Innovative leadership in 3 simple steps: Know, Show & Let Go

Is our DNA evident across all we do? 

Along with another colleague on the senior leadership team, I am responsible for ensuring that leadership and innovation are embedded deeply and are part of the DNA of the school. These two elements are essential to our identity.

What is DNA? From a scientific perspective it is deoxyribonucleic acid, the carrier of genetic information. The term is also used metaphorically to describe the distinctive characteristics of an organisation’s culture and identity, yet unlike the body’s DNA that is set, this needs to be regularly communicated, reinforced and supported.

I have found the idea by futurist, Joel Barker a very useful description of what leaders need to do.

 We manage within a paradigm and lead between paradigms.


What is a paradigm? It’s a pattern, a model or a set of practices that define what we do, both now and into the future.

As leaders we need to simultaneously manage the current paradigm, getting ‘this’ job done, and lead our people toward a new paradigm. Both are essential:

  • Managing in present: organising people and resources within the current context

  • Leading to the future: taking people to a new ‘place’

We are usually very comfortable in the present, we know what needs to be done and how to get it done. Often our people are more than happy to stay where we are right now, it’s known and comfortable. If we are leaders, however, we also know we must be taking them somewhere. Whether it is their personal growth, or organisational progress. We are taking our teams, organisation or even our family to something better.

What is innovation? At the root of the word ‘innovation’ is ‘nova’, which means ‘new’. Innovation may be values, solution or practices that meet new and emerging requirements. To you and your team ‘innovation’ may mean growth, new markets or reinvention, whatever the context – people need good leaders.

So how do we practically lead our teams to this new paradigm of innovation?

Know, Show and Let Go

Know Show Let go

Know (not assume)

  • Your people

  • The job to be done

  • The values that shape us

Show (not just tell)

  • What’s to be done

  • How to do it

  • The attitudes and behaviours we expect

Let go (not control)

  • Release your team to do

  • Observe

  • Assess and plan

This is a cyclical process, once you let go, observe and assess. We soon see what people don’t know or now need to know and then repeat… ad infinitum.



Great question: If the mandate is for innovation, how much should best practice drive that?

A great question posed by @gcouros, deserves an answer that required more than 140 characters.

Why is there a mandate for innovation?
At the heart of the word ‘innovation’ is ‘nova’ – making things new, systems, ideas and products. The history of humanity is ‘nova’ – products, ideas and processes that change and (mostly) improve our individual and collective lives.

It’s almost cliché to talk about the pace of change, yet this is a reality. Technological and scientific discoveries are changing our lives and making many aspects of what was considered normal, now to be defunct. Innovation is the open door to improving our lives, it takes knowledge and ideas and turns them into action.

In an age of uncertainty due to the financial crisis, the changing employment landscape and increasing number of new, and also obsolete markets, the key message is innovate or be quickly irrelevant. Unless school education embraces a culture of innovation school becomes mechanical and students are not given the tools to think differently about solutions for their world.

What’s the challenge with best practice?
The term ‘best practice’ is often used within the context of a methodology that can be applied and helps to achieve the desired outcomes. It is a reflective practice developed by an accumulation of past experiences and analysed data and can be a formulaic response. ‘Best practice’ looks to what has worked previously, but doesn’t necessarily bring solutions to future problems.

The challenge for educators is that there is immense data that has informed what is considered to be ‘best practice’ for how learning occurs. This information can provide knowledge to help inform the future, but alone is insufficient. Innovation can start with this knowledge, but then adds intuition within the context of a vision to ultimately achieve implementation.

So, how much should best practice drive innovation?
For our young people to be equipped for success in an unknown future, one that requires new solutions to new problems, then a best practice approach alone can only improve the current state of play.

As futurist Joel Barker stated, ‘we manage within paradigm and lead between paradigms’.  Best practice shapes management, how we do things and how can we improve what we do. Innovation, however, looks to the new paradigm and is inextricably linked to visionary leadership, intuition and risk.

Thanks for the question, George.