What Makes An Innovative Leader?

What Makes An Innovative Leader?

In June of 2016, I left the role of building principal, one I held for eleven years spanning two districts in Massachusetts, and transitioned to a central office position to support digital learning and innovation in Milford Public Schools. As I’ve transitioned to this new role, I’ve learned more about what it means to be an innovative leader. What follows are a few key elements I’ve observed that are critical to moving innovative leadership into action.


In my experience as a building principal and district digital learning leader, I believe to become an innovative leader, one must start with a clear vision and sense of purpose. Effective innovative leaders can vividly describe their vision of the future, and can paint a clear picture of that destination to others. They build teams and define the steps on how to get there.

In my experience, vision has a variety of definitions, all of which include a mental image or picture, a future orientation, and aspects of direction or goal. Too often, “vision” is used as a “buzz word” and not something the leader believes in. True vision provides a roadmap for the school and its stakeholders by providing a picture of success. Innovative leaders can clearly communicate this vision for the school to inspire, motivate, and engage people.

Lead by example

There's not much worse for school morale than leaders who practice the "Do as I say, not as I do" philosophy. When this happens, you can see the loss of enthusiasm and trust among the staff. If you're in a leadership position, then you know your staff looks to you for guidance and strength.

I’ve had the great fortune to study leadership with wonderful colleagues at Boston College and worked together to make significant progress in becoming innovative leaders in our schools. I felt it was important during my time with these leaders for us not only to talk about leadership, but to walk the walk and use a variety of the tools we were beginning to explore so that in addition to learning about theoretical implications of innovative practices, we would have hands on experience in discovering what it was like using these tools. What we saw from our faculty was that when we as the leaders used innovative tools (i.e. wikis, blogs, twitter, and Evernote), our staff quickly followed.

Create a culture of trust that leads to risk taking

Let's face it, we all make mistakes. However, we usually learn from these times. True innovative leaders support a culture of trust and risk taking. Amy Edmondson says “Trust in schools comes down to one thing: psychological safety.” Innovative leaders support a school culture where all stakeholders can openly and honestly discuss what they believe is and isn’t working, to make collective decisions, to take risks, and to fail—all things researchers tell us are required for deep organizational change and transformation.

Innovative leaders foster a culture that is warm, collaborative, and accessible to all. This culture then can encourage all colleagues to offer ideas and try new initiatives/teaching strategies. By creating this culture, leaders create a safe physical and emotional spaces for teachers to explore and develop innovative learning opportunities. This cultural shift encourages more collaboration and less competition among faculty to use digital tools and become creative in planning and lesson delivery.

School leaders are asking educators to create a classroom culture where students think critically. Then, innovative leaders should also be creating that same culture at the school level. If a leader fosters and embraces a culture of innovation and risk taking, then teachers and students learn to do the same thing. This culture of thinking pushes the school or educator to find better and better ways to meet the needs of students.

With that say, this culture doesn’t come easily to schools. According to Bryk and Schneider, the adults in a school community rely on each other to do their jobs correctly and with integrity. If we are going to be true innovative leaders, we have to build a trusting environment because a lot of ideas may take time to develop and try.

Move swiftly

Innovative leaders stress action steps and accountability measures to ensure swift implementation. This can be a challenge because we are asking our colleagues to plan for and act on initiatives or ideas that may have not been tried in the past and possibly with undefined outcomes. For example, launching a blended learning environment was new for our staff, however with the vision and support teachers tried and implemented ideas like student group presentations using Google Slides. Then it was exciting to see those same educators collaborate with each other to build on the ideas and push thinking and options for instruction and student presentations.

Innovative leaders believe rapid prototypes (or ideas) are preferred to lengthy meetings, large committees, and overthinking. It is more efficient to try an idea and improve on it than to wonder if something will work. However to operate in this lens, innovative leaders must be open to accept candid communication. Moving swiftly will allow ideas to go from the idea phase to implementation phase to observational phase to improvement phase and then back to implementation.

One idea tried and implemented in Milford, for example, was creating an innovation team consisting of teachers, school and district administrators, and any staff members interested. Once this team was created, we met regularly to share ideas, following the “one meeting” rule. When an idea was brought up, someone would implement that idea and bring feedback to the next meeting where she would discuss the outcomes. The team could suggest ways to improve or share this idea so others can try it in their schools or classrooms. This structure helped encourage more ideas and a process for sharing and collaborating with colleagues.

Sharing the ideas

From my time as a school and now district leader, I believe innovative leaders should try to create new ideas, but it is more important that they create a culture of innovation. We need to empower colleagues and then get out of their way so they can build on ideas. This only happens where there is a vision and a safe and supportive culture of risk taking, trust, and swift implementation. Innovative leaders not only “think” differently, but they “act” differently. Now is the time to act and put these innovative characteristics into action.

We as innovative leaders also need to share ideas. In this article I share a few. Now it is your turn. Tweet to @milford_tech @techlearning #InnovativeIdeas and we can begin to share even more ideas.

Matthew X. Joseph is the Director of Digital Learning, Informational Technology, and Innovation at Milford (MA) Public Schools.