Leadership Compliance or Agility?

Today’s blog post in an exert from my book School Leadership: Learner-Centered Leadership In Times Of Crisis. I know this sounds weird, but I was rereading my own book yesterday and discovered some things that I really liked! One idea that I discuss at length in the book revolves around being future-oriented, or reactive, and compliance-driven or agile. At the end of the day, all leaders have to find the middle ground between these dichotomies that allow the school to operate efficiently while also being responsive to future changes.

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“Jane, I don’t know if I have a question or just a random thought,” Craig said, as he frowned at his own notes. “I just can’t get a dichotomy out of my head as I listened to your really thorough explanation for the matrix you developed—it’s great! But there’s a tension in my job between ‘leading’ and ‘managing.’ The tension occurs when the skills and the why on your matrix don’t intersect between leading and managing. Are the skills for each aspect unique, or do they align with each other? I know to become an effective leader you must be an effective manager. Striking a balance between leading and managing is essential—not only for those of us with the title ‘principal’ or ‘superintendent’ but for all of our staff. Think about it, a teacher with few management skills will struggle to be an effective instructor.”

He paused, waiting for the group to absorb the tension he felt. “Go on, Craig,” encouraged Rob. “I think you’re on to something critical.”

“Okay, the first step in embedding leadership into your school is to define the difference between leading and managing. This is not to imply that one is more, or less, important than the other. What I am saying is that it is important to dissect the differences and start to understand where you are on a leadership/manager continuum.”

Everyone around the table knew Craig often struggled with the friction between leadership and management. A high school principal can easily allow themselves to become too heavily entrapped in either direction, toward leadership or management. It was a topic he often brought up at their team meetings as he sought clarity for his own career journey.

He continued, “All of us have a certain predisposition when it comes to where we feel comfortable in the leadership/management spheres. The important part is not where you land on the continuum. The importance is that you recognize your comfort zone. It is knowing that you tend to lean in one direction or the other keeps you from becoming biased in one or the other.

As I mentioned before, I am not putting a stake in the ground and claiming that leadership or management is more important than the other. What I’ve done in my mind is to create components of leadership and management. Two components continually come to mind when I think about this topic—and you all know I think about it a lot!

One component is agility. The other is compliance assurance. It seems to me there is a continuum of where leaders fall. Compliance is an important facet of our job. Making sure that State and Federal regulations are complied with is a moral and ethical requirement. Maybe even more so now. However, you can become too focused on compliance issues. The saying ‘paralysis by analysis’ comes to mind. Let’s face it, anyone can become overwhelmed by the smorgasbord of compliance issues facing education leaders but trying to guarantee perfection in compliance of all programs leads to fear. Think of Ben, from our neighboring district.”

Rob knew exactly what Craig meant by bringing Ben up as an example. “One of my most popular blog posts on our district web site was entitled ‘Compliance Zombies,” said Rob. “The point of the blog post was to warn leaders not to become too reliant on compliance issues as a measuring stick on whether or not you are doing a good job. I was also careful to state something similar in the blog to what you just said, Craig. Like it or not, compliance is an important part of our role as school leaders. It just has to be coupled with other measures of success.”

“Remember how hard it is to come up with other measures of success,” said Karen, as she reorganized the stack of notes in front of her. “I know all of us have started the conversation about alternate measures of success for the new leadership reality we are facing. I am finding it’s difficult to get people beyond test scores. There are so many other ways to measure success. Still, our system of schooling from the Federal level to the State level glorifies and requires some sort of assessment criteria, which is a compli- ance issue we face every year.”

“I can see where the word ‘compliance’ and test scores can get conflated,” Rob said. “In a lot of ways, test scores are the ultimate compliance weapon, hanging over the heads of all educators like the sword of Damocles. But we must be careful not to have a knee-jerk reaction in education to bring everything back to test scores. In this instance, I think Craig is talking about setting a structure within a leader’s purview that realistically sets standards of excellence. Obviously, part of the structure will have a component of test scores and what we build around that is up to us. I have a friend that says our job as leaders is to be ‘creatively non-compliant,’ meaning we should all go to the limits of what is required and create our own ways to measure whether we are successful or not.”

“I get what you are saying Rob,” replied Diane as she looked up from her notes. “The challenge lies in the fact that most of our teachers, administrators, and other leaders have been raised in the accountability/measurability/sanction system created in 2002 with No Child Left Behind. Many people simply do not know any other system other than a compliance system. What you’re suggesting is completely unfamiliar territory.”

Rob paused a moment before answering. He was always proud when someone on the leadership team disagreed or pushed back and he was keen to honor the act of “disagreeing with the boss.”

“I have never really thought about it like that, Diane. It seems that the default answer for anything that smells of compliance in education is to talk about test scores. I get it and it’s worth talking about. For now, let’s get back to the continuum that Craig is talking about and see if we can help him sort through this dichotomy. On one end, there is compli- ance, and on the other end, there is agility. Craig, what did you mean by agility?”


Agility in leadership is having the courage to act when there is not an easy answer.

“This is going to sound corny,” Craig said. “But I wrote a slogan down to tryto capture my feelings on this. Here it is: ‘Agility in leadership is having the courage to speak when there is not an easy answer.’ A lot of times, it is easy to fall back on a rule or policy to give you an answer…and sometimes it does. But we all know that in a VUCA world, there are many instances where there is no ‘right’ decision, only decisions that can have multiple outcomes. Courageously pivoting to make decisions based on limited knowledge in an uncertain world is my definition of agility.

Think of a time when you had to change what you planned on doing. For example, you may have planned on doing staff evaluations, but you notice a grant opportunity that’s due in a few days, so you immediately start planning for that by convening a grant workgroup. We all experience this in our daily lives. The trick is to take that same agility you exhibited ‘on the run’ and apply it to planning long-term. Seeing opportunities where others may see barriers helps your organization. It was musician Rita Coolidge who said, ‘Too often, the opportunity knocks, but by the time you push back the chain, push back the bolt, unhook the two locks and shut off the burglar alarm, it’s too late.’ Being agile means you kick down the door and lead your organization into the future. Don’t let the door to opportunity remain closed due to reliance on policies, rules, and procedures.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” said Karen. “I see what you mean about there is no right or wrong on the continuum, only that you can’t live on either end too much and be too afraid to move forward and lead. I think we also agree that we should heavily lean towards the agile side.”

The rest of the team all nodded in agreement.

Rob cleared his throat. “That’s an excellent reminder to keep progressing. We can’t let ourselves get stuck in the weeds—or we’ll end up managing just this crisis while abandoning our goal to become learner-centered. We must stay focused on where we want to be and make decisions that will get us there. So, to piggy-back on this topic of continuums, I’d like to talk about how we can avoid getting mired by policy and remain agile.”

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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