President's Message by Lorrie Owens
Non-Positional Leadership in K-12 Technology
When many people in K-12 think about leadership, their thoughts go immediately to the superintendent or the superintendent’s cabinet. The traditional idea is that one must have a title, or position, to exercise leadership within an agency. However, the most effective positional leaders are the ones who developed their leadership skills long before they acquired the title. Even of those who have the positional title, the most effective leaders are ones who operate from their abilities to influence, and not from the power granted by their titles.
The first step in developing non-positional leadership skills is understanding what a leader is and what a leader is not. A leader is, to put it very simply, an influencer. Every person with a title is not necessarily an influencer. Some people in organizations are followed simply because they have the title, but do not truly influence anyone. Other people, however, are seen as the person to be consulted before moving forward on an initiative, regardless of their title. These are the people who are true non-positional leaders.
It is especially important for those of us who support technology in the education industry to embrace and exercise the concept of non-positional leadership. Why? Because technology, for so many of the stakeholders we support, is still an enigma. We do have some stakeholders who are technically savvy and excited about developing technologies, and always open to learning new and innovative ways to use technology in performing their jobs. But we also have stakeholders who see technology as a necessary evil and would rather interact with it as little as possible. Whether our stakeholders love or hate technology, we have opportunities every day to influence them in a positive and effective way, regardless of our own title. As the importance of technology in education grows, so does the importance of strong leadership in the area of educational technology.
HTMLPracticing non-positional leadership within an organization is not advocating for anarchy or chaos. There are three key components we must adhere to for non-positional leaders to be effective. The first is that all non-positional leaders must understand the organization’s mission. Some K-12 organizations are better than others about clearly articulating their mission. Whether the mission is clearly defined and widely communicated or not, it is a safe bet that the mission of every K-12 organization is centered on providing effective learning experiences for their students. Thus, each non-positional leader in K-12 technology must understand that our ultimate goal is not creating a faster network or increasing the number of Chromebooks in our classrooms. These goals may be a means to an end, but not the end itself. Everything we do should tie back to how we are enhancing the educational experiences of our students, whether we do it directly or indirectly. When our stakeholders see that our goals align with those of the whole organization, and that we are not operating within a vacuum, their trust in us grows exponentially and with that, our influence with them.
The second component of non-positional leadership that we must master is that of truly understanding the business. One of the biggest mistakes that those of us supporting technology in education make when defining what we do is in thinking of ourselves solely as technology professionals. However, our business is education; our specialty is technology. It is not only imperative for us to stay current in the specific technical areas we support, but with education in general. We should all understand the basics of what is being communicated when we hear the terms personalized learning, maker spaces, pedagogy, STEAM and STEM, flipped classrooms, SAMR, and a host of other terms used in our industry. We should know what an LCAP is. We don’t need to be experts in these areas, no more than our teachers need to know how to configure a router. But we should understand the basics of the business of education. When we take the time to do so, our stakeholders are more likely to see those of us as allies, and not as a group of people to work around. They are more likely to work with us, not against us, and to include us in their decision-making processes early on. They are more likely to listen to our advice, and thus our influence with them grows.
The third area that we must understand and continually develop is that of our relationships with people. For those of us who work with technology, quite frankly, some days it would be much easier to lock ourselves away with the equipment. Sometimes, even complex technical problems are easier to figure out than some people. Most of us have encountered at least one person in our careers who dislike us or avoid us not because of any animosity towards us personally, but simply because we are the “tech guy” or the “tech girl” and their opinion/comfort level with technology is not very high. However, these are the very people we should seek out and build relationships with. Remember, our business is education, and education is a people-centric business. Although we don’t have the time to go out to lunch or have coffee with the various stakeholders in our organizations, we can take the time to get to know something about them as people, as individuals, even in routine conversations or service calls. We can take the time to allow them to know something about us as individuals. We can take the time to say something that might brighten their day, or to let them know we understand the challenges they are facing. The transformation in how we are thought of, when our stakeholders see us as people and not just the “tech guy” or “tech girl” can be significant. And once that relationship is established, the influence flows naturally. The person will seek us out, value our advice, and include us in the decision-making process because they value us as people and as professionals.
Why should we have all of this non-positional leadership activity going on? Isn’t that the responsibility of the CTO? An effective CTO is actually encouraging non-positional leadership skills in every member of the technology division. Each of us are experts in our specific technical areas. When each member of the technology team shares this expertise through the exercising of non-positional leadership skills, the entire organization, and especially our students, are the winners.