As part of my experience in the Teacher Leadership Initiative, we had to complete a Collaborative Leadership Primer. Collaborative Leadership was defined as: “the intentional and skillful management of relationships that enables others to succeed individually while accomplishing a collective outcome.”
After a year as a Lead Teacher, I believe the following qualities must be present in an environment where effective collaborative leadership is present:
- Intentional and skillful management of relationships. This can’t be overstated. Leadership that is more collaborative, distributed, and inclusive is much more challenging to build and facilitate than more traditional leadership models that are essentially top-down and exclusive. Clearly there is momentum building across the country and especially in my own state of Iowa towards building the leadership capacity of teachers and including them as key stakeholders in educational leadership and decision making. However, a key piece of making this shift in leadership to be more collaborative involves building and maintaining productive and trusting relationships among teacher leaders, teachers, and administrators. The more this collaboration can become constructive and focused on improving student learning, the better it will be.
- A focus on the process as much as the outcome. There is a tendency towards dysfunction when collaborative groups only focus on results and are not intentional in outlining a workable pathway to get there, realizing that the paths toward accomplishing our goals are often winding and full of obstacles and opportunities to grow together through adversity. Much like an effective sports team builds chemistry through adversity, the same is true for collaborative groups. They help teams actualize strengths among the group, and ways in which the whole of their collective efforts in challenging times is greater than the sum of their parts.
- Collective ownership and shared accountability. My district has done much work over the last few years to align our instruction to the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. One of the key components of this model is Productive Group Work and within this component derives the need to have clearly defined group roles and responsibilities. The best groups work when all members of a collaborative group have individual and group accountability. Ideally, these roles rotate to allow for fresh perspectives and ideas, and ultimately a high level of innovation and trust among the group. This approach ensures the sustainability and productivity of the group is maintained over several years.
Collaborative Teams are often given ask themselves:
- Who do we need on our Team? The most important variable to a productive collaborative group may be diversity: diversity of ideas, perspectives, opinions, experiences, personalities, priorities, areas of expertise, etc. A group where all members are relatively homogeneous leads to complacency and stagnation. These types of groups rarely challenge one another to grow professionally and are likely to be the least innovative.
- What do we need to know about our team members? I want to know what the members of my team are passionate about. What skills do they have? How do they want to grow professionally? What needs do they have from me and the other members of my team? What roles might they excel in within a group? What kind of leadership style do the demonstrate and need within a group to be most productive? How do they motivate others and how are they themselves motivated to reach their potential?
- How can we best utilize the talents within our team? Talent without grit and work ethic is rarely successful and often leads to dissapointment when its potential is not actualized. Rather, we should be asking how we can build and facilitate needed skills among the existing members of a team. If we believe that all our students can learn and grow, we must also maintain the same perspective among members of a team of adult learners. A better question may be: Wow will we build that?
- What prior experiences are my team members brining to the table that could be effectively leveraged within our collaborative team? These experience ought to be be variable, but also able to be learned by other members of the team. It can also become a cautionary tale when teams begin to “divide and conquer” based on skill areas and prior experiences. Ideally, team members will want to learn skills from one another that can be used more holistically to help all team members become more flexible and adaptive to evolving needs of the team, and able to fill in if a team member is absent.
How can we build better leaders within a collaborative team? According to the Ohio Community Collaboration Model for School Improvement, effective leaders within effective collaborative teams have the following characteristics:
- The ability to manage conflict, to compromise and to build trust between multiple constituencies
- The ability to network and build relationship between a wide range of community partners
- The ability to exercise non-jurisdictional power – the power of ideas, the power of the media and the power of public opinion
- The ability to discover new ideas of agreement and opportunities to talk and listen
- The flexibility to react as circumstances change and opportunities emerge
In my opinion great leaders within collaborative groups actively seek out advice and guidance, carefully listen to others, demonstrate a clear passion and vision, share and give credit to others, are inclusive and positive, and have the courage to take risks and ask difficult questions to push the team forward.
I do not pretend to have all the qualities above, but I know these are qualities I must build upon and develop to become a better leader. I know as least some of the targets, now I must practice, grow, and continually seek to improve to get there.