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Progressive schools consistently lament the dearth of capable leaders who can take up the reins at the top and sustain a robust stride towards continued school improvement.  One of the challenges facing schools in the respective context is the changing role and skill set of leaders that are expected to thrive in a ubiquitous Digital world.  For example, a significant requirement for tomorrow’s school leaders is the penchant for service that goes beyond the professional demands of the assigned function and opens horizons for permeation of altruistic thought and meaningful contributions to the wider goal of ensuring a harmonious existence within the global community for mitigating/eliminating the chance of a misstep that might jeopardise a school’s future in an increasingly ‘sensitised’ and ‘connected’ world.

Additionally, most of the literature on leadership has been written before the dawn of the Digital Age and its disruptive influences.  Consequently, established leadership theories and conventional management practices are being relentlessly tested in an era where profitability is no longer a guarantee of sustainability and huge conglomerates are constantly looking over their shoulders with nervous anticipation of becoming irrelevant from ambitious start-ups.  Furthermore, gaining a degree is no longer considered ‘essential’ for career success as ‘abandonment’ has become ‘fashionable’ due to the ‘glaring’ achievements of ‘dropouts’, who continue to receive ‘rock star’ status within the start-up realm.  This is being reinforced by the huge influx of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and core emphasis on specific skills, rather than broad academic credentials.

The mandate for future school leaders increases in complexity when the exponential strides made by Artificial Intelligence (AI) are considered with the prospect of incorporating them eventually as ‘employees’, rather than, the status-quo of being considered as ‘advanced’ machines which have no place in schools.  Consequently, lessons from the past are largely becoming irrelevant as there is no reliable precedence for a Digital world that is constantly being reshaped by innovations that marginalise/outpace ‘established’ rules/regulations/norms of commerce and ‘prescriptive’ management practices.  Therefore, grooming the next crop of school leaders is being optimistically leveraged upon the sanctity of the current best practices and the probabilistic determination of formulated predictions for the future.

Consequently, identifying, developing and grooming potential school leaders, should be an ‘ingrained exercise’ woven within the fabric of the school’s culture.  This enables the establishment of an ‘embedded nursery’ for producing skilled school leaders who are not only critical to ensuring a bright future for the school but also, become worthy ambassadors of the school’s brand.  Such a move also converts associated risks with having competent leaders into competitive advantages, e.g., talent poaching is embraced instead of being feared since there is no shortage of skilled successors within the ranks and ‘fresh blood’ flowing through the school’s veins ensures long term vitality, agility and relevancy.

So, what are the key traits of a ‘true’ School leader in the Digital Age?  Let’s breakdown the word ‘LEADER’ into its constituent elements and then synthesise the segregated parts in a particular context to gain a clear and insightful understanding of the desired merits:

 Learner (L)

This refers to having the humility of an ‘always be learning’ attitude that is critical to thriving within the dynamics of a Digital world.  It requires an open mind that is accommodative to constructive views/perspectives from all facets of the organisation while being mindful of the strides being made by worthy disruptors and evolving rules/regulations.  It calls for the courage to embrace failures while having the boldness to experiment with innovative solutions despite internal dissension to overcome daunting challenges.

Earner (E)

This pertains to possessing the ability to increase the bandwidth of adding value to the organisation.  It entails the gaining of trust and confidence of team members to a level where they feel confident in loosening the ‘stringent’ expectations of the ‘psychological contract’ without the nagging fear that the element of ‘trustworthiness’ will not be egregiously violated in taking difficult decisions.  It also harbours the skilful fulfilment of the performance expectations from investors/shareholders.

Appealing (A)

This refers to the harnessing of personal qualities that create robust endearment with the team members.  It entails the channelization of ‘convincing power’ in a way that is more felt than expressed, to create consensus over the effective resolution of contentious issues.  It includes the optimum combination of nonverbal and verbal communication that strengthens organisational integration, promotes approachability and cements core values through the personal manifestation of being a role model.

Decisive (D)

This pertains to the intelligent consumption of available information and then taking astute decisions based on viable options while being mindful and accommodating of inherent risks.  It indicates the presence of a calm disposition that is unflappable under pressure and abounds with creativity and imagination in coming up with or deriving novel solutions.  It reflects a level of maturity/conscientiousness that accepts the trials and tribulations of leadership.  Such a demeanour is unfazed by the prospect of being ‘wrong’ and readily ‘accepts’ the consequences without shifting the blame on others.

Effective (E)

This pertains to being serenely comfortable and positively impactful in all the conventional and unconventional initiates undertaken as a leader.  It includes the prudent realisation that being a visionary is not enough anymore as momentous strides are made within the Digital realm and one has to step up to the pedestal of becoming a Futurist for securing the school’s journey of excellence in the relevant ecosystem.  It demands a person of strong personal integrity, sound professional expertise, incisive decision-making skills and steadfast commitment to pleasing and placating key stakeholders while solidifying the school’s standing.  It also reflects a willingness to allow the Talent Management practices to have the ‘breathing space’ for ‘Free Thinkers’ and ‘Trendsetters’ who are imbued with the ‘Change Imperative’ and enrich the ‘Organisational Aptitude’ in unconventional ways, while boosting their ‘Professional Relevance’ in the Digital World, as depicted below:

Reformer (R)

This refers to having an innovative mindset that is driven to disruption by a profound sense of purpose.  It reflects a personal promise of being transformative in refining ailing/inadequate business processes and maximizing the talent potential of the multigenerational workforce by assuring an optimum balance between ‘Crystallised Intelligence’ (prevalent in older team members) and ‘Fluid Intelligence’ (prevalent in younger team members).  It calls for someone who is intent on leaving an enduring positive legacy and is comfortable with establishing a strong line of capable successors.  It also reflects the ability to harmonise the ‘Organic’ and ‘Inorganic’ elements of the organisation, as depicted below:

The aforementioned traits reflect an enterprising and invigorating leader who is ready to meet the dynamic challenges of tomorrow, especially, in a burgeoning era of advanced automation and seamless autonomous functioning that is ‘commoditising’ conventional notions of excellence related to job performance while ‘relevance’ is steadily gaining stronger traction in being a more significant factor for determining obsolescence.  Is your leadership prepared accordingly?

By: Murad Mirza