Today’s post is by Dr. Ryan Jackson, a proud High School Assistant Principal in Metro Nashville, TN.
You don’t need to be an Algebra expert to understand that leadership and power belong in the same equation. Consider this leadership story problem: In response to a need or challenge, strong leaders cast crystallized vision and rally sought after buy-in, while utilizing their influence to solve for X (executing said vision). Factor-in a leader’s power, that ambiguous form of strength used to enhance and expedite influence, and realizing a vision becomes as simple as 2 + 2 = 4. Right?
Not so fast, as power is a polarizing construct. Its connotations vary, largely based on a kaleidoscope of historical applications. Too much power to one person and it doesn’t take a history professor to predict the outcome: Hitler, Bin Laden, Emperor Nero, Jim Jones, insert vile dictator here _________. Too little power and look no further than any lame duck US president over the past 200 years.
For the purpose of this post we’re going to steer away from conversations of moral compass and the age-old fascination with good vs. evil. Needless to say, this doesn’t negate the impact of our moral righteousness on leadership, just choosing not to open Pandora’s Box quite yet. However, the point remains that leadership and power are seemingly synonymous and the more focused question then becomes:
How should leaders best utilize their power in order to build capacity and maximize output from those they lead, while inevitably trying to realize a pronounced vision?
As one of the foremost current experts on motivation through effective leadership, Daniel Pink has explored the relationship between motivation and autonomy. I specifically reference Mr. Pink because a particular quote of his continuously turns over-and-over in my head: “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Before, this quote would have merely stood as inspiration as I analyzed how to use autonomy to motivate the teachers, students and staff that I serve. But, like iconoclast Bob Dylan forecasted, “For the times they are a changin’.”
As a reflective practitioner, my pursuit of understanding and applying the abyss-like depths of effective leadership has me at a proverbial crossroads. The epicenter here is the empowerment vs. engagement argument that acts as a fault line just under the surface of educational leadership. The argument centers around the question Is it still good enough to simply engage students, teachers or a community? I’ve been asking myself, would leadership guru Jim Collins respect me if he found out I was doling out autonomy to my staff and students for the sole purpose of good engagement?
For the sake of cynicism, let’s clarify that the argument between engagement and empowerment is more than mere semantics. To engage someone is to emotionally involve them, with a cemented commitment to this involvement, while still retaining the majority of control in the process and direction. However, to empower someone is to increase his or her involvement capacity, accelerating his or her own control, while systematically relinquishing our own power.
Herein lies the leadership conundrum: Do leaders want emotionally connected followers who whole-heartedly engage in a well-directed task, or is leadership something truly greater – an act of empowerment, where followers soon transition to leaders themselves strengthened through inspired authority?
The latter question directly addresses what I’ve coined the Paradox of Power, which is the paradigm shift assertion that leaders actually gain strength by giving it to others. I’ve been toiling with analogies and one stands out above the rest, especially when viewing empowerment through a lens of military might. Collectively, empowerment and its synthesis of strength, power, leadership and advancement are much like the Atom bomb. I know, not the analogy you were expecting but hear me out. While retaining all of its power, the Atom bomb is quite useless, just a bunch of plutonium fission, bolts and alloy. However, when the bomb is dropped and the power is released, the impact of exponential critical mass is realized, resulting in a nuclear chain reaction.
Stay with me!
Extend this analogy to a classroom. When a teacher sets out to do more than just engage students, when the instructional design now serves as a catalyst, empowering students to apply new knowledge in experiential, indelible learning modes, the teacher is now exercising his or her own critical mass, while utilizing a multiplier-effect as students commit to more than just the lesson at hand and instead fuse this learning with personalized approaches to broader understandings and applications.
Currently, I claim the tip of the empowerment spear in education to be project-based learning (PBL). PBL emboldens teachers to empower students with the necessary skills before facilitating a grander learning process where students research, design, create and, ultimately, present their cross-curricular, hands-on projects.
I’m witnessing this first-hand as I watch teachers like Mr. Mitchell (@panthersart) at Maplewood High School empower students with drone technology, where sketch schematics quickly turn to modified flying paint brushes – culminating in an advanced form of high art, where student voice-and-choice dictates the path of creative expression. Last year I merely tossed around the idea that drone technology and its stigmatized uses was a polarizing cultural hot button, one worthy of student investigation. Empowering Mr. Mitchell as an instructional designer then allowed him to craft a PBL that would, in turn, empower students to investigate technology’s use in art throughout the ages while fashioning drones to be creators not destroyers – how’s that for critical mass!
As a leader serving in an urban high school, one in which 90% of our students live at or below the poverty line, I find empowering teachers more than just a practical tool. The Paradox of Power strengthens our teacher retention and student graduation rates, as showcased by a chain reaction of teachers positioned as instructional designers, whose PBLs empower students to autonomously control their own learning thus sustaining academic inquiry and motivated goal setting.
Now ask yourself: As a leader, are you empowering others?
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Tags: 21 Century Skills, PBL; Instructional Innovation; Empowerment; Education; Leadership; Engagement