How to Be a Nimble School Leader

William James College faculty members Drs. Craig Murphy and John D’Auria use social and organizational psychology to offer a guide to inspirational leadership in an era of rapid change

March 01, 2021

Image Credit: Miguel-á-Padriñán (pexels)

One only needs to look at the early months of 2020 to see how the nation’s schools can be waylaid, suddenly, by an unexpected event.

When the pandemic forced schools to close, educational leaders were hit with the enormous challenge of teaching students remotely, many for the first time in their careers, leaving the buildings and traditional models that school leaders, and many families and communities, depend on to keep students engaged, safe and socially connected.

In their new book “The Influential School Leader,” faculty members Drs. Craig Murphy and John D’Auria argue that to be an effective school leader in a time of continuous, radical change means being a nimble one, a captain who can harness the power of influence, not just the power of position.

Creating change in a school system is not easy. The authors contend that school leaders are forced to spend a majority of their time putting out fires or handling daily operational tasks. As a result, the time allocated for designing and implementing new systems is often insufficient.

To help educators become more nimble at learning and better at removing obstacles to change, Murphy and D'Auria devised a framework that allows leaders to see more clearly the psychological and organizational underpinnings of a school system and its people, so that they can maximize their influence and unlock creative solutions.

We talked to Murphy, an assistant professor of School Psychology; and D’Auria, director of the College’s Educational Leadership concentration and a former school superintendent in Canton, Mass., about their framework and about creating the conditions for change.

Why did you write this book? What is the problem that you’re trying to address?

We wrote this book and developed this framework to support educational leaders in their efforts to improve schools. The framework integrates decades of research from organizational and social psychology with our collective experiences working in schools to illustrate the importance of understanding the perspectives of the four primary stakeholders within school environments and the conditions for change that promote a system that is committed to learning and improving.

Our hope is that educational leaders will find our framework to be helpful when they encounter challenges that force them to respond nimbly and effectively to the fast-changing landscape of teaching and learning. The COVID-19 pandemic has particularly illuminated a need for this agility.

What does a profound and sweeping event like the coronavirus pandemic, for example, teach us about those in leadership positions within a school system?

Last March, the coronavirus pandemic forced school leaders to completely transform the way education was delivered in a matter of days, a significant technical and adaptive challenge. How to meet challenges like this in the future is an important reason we developed the framework in our book. Strong leaders working in school districts where the conditions for change — a key element of our framework — were in place were able to respond to the challenges of the pandemic and successfully transition to remote learning. In districts and systems where those conditions were lacking, educational leaders and their respective school districts struggled to adapt effectively and quickly. Therefore, major events like the coronavirus pandemic not only teach us about those in leadership positions, but about the systems that are in place to either support or hinder change and improvement.

How can school leaders be prepared for complex, system-level changes?

School leadership is not unlike positions of leadership from other industries, which is a major reason our framework borrowed so heavily from organizational and social psychology. Maintaining strong relationships among the four key stakeholder groups allows school leaders to see challenges through the lenses of the district leadership team, building leadership teams, classroom teachers and specialists, and students and their families. This allows school leaders to develop solutions to problems collaboratively, increasing the likelihood of success and maximizing buy-in from each stakeholder group.

Our framework also emphasizes the importance of ensuring the conditions for change are a constant within the system, rather than attempting to create them in response to a problem or crisis. For example, school leaders have been tasked with managing their district’s responses to positive COVID-19 cases since most students returned to school in some capacity in the fall of 2020. In times like these, an effective and nimble response requires constant learning, and there needs to be sufficient psychological safety so school leaders can make decisions and learn from the outcomes that follow those decisions. Simply put, educators need to see themselves as scientists of learning. Just like how their medical colleagues are experimenting to find a new vaccine, educators need to be constantly refining their educational practices.

How do these sets of strategies and lenses make school leaders more nimble and creative in their problem solving?

Having a framework for educational leadership is just like having a standardized process for any activity in your daily life. Once the process becomes automatic and routine, responding to challenges and problems becomes far more efficient. This allows school leaders to become nimble problem solvers. The conditions for change are especially crucial because they establish an environment that is committed to improvement. Educators who experience a sense of belonging and engage in open and honest conversations with their colleagues and school leaders are more likely to integrate innovative approaches to teaching. This is also true for school leaders. Balancing psychological safety and accountability ensures that the emphasis is placed on effort and learning, rather than simply on results. Finally, when school leaders truly seek out and understand the perspectives of their key stakeholder groups on a regular basis, they are able to meaningfully consider their perspectives when developing solutions to problems facing their schools.

You say this book is not just for principals, superintendents, and other district administrators. Who else should read this book and why?

Anyone who wants to influence how schools are shaped to better meet the needs of students should read this book. While designated leaders have significant responsibility for this goal, others who have a deep interest in closing equity gaps, rethinking how to more effectively engage students and support the ongoing growth and development of teachers will also benefit from exploring the ideas in this book.