Second-Order Leadership

Developing a systemic mindset that identifies leaders in all corners of the school district

By Mark A. Edwards/School Administrator, May 2015

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Teacher Laura Bosak watches her 5th graders at East Mooresville Intermediate School in Mooresville, N.C., where school-based leadership teams are driving the digital transformation.

"We need to go over these words a few more times to make sure we really have it down tight.” Julia, a Mooresville High School sophomore, was working as a summer intern with a small group of 3rd graders in our school district’s summer literacy program.

    “These words are so hard, and I am tired,” Tommy, a young student, moaned.

    “Come on now — you all have been doing great and later this week, we are counting on each of you to help a 1st grader with their new words,” Julia responded.

    “All right, we can do this!” Tommy said, smiling, as he sat down at the table.

    The administrative intern (one of our teacher leaders) who was running our summer literacy camp for 1st through 3rd graders was proud of the leadership culture we were jointly witnessing that summer morning, and she told me it was working.

    “The high school interns are doing a fantastic job, and the students really like working with them. Now we are using 3rd graders to work with 1st graders. We have budding leaders all over the place!”

    As the superintendent, I loved hearing this from yet another budding leader and knew we were seeing the evolution of a new culture of leadership. This emerging approach to leadership in Mooresville, a city school district with 6,020 students in the center of North Carolina, is one that we refer to as “second-order leadership.”

    Over the last eight years in our districtwide digital conversion, we have seen the merging of formative information, widespread collaboration and a systemic belief that leadership should be distributed. This assimilation has resulted in an energy/synergy fusion of ubiquitous leadership that is really at the heart of our success.

Abundant Leadership
Whether it is a 3rd-grade student coaching a 1st grader or a high school sophomore encouraging elementary students, myriad opportunities are available every day to make use of an abundance of leaders. We have had hundreds of visitors to Mooresville over the last several years to see our digital conversion in action, and although our first intent is to show off the digital tools and resources in action, almost every visitor leaves talking about our culture and, in particular, the distribution of leadership

Read More:
Second-Order Collaboration of Extremes
By Terry Grier

    During a recent visit to Mooresville with several school system leaders, Superintendent Steve Joel of Lincoln, Neb., described what he saw this way: “Every teacher that I talk to just seems to be a standup leader, and seeing students lead project groups is just amazing. It is exciting to see this evolve and how we could replicate it.”

    It all starts with developing a systemic mindset that leaders are everywhere, and we should take advantage of them. We have found that the exponential increase in collaboration, along with the flow of digital information, has produced an opportunity to tap into this new leadership practice.

    We have developed practices and beliefs that inculcate leaders at every level of our work — involving students, staff at all levels and community members. One of the most vital action points with this work is the formal and informal effort to develop leaders and to expect others to lead. Principals see teachers and staff as a leadership resource and use their experience and insight in making decisions and planning.

    At Mooresville High School, the principal has leveraged our tech facilitators (we have two serving a school of 2,000 students) to work with department chairs to motivate and inspire teachers to take their game to a whole new level.

    This differs from many school systems that are deeply rooted in a practice and mindset that leaders are few and the focus is on effective followership. We believe peers dramatically influence how and when teachers, students and staff are compelled to do their best work and to build excellence into daily routines. In our environment of constantly applying digital information, we now have opportunities to make timely adjustments and have a new level of precision that allows us to dial into nuances of the learning process that require a fluid response.

Leadership Fractals
Most of us are familiar with decisions being made in a linear order with a chain of command and process. With second-order leadership, we see much more of a fractal dynamic with the opportunity for leadership to pop up in ever-increasing ways.

    Teachers in Mooresville are constantly using formative data to adjust, speed up or slow down, expand or focus and align efforts. We also see teachers new to the district as fully capable and often essential to leading decisions. When we are introducing new digital content or instructional apps and resources, the very best individual to lead successful implementation may well be a first-year teacher or a faculty member who never has been in a formal leadership role but has special content knowledge or expertise with digital tools.

    We also see students becoming leaders as they constantly influence their work and others via collaborative projects. It is vital to maximize opportunities for students to exercise leadership in classrooms to fully develop their potential. We also must inculcate a culture of respect when building and exercising leadership. Students need to show respect for all members of the team and understand the team includes everyone.

