Lead by Design, Not Default


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5 Questions to Define Your Personal Leadership Brand

Have you ever felt like you were operating on autopilot at work?  I have.  At one point, I was working as an elementary principal of a k-6 school, and every day my morning routine, barring any emergency, was the same. I would get to school early, check my email, calendar, and subs for the day, stop in the teachers’ lounge and then head out to greet students/families as they arrived at school. It wasn’t a bad routine, in fact, there is a lot to celebrate here, but it had become so automatic it started to lose its’ luster.  I was caught in a “rinse, lather, repeat” cycle and I was no longer clear on why this had become my routine in the first place. I was leading by default. It was time to shake things up. Is it time for you to shake up and redesign how you lead?

The exciting part is that anything that has been designed can be redesigned.  Anything at any time can be redesigned.  We can choose to lead by design, or we can let inertia have its way, stay on autopilot, and lead by default.  Let’s be honest, leading by default is the easy option. You can do what has always been done, but is that why you chose to be a leader?  I’m guessing not.  I’m guessing you chose to be a leader to make a difference, improve learning and make a big impact on the future of our world.  If so, choose to lead like a designer.

Leading like a designer means not accepting the default options in leadership or in life.  Here is a fun example to think about.  Adam Wharton, author of Originals: How NonConformists Move the World, uncovered insights about what your web browser says about you. When you purchase a computer, it comes with a default browser installed: Internet Explorer if you own a PC, Safari if you own a Mac. The actual browser you use doesn’t matter; what does matter is how you acquired it. Sixty-seven percent of computer users stick with the default browser without ever questioning whether or not there is a better option. They just assume they are stuck with what they have. Those who select and download Chrome or Firefox display initiative and take steps to personalize their browsing experience. Choosing the default system is certainly easier. It is a stance that says, “The world is supposed to be this way; therefore, I don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.” This default stance also keeps us from considering alternative and, in many cases, better solutions. What are the default settings of your leadership or at your school?

If you don’t want to be a part of the majority who choose default settings, here are five questions to ask yourself that will help you lead more intentionally by design.

  1. What is my leadership mindset? (What are your values? How do these influence your mindset and your work?)
  2. How do I want others to experience me as a leader? (How do you want to make others feel? Is it clear who you are (and who you are not?)
  3. Who do I want to model my leadership after? (Who inspires you?  How can you surround yourself with leaders who inspire you?)
  4. How will I cultivate meaningful relationships as a leader? (What actions will you take to build relationships?  With whom do you need to build stronger relationships?)
  5. How do I want to change and grow as a leader? (What areas of curiosity will you dive into? How will you evolve over time?)

Answering these five questions will help you begin to design how you lead and create your own personal brand of leadership.  How you lead can be different from other principals, superintendents that came before you.  It can be different from your colleagues or how educational leaders are portrayed in the media. You do not need to be like the sixty-seven percent of people who accept the default settings of life.  I’m convinced together we can redesign the role of educational leaders and create a system where all leaders are leading by design rather than default.


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