One of my eduheroes, Flip Flippen, taught me many years ago that, “No organization can rise above the constraints of its leadership.” Whether we are a part of a team, school, or district, the collective group will never rise above the limits or restrictions of its leader. This statement was powerful for me—I became intentional in learning my own constraints over the past decade. However, in my personal experience, it is not usually the norm for education leaders to be pushed to develop skills to identify and overcome the limitations of their leadership. 

Recent research conducted by the Learning Policy Institute in collaboration with the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that “only 32% of elementary school principals regularly shared practices with peers; 23% had a mentor or coach in the past two years, and 56% participated in professional learning communities three or more times.” Instead, the growing demands of school leaders result in more meetings regarding school/district improvement plans, accreditations from the state, mandated testing, social-emotional learning, college and career readiness, and, for the past two years, COVID protocols. All of these issues are important, but we can’t let the lack of leadership development for principals and superintendents continue to be the norm. 

Professional development for principals is something I was never offered in my 20-plus years of experience in several districts, unless I sought out that learning. Learning and growing is part of my value system, so I often connected and surrounded myself with other like-minded education leaders. Linking with leaders I admired and respected had a significant impact on my growth.

Five years ago, I pioneered the Women In Secondary Education (WISE) Voxer group—a “walkie talkie” app for team communication. This group of extraordinary female leaders in education started as a Twitter and Voxer group called Mom as Principals. The power of social media is incredible. I loved the weekly, sometimes daily, dialogue with this original group, but I was craving more discussion and support in the secondary administrative arena. I ended up recruiting women serving grades 6–12 to begin another group, and WISE Women was born. 

WISE Women consists of 10 female leaders from four different states, 10 different cities, and 10 districts. During the past five years, this group has never met in person simultaneously, and most of our conversations have been using the Voxer app. A few of us have met in person at conferences. We even met each other face-to-face for the first time at a conference and then later presented together that same day! 

Mindful of Masterminds

If you’ve not thought about the term “mastermind” much, now’s the time to make the word a part of your journey in leadership. Danny Bauer, author of Mastermind: Unlocking Talent Within Every School Leader, defines an educational mastermind as a “hybrid group coaching and leadership development community. Put another way—we are a leadership incubator for world-class educators. The mastermind is a safe, confidential community where you can be authentic and get the challenge you’re looking for to take your leadership to the next level.” Masterminds are no strangers to the corporate world. However, they are now becoming critical in the current challenges we face in education. 

When the pandemic hit in 2020, I felt, as many administrators did, a sense of being on an island. The stress of being everything to everyone took a toll on my mental and physical well-being. I struggled to stay consistent with WISE Women, so I decided to join a mastermind. The consistency of connection, the opportunity to dive deeply into several book studies, and the dialogue regarding the struggles we faced were instrumental in helping me to stay the course during a challenging time.

Since then, this powerful mastermind of educational leaders has enhanced each other’s leadership skills. We have all become exponentially more effective in our leadership due to the relationships we’ve built with one another, just as I did with WISE Women.

If you are currently a school leader, don’t waste any more time on an island. Isolation will not lead to greatness in any school or district. School leaders have always preached collaboration to teachers, but we often don’t take our own advice. Now leaders need each other more than ever. I spent two siloed decades as a leader. I would venture to guess that most principals don’t know how or where to connect. We assume someone—often people in the district office—will develop our leadership skills. However, in reality, everyone at the district office is very busy and isn’t taking time to grow their own leadership skills either. Superintendents need masterminds, too.

We must intentionally provide administrators at every experience level the opportunity to build their leadership toolbox through coaching or a mastermind. If you can intentionally take time to talk to and interact with peers, you will be a more effective leader. 

It has also become apparent that, as leaders, we need to better prioritize our mental health. A mastermind group or coaching session can serve a very similar purpose. If one can receive telehealth services once a week via Zoom, one can also participate in virtual leadership development conversations with peers. That’s why I also participate in a mastermind focused on mental health specifically for school leaders. I look forward to meeting with both masterminds every single week for different reasons, and I am actually starting a third group soon.

Before you decide whether a mastermind group or coaching session is best for you, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Are you coachable? 
  • Is it important to you to always be learning? 
  • Are you evolving? 
  • Are you integrating your learning throughout your building or district? You may attend conferences every year, but if you don’t implement anything new upon your return, then nothing changes. 

We’ve evolved from finding people on Twitter, to creating a professional learning network through 30 minutes of Twitter chats, to now participating in an actual dialogue for one hour each week in a safe and supportive environment. The rich conversations diffuse innovation throughout districts, buildings, and classrooms. Leaders are expected to know how to lead innovation, but we don’t all naturally have this skill set unless we learn and problem solve together. 

What if someone became a principal during the pandemic? Wouldn’t they benefit from talking to a veteran principal? Would an urban principal be interested in learning how something was implemented at a suburban school? Perhaps you’re a small-town leader needing insight from a big-city district? The bottom line is that we all have something to offer each other. 

As we enter this changed education landscape, we need networks that help us with design and implementation. As leaders, we want to create the prototype, test it, and then implement it. However, the truth is that we can implement faster if we’re connected. If we’re all siloed, we must learn every single hard lesson and fall on our own. The energy lost in that is tremendous. So, with the notion of needing schools to be more adaptable, we must become a part of something bigger than us, with more connection and authentic learning. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we will have to change, and at times, that change will need to be radical. 

Be radical. Join a mastermind. 

Kristen Craft is a leadership development coach and founder of Crafted Coaching. She is the former principal of Andover High School in Andover, KS, and NASSP’s 2021 Kansas Principal of the Year.