Everyone Can Lead
We have numerous support staff who demonstrate leadership by committing to excellence in their work, but also by their willingness to step up and lead. Custodians, bus drivers, food service personnel and clerical staff have both the opportunity and the need to exercise leadership. This leadership can be realized in mentoring new employees, greeting students or showing determination through challenges. We consistently engage our staff in discussions about the work we are doing and how to go about it

    Teachers, students and administrators have daily opportunities to lead by encouraging and sharing with others. We develop this collegial disposition as a requisite skill with all new employees and all students on an ongoing basis. I really believe the trigger point of distributing leadership is recognizing and encouraging the progress of others. When this becomes part of the culture, it creates a dynamic of support, respect and responsibility in a profound way.

    We also see our work with parents, business leaders, service providers, service agencies and community organizations as an integral resource to engage and develop as part of our leadership work. Last November, a coalition of community leaders led the passage of a $119 million school construction bond, the largest in the county’s history, with more than 70 percent of Mooresville residents approving the measure.

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Damien Akelman (left), a help desk coordinator, works with high school teachers Cindy Watson and Brian Dunagan during the Mooresville district’s Summer Institute for Professional Development.

Aligned for Leading
We have developed systemic practices that support and inculcate a wide distribution and readiness for myriad leaders in every school, in every classroom and in daily conversations. These actions greatly influence personal and collective work. 

    We have established leadership teams at each school with eight to 10 teacher-leaders who are the grade-level, department and content chairs, along with principals and assistant principals. These teams meet throughout the year. In addition, three times per year we conduct data/information meetings with district leaders to review formative data and information. In those meetings, teacher leaders manage the dialogue around each school’s progress and improvement needs. We look at content-area formative data and review individual teachers and teams in this process.

    It took us about four years to get comfortable with this complex — and sometimes emotional — strand of leadership. We have developed our skills with this work, and now our teacher-leaders are adept at looking at any areas needing adjustment, including their own. This enables them to take the lead in designing plans to achieve individual and team goals. Over the years, we have rotated leaders on these teams. As a result, dozens of teachers have made vital contributions to our “leadership conversation.” They are heard and respected, and their voice matters.

    We have worked on pushing the leadership of our media specialist/librarians out to support and influence the research and project work that our teachers are leading with students. They now are part of the school-level leadership teams and have broadened their roles and value as leaders supporting teacher and student work.

Connected and Caring
In addition to developing a broad network of leaders with constructed and spontaneous opportunities to play leadership roles, we have seen the sheer power and importance of an evolving network of professional caring and connectedness among our teams.

    Meeting the needs of all students and sustaining a culture of innovation is challenging. As leaders, we rise to the challenge by making sure we provide professional nurturance to our teachers to lift and propel students into leaders.

    We recognize that leaders provide the cultural actions of caring for and connecting people as they work through daily challenges. Just knowing that a team of leaders is there to encourage and acknowledge teachers and students allows for an ambiance of professional nurturance. Attention to daily nurturance is part of a new equation of our leadership formula that has been the fuel that drives our innovation and achievement engines. Quite frankly, we need a lot of leaders in a lot of places to provide this vital foundation for our work.

Situational Leaders
We have discovered that with the fast-flowing availability of information in a digital environment, we need students and teachers ready to lead “in the moment” if we are to fully use available resources. Student project teams provide a constant source of leadership opportunities. Our teachers and administrators are constantly designing and leading professional development for our team and many other districts.

    We have leveraged our digital content knowledge, the systems analysis and application of data, and the pervasive culture of leadership as the basis for our annual Summer Connection. At this conference, which sells out every year, we provide training and share our strategies with staff from school districts nationwide. This summer will be our sixth year holding the Summer Connection, and a significant team of leaders from Mooresville will take their leadership to another level.

    We believe that our recognition, development and use of extraordinary leaders enables us to take our innovation and success to greater heights. Second-order leadership has propelled Mooresville Graded School District to create and sustain a successful culture for academic excellence.


Mark Edwards is superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District in Mooresville, N.C. E-mail: Twitter: @MGSD_Mark. He is the author of Thank You for Your Leadership: The Power of Distributed Leadership in a Digital Conversion Model.