(from a non-leader perspective)

 

I have worked as the registrar at UVEI for almost ten years. My start date coincided with the conclusion of a “strategic planning” year, and now, almost ten years later, we are in the midst of our next strategic planning year. Strategic planning follows a cycle, and I feel privileged to now be seeing the part of that cycle that I had just missed when I started working here.

 

In my experience so far this year with the strategic planning process, I am reminded often of the term “distributed leadership”. I have been tempted in the past to think of it as a bit of a buzzword: a catchy way of saying that leadership doesn’t have to come from the top down but is something that everyone at an organization gets to participate in. But despite so many organizations stating that they value distributed leadership, is it really the lived reality of the staff who do not have “leader” in their job title? The strategic planning process is showing me what this can look like and that yes, it is actually possible.

 

Strategic planning as a whole looks at the big picture. For UVEI, that includes who we are as an organization and where we are headed. What is the impact that we have, and desire to have, on education in Vermont and New Hampshire? How do we achieve our goals? How do we measure our success? How do we ensure that our work is sustainable? 

 

All of these tasks have inspired me to think deeply about the mission and values, to listen to others’ thoughts, and to feel ownership of what results.

 

These general questions guide us to look at all of the details of UVEI, from staffing to communications to the mission statement. Our deep dive into the mission statement, alongside the core values that guide our work, is what we have been working on most recently. As someone who is participating rather than leading this particular effort, I am struck by how invested I feel in the process. I have reflected on my own role at UVEI and how these values guide my work. I have learned how these values guide the work of my colleagues and have seen patterns and commonalities across all of our reflections. I have seen how this work has led to some proposed changes, and have been tasked with providing specific feedback on those changes. All of these tasks have inspired me to think deeply about the mission and values, to listen to others’ thoughts, and to feel ownership of what results.

 

Because this has been a powerful experience for me, and because distributed leadership is often talked about with respect to K-12 schools, I was curious to know what this type of leadership looks like in those settings. I asked my colleague Elijah Hawkes, UVEI’s Director of School Leadership and former principal of Randolph Union High School, what his experience of distributed leadership has been at the K-12 level. Elijah notes that “When I think about distributed leadership in K-12 schools, I think about democratic ways of solving problems that are shared across different groups and teams.” He points out that when the principal meets with the faculty, or when department/team leaders meet with their teams, there should be “similar processes used so that all voices are heard and people seek solutions together about stuff that matters to their work. This is not about voting, necessarily, but about processes for collaboration over time.” Elijah goes on to point out that “If we want to take distributed leadership a step further, those ways of listening and solving problems among the adults can have strong parallels to how adults work with young people, such that everyone in the school is involved in leading work to make the community stronger.”

 

“If we want to take distributed leadership a step further, those ways of listening and solving problems among the adults have strong parallels to how adults work with young people, such that everyone in the school is involved in leading work to make the community stronger.” – Elijah Hawkes

 

This type of deliberate effort to engage everyone in leading and moving an organization forward certainly gives me hope. At UVEI, the effort to examine and fine tune our mission and values will continue for all of us. Feedback will be collected by the leaders, new language will be examined by all, and we will end up with a statement that is the final product of our collective effort. This entire process has illustrated for me what “distributed leadership” is here at UVEI. It’s leadership that includes not just planning and decisions but deep reflection, discussion, and listening. It’s when those activities are shared by many, “leaders” or not, who have a stake in the outcome – as Elijah pointed out, it is “stuff that matters” to our work. It’s when those who participate feel a sense of ownership in the final product. It takes time, it requires trust and positive relationships, and it is indeed possible.