10 (Interpersonal) Traits of Innovative School Leaders

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By: Dr. Justin Aglio and Dr. Donna Micheaux

“Change your future before it changes you.” – Jim Carroll

Innovation is on everyone’s mind—especially K-12 education leaders and school administrators who are constantly challenged to create educational opportunities that successfully prepare today’s students for their rapidly, ever-changing future.

So, what does it take to become an innovative leader?  Of course, there are the obvious leadership skills—expertise, the ability to analyze, problem-solve, collaborate and work with others. These skills are also necessary for innovative leaders, but not sufficient. There are other traits and interpersonal skills that are essential to the mindset of successful and innovative leaders, and according to Tony Wagner, the first innovation education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, most, if not all of them, can be fostered, nurtured and taught.

Here are 10 (interpersonal) traits of successful innovative school leaders:

1. Curiosity

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is an essential trait for innovative leaders. The desire to know and, more importantly, the insatiable appetite for seeking out the unknown is what sets successful innovative leaders apart. They are extremely inquisitive, always asking why, how, what if, imagine that—questions that push hard against what is known. So, what kinds of questions did you ask today? 

2. Creativity

Creativity and innovation are inextricably connected. Innovation requires new, fresh ideas, and often disruptive, challenging thinking. It requires leaders who are capable of imagining and conceptualizing unusual, unique ideas, who apply non-traditional solutions to traditional problems—creative thinkers who “associate” ideas from other unrelated fields and connect them to their ideas. Creative innovative leaders push hard against the known, think BIG and color outside of the lines. How do you keep your creative juices flowing?

3. Empathy

Innovative leaders are often required to sell their ideas to customers, clients, and to the people with whom they work. One way to sell a disruptive innovative idea is to make an emotional appeal—to create opportunities for others to actually experience empathy or resonance with your ideas. Similarly, innovative leaders must allow themselves to empathize and resonate with the perspectives of those impacted by the change and truly consider what they value and what is meaningful to them. For innovative leaders, empathy works both ways. What conditions do you create for others to experience empathy? How do you resonate with those with whom you work?

4. Persistence

Innovative ideas push hard against tradition, challenge the status quo and often focus on seemingly insurmountable tasks that force many to give up. Persistent innovative leaders embrace the challenges—they push, persist and stick with their ideas, even the crazy ones that don’t work at first. Imagine high school students deciding when to eat lunch—using an app to reserve a time to eat, just like Open Table in the real world. Imagine students determining whether or not they want to go to class, not having to ask permission to use the restroom, using balls rather than chairs for seats in their classrooms—all of out of the box, breakthrough innovative ideas that through persistence and not giving up, became a reality for students in the Montour School District. When is the last time you persisted in getting an “out of the box” BIG idea implemented?

5. Motivation

If motivation is essential, then how do innovative leaders inspire and motivate others?

Some leaders use empathy to nurture and inspire others to change. Others provide extrinsic motivation, rewarding those who adopt the changes. Most innovative leaders identify early adopters, those who are willing to try and use them to motivate others. Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, it’s clear that innovative leaders must become adept at motivating others. Who are your people—the ones who are willing to have a go—to give it a try?  What strategies do you use to motivate and inspire others to care enough to change?

6. Commitment

Successful and innovative leaders don’t just experiment or dabble with innovation, they are committed to innovation. They don’t just jump into change, they leap into change, faster-better—future-focused is their mantra. They constantly challenge the status quo, take risks and fully embrace that change is needed. They innovate because they want to, not because they have been told to do so. How committed are you to innovation?

7. Passion

Innovative leaders dig deep into their passion—they dream big and do what brings joy, not ordinary joy, extraordinary joy—the kind that “makes your heart sing”. Why? because that kind of passion is needed to generate new ideas, to motivate, and, most importantly, to persevere through the resistance to new ideas, the 10,000 no responses, and the new ways of being and doing that innovators undoubtedly face. Ask yourself, what makes your heart sing and then start singing? 

8. Optimism

Optimism is like a breath of fresh air that keeps innovative leaders in a positive, productive frame of mind often providing stamina and energy to face the challenges that come with innovation. True innovators see opportunities where others see challenges, they believe in their ideas, and their solutions. Optimists have a successful mindset—they cast off negativity and are true to their core values. What do you spread a sense of fresh air as a leader?

9. Agility

Innovation requires agile leaders who are skilled at adaptability. Leaders who are are flexible, comfortable with unplanned and unexpected change, uncertainty, and are able to effectively balance multiple demands, embrace new situations, and shift to emerging possibilities. Though leaders are often in situations where they are forced to adapt for survival, effective innovative leaders adapt to thrive. Do you model nimbleness and promote a culture of agility?  

10. Courage

It’s true that innovation is not for the faint at heart. Do you have the courage to follow your heart? How much are you willing to lose? Are you willing to stand alone?  How will you respond to the excuses—some of them perfectly legitimate: lack of time, lack of resources, lack of knowledge, competing priorities—to not change?  What will you do when others test your resolve? Will you give up? Will you begin to doubt your ideas? What price are you willing to pay for innovation?

Overall, the most important takeaway is that there is no perfect recipe to be an effective and innovative school leader. Innovation is about listening and supporting. School leaders that promote a culture of innovation will spark an innovative environment where everyone is possessive of these traits and innovation moves forward from upper to lower and lower to upper management.

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Dr. Donna Micheaux is a committed educator and staunch advocate for ensuring quality learning experiences and opportunities for all children. Most recently, she served as the Deputy Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Chief of Schools Officer for the Dallas Independent School District. Learn more: www.donnamicheaux.com (Twitter: @djmicheaux)

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Justin Aglio

Dr. Justin Aglio is the founding senior director for the Readiness Institute at Penn State. In addition to his duties at Penn State, he is a visiting LearnLab fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, Getting Smart columnist, and a member of the Remake Learning network.

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