challenges and joys, what worked and what is a work in progress. Going into the second half of their first year, the cohort members can continue with the coaching part of the Leadership Lab, stay in touch with each other, and will be asked for a report on this first year in June.

While the cohort was growing and learning, we at GLP, as designers of this new path to headship, were learning as well. Some parts of the learning experience and the curriculum played out pretty much as we had believed they would; other parts were or will be modified and tweaked based on the first cohorts’ honest and helpful feedback. The learning feedback loop we employed with this first group served itself as a model for trying things as a new leader with new ideas, figuring out what works best, and fearlessly changing direction to achieve the desired goals. The interactive, project focused design and the integration of their learning with the real work of day-to-day leadership is the foundation of the Leadership Lab that proved most powerful to the participants. 

Given this successful but still evolving first year, we offer the following five top takeaways from the Leadership Lab experience:

  1. Powerful leadership learning is personal: Self-directed learning--guided by an accelerated learning plan and deep reflective work--is more effective, flexible, and relevant to the new head than a static, top down curriculum.
  2. Powerful leadership learning must be connected to the work: Interactive, engaged learning designed for the real needs of a new head and his/her school and embedded in a project/presentation-based approach promotes autonomy, relevance, creative problem solving, and leadership confidence.
  3. Powerful leadership learning is grounded in feedback and reflection: Frequent feedback loops with constructive critique promote self-awareness and effective plan revision, as well as modeling good leadership practices.
  4. Powerful leadership learning is action based: Developing a year-one action plan allows a new head to look beyond the initial and usual issues of transition to a clear sense of what will constitute first year success.
  5. Powerful leadership learning is a team sport: Ongoing coaching, outside support, and objective reflection are critical during transition and in the initial stages of establishing new leadership.

Being a 21st Century head of school involves handling complexity, appreciating effective management, and serving as the leader at a time when the definition of leadership has never been less clear. A head today must be deft in smoothly shifting focus, seeing situations for what they are and what they could be, and all the while respecting values honored by the school culture and the head as a person and leader. The more we explored how to prepare someone for her or his first headship, the more we respected the daunting challenge of doing so. Yet, the ability, intelligence, and progress of this first cohort—all of whom love being a head and daily rise to the position’s challenges—affirmed the value of our work and the success of the Leadership Lab. 

What insights do you have about how leadership is learned? Help us design even better experiences by sharing your perspective here or call us directly at 203-570-2717.