The 7 Steps to Innovative Leadership

Find out what innovative leaders do to cultivate a culture of creativity and critical thinking.

by Tanya Roscorla / October 25, 2010 0

PHOENIX — Education Secretary Arne Duncan asks schools and states to innovate. Schools ask teachers to innovate. Teachers ask students to innovate.

But school administrators need to lead the way by innovating. And at the T+L conference in Phoenix on Oct. 20, they found out how.

In a session on Innovative Leadership, Cheryl Lemke, President and CEO of the education technology consulting firm Metiri Group, shared seven steps to becoming an innovative leader. Here they are:


1. Embrace the challenge

Innovative leaders do not delegate creativity and innovation; they lead it. And innovative leaders cultivate a culture of critical and creative thinking that takes on challenges.

By the way, creativity topped the list of the most important leadership qualities needed over the next five years, according to a 2010 IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs. 

At High Tech High in the San Diego area, leaders challenged the concept that they had to move students from class to class throughout the day. They presented the staff with the challenge and asked them to come up with a creative solution. As a result, the teachers created a new schedule. In the morning, one educator teaches language arts and social studies. And in the afternoon, another educator teaches math and science.

2. Drive change through collective creativity and knowledge

Innovative leaders show creativity and seek knowledge. When they drive change, they both tolerate and criticize digital technology — and the way kids use it.

3. Shape the culture

Innovative leaders create a culture of risk, change, and critical and creative thinking. They think for themselves, and they don't just follow rules blindly. They shift from rules to principles. They open their schools to different ideas and don't mind breaking established rules when they no longer make sense.

They ask hard questions and expect the school community to grapple with the questions alongside them.  And they really listen to what educators say.

"As a leader, if you’re in a meeting, you should be talking the least of anyone else in that meeting,” Lemke said.

A number of years ago, a new principal in Illinois met with his staff and said they had one year to turn their school around. If they didn't, the Illinois State Board of Education where Lemke worked would shut it down.

The principal didn't change any of the staff members in the school when he arrived. Instead, he asked for their ideas on how to meet the challenge. He said they had to break some rules and wanted to know what they really wanted to do.

"By the end of the year, they had a plan in place, and the following year they were off probation," Lemke said. "It was really astounding.”

4. Establish a professional learning system

Innovative leaders create professional learning communities in their schools. According to Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad, effective professional learning is:

  • sustained over time
  • content-based
  • embedded in professional learning communities
  • focused on concrete tasks in teaching, assessment, observation and reflection
  • modeled in authentic settings 

5. Decide and systematize

Innovative leaders create a blueprint of principles, professional development, strategies, approaches and resources. Then they get out of the way and let their staff figure out the details.

6. Ensure digital access and infrastructure

Innovative leaders will build the capacity for teachers and students to learn through blogs, wikis and virtual environments by laying a solid infrastructure foundation.

"Without that, you’re not going to be able to orchestrate a lot of the things that they’re doing,” Lemke said.

7. Demand accountability

Innovative leaders delegate responsibility but put accountability in place. In the beginning, they set low stakes so that people become comfortable with taking risks, failing and learning by experience.

"The people that you have in your system right now are capable of doing the kind of innovation we want to happen," she said. "Many of them just don’t have the opportunity.”

In conclusion, she said that innovative leaders need to give them that opportunity.


Full presentation slides, including characteristics of effective leaders

Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study

Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad