Editor’s note: Authors Stephen Valentine and Reshan Richards distill principles from their book Blending Leadership: Six Simple Beliefs for Leading Online and Off.
What started for us as a short presentation in 2012 has been consistent only in that it has changed continually. Published in July 2016, Blending Leadership has since spun off into articles for EdSurge, talks in Atlanta, Boston, and Pennsylvania, and a partnership with Global Online Academy wherein educators from 18 independent schools, in places ranging from Chicago to Tokyo to Vancouver, have been studying, discussing, and applying its principles.
We mention our project’s lineage because it models the iteration that we wish to encourage in school leaders. The online world is changing quickly; the offline world is as complex as it has ever been; thinking through one’s online and offline moves is a fundamental part of modern leadership. We call this blended leadership.
Leaders have always been asked to make choices; these days, due to the complexity of our schools and their ever tangling networks, the number of choices has multiplied. Leaders now have to spend time not only understanding the people and places in their schools, but also the options that they have for communicating internally and externally, building consensus, shaping vision, and supporting collaboration.
Such practice requires a deep understanding of one’s options in any given leadership situation. The best leaders we know are aware of the options available to them and select among them — with a mixture of grace, precision, and confidence — knowing full well that what they choose today will both inform and enable what they choose tomorrow.
To help you to discern the choices available to you, we offer the following primer — six beliefs for blending leadership.
1. Blended leaders engage with thought leaders and engage as thought leaders.
School leaders are driven by a deep belief in their school missions. Such drive is wonderful for the future of independent schools and the students who have the opportunity to attend them.
But like all strengths, this one has a shadow side. In the rush to fulfill mission in the face of intense demands, school leaders often focus, almost exclusively, on their own schools. Such focus makes sense — working in complex systems filled with multiple constituents requires steady firefighting, dealing ad hoc with problems and possibilities as they arise. Additionally, promoting the value of one’s school often requires an inward focus.
We have found that effective leaders also discipline themselves to interrupt such defaults. They attend conferences, engage in frequent discussions with leaders from other schools and other industries, and recognize that some local problems can benefit from the input of educators who are not hindered by the contexts that created the problems in the first place. In short, school leaders look out for their schools by looking out of their schools. Such practice ensures that your school will continue to benefit from a fresh influx of ideas and accept challenges, in the best possible sense, to its typical ways of doing business.
2. Blended leaders design spaces and care for spaces.
Schools that choose to operate under their primary assumption — that students, teachers, and administrators should convene in person, Monday through Friday — will continue to spend money, often a lot of money, to maintain buildings and grounds.
Beyond offering mere curb appeal, though, our spaces operate best when they are steeped — think tea bags here — in our missions. If we’re going to continue to invest in our buildings, then the spaces within those buildings should be continually designed to maximize educational outcomes.
Step beyond these necessary considerations and you drop into digital space — which forms an increasingly wide and complicated web around our schools and programs. This space, where so much learning and communication takes place, should be managed and maintained just as carefully as your school’s brick and mortar spaces. If people are teaching well face-to-face and then designing Learning Management System sites that are difficult to navigate when students are at home, then much of the work of the school day — the care that’s put into it — is undone. Remember: For many students, there is little difference between the physical and the digital worlds. Promoting digital housekeeping should be a priority for any modern leader.
3. Blended leaders reject insularity and embrace sharing.
By sharing, by giving things away, we have formed ties that have allowed us to open doors for our students and colleagues. Sharing has also helped us learn new things. When we talk about sharing, though, we’re not talking about what we receive in return. We’re talking about a particular kind of professional capacity — one that leaders can and should develop.
We recommend that you make your sharing practice as automatic as possible so that it's a core part of your professional identity and costs you very little in time and effort. We also recommend that you share both finished and unfinished projects. When you share the latter, you model learning, with all its bumps and bruises. Additionally, when you share an unfinished project, you invite collaboration.
Here’s an example (shared via Twitter) from master sketchnoter Brad Ovenell-Carter:
Here, Brad shows others how to improve their sketchnoting (note-taking for the 21st century), and part of that work involves sharing their sketchnotes publically, regardless of their quality. You get better, according to Brad, by sharing your work as it gets better. We shared that because we agree.
4. Blended leaders challenge meeting structures and change meeting structures.
A combination of minds and perspectives, i.e., a meeting, can be a wonderful thing, aiding in problem-solving and helping leaders to see around corners. There is more than one way to skin a meeting, though. Consider the following:
Synchronous, face-to-face, in-person
Affordances: The most human, most personal way to meet. In a shared environmental context, you can hear tone, pace, and inflection and see facial cues, gestures, and body language.
Limitations: Interactions are difficult to record or capture (even with note-taking). Such meetings have to be scheduled, requiring pre-meeting effort.
Synchronous, face-to-face, across distance (e.g., via Zoom)
Affordances: Offers the affordances of in-person meetings minus the shared environmental context.
Limitations: Technological interruptions can break up the flow of dialogue. Also, setting up this meeting requires onboarding people in the digital “room.” Finally, participants in multiperson meetings won’t always know when/how to chime in.
Synchronous, phone call/conference call
Affordances: Tone, pace, and inflection can all be heard, and meeting participants benefit from a shared temporal context.
Limitations: Meeting participants cannot “read” the room, especially when multiple people are involved. This meeting type also requires effort to schedule and calling instructions.
Synchronous, text based/shared document
Affordances: People respond and interact in the moment, producing a clear record of the exchange.
Limitations: Gaining social/emotional information from the exchange is difficult.
Asynchronous, email/shared document
Affordances: Your team members can continue to work in a different time and place at a time that suits them. This meeting type creates an accessible record of the work.
Limitations: Without shared temporal context, connection to other participants can be elusive.
5. Blended leaders articulate a mission and advance a mission.
People interact with your school in ways that, a decade ago, were unimaginable. Teachers log into complex databases to log attendance, input comments, or upload college recommendations. Prospective students review your website, looking for videos and images; their parents, meanwhile, look for course descriptions and academic profiles. Current students download homework assignments and access resources from learning management systems. Athletic directors offer play-by-play accounts of competitions in progress via Twitter and Snapchat. Deans of student life use Instagram to show their school communities in action.
Whether you like this or not, all these digital touchpoints, woven together, indicate a certain type of school. How you articulate your mission, through these and other platforms, is your mission. Done well, the way you present your mission makes your constituents want to engage with your school, contribute to your school, join your school, give the kinds of attention and effort required to run schools that not only appear to be world class, but that actually are world class — that actually transform all who enter, regardless of how, when, where, or why.
6. Blended leaders keep the off-ramp open and use it frequently.
In an interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Matt Mullenweg, whose company, Automattic, powers more than 25 percent of the Internet, reflected, surprisingly, on the emergence of virtual reality devices. As technology becomes more immersive, he hopes he will still be able to enjoy hiking in nature, attending live music concerts, and spending time, face-to-face, with his friends. He went on to say that, at some point, humans will need to develop antibodies to technology.
We concur! Blended leaders constantly scan their options as they seek to do work that matters. True optionality includes both yin and yang, both technology and its opposite.
Even a company like Slack, that is redefining communication by creating a versatile digital home for it, promotes this balance. In Slack, when you click on your Preferences, you have two options: Notifications and Do Not Disturb. The first allows you to select the ways that Slack can reach you; the second allows you to silence all notifications. The presence of both options serves as a reminder that you should not allow yourself to be swept up in any and all inbound messages that want to tap you on the shoulder. Snoozing tech, like using tech, should be a choice.
For a downloadable PDF of the graphic below, click here.