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.



We live by different rules. One woman’s attempt at navigating them (um, that would be me)

An interesting Twitter exchange developed. I made an unusual comment, as I don’t normally jump into the political discourse. Our female Prime Minister announced the date of the election, with an unprecedented eight month lead in. I tweeted:

“in the 2010 election the PM wore pearls (credibility) and is wearing glasses (this time I mean business)”

The question came back from a person in my feed, “Do we talk about male politicians and what they are wearing as a mark of business or not?” A valid point, to which I added, “We really live by different rules”

A few others leapt into the discussion about comments made about other politicians (from the other side). I also recalled reading that in the 2012 US election campaign, Mitt Romney always had his shirt sleeves rolled up “ready to get working” was the message it sent.

In 2012 a well-known international feminist commentator and writer on Q&A, said about our PM “What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets.”  If the sisterhood can’t seem to get it right, what hope is there?

My Kitchen Rules is a cooking competition by couples, who may be spouses, family members and friends. They are seeking to outdo one another and impress the judges.

Who knows what the audition process was looking for and then what was actually said across the evening of filming, but the editing guidelines seem to say,

“portray the women, especially the all-female pairs, as critical with a quick and cutting mouth. That will definitely get the viewers.”

I am so disgusted by the promos, that I won’t watch the program. But millions are.

We live by different rules. Once we can accept that, work with it.

So as a woman who is seeking to make a mark on the world how do I navigate this? A few things to accept:

  • My public comments are (and should be) under scrutiny.
  • The sisterhood won’t necessarily back us up.
  • The media prefer to present women in ways that pit us against one another (while the men passively observe)

We are all wired differently. When my children were small I wasn’t the stay-at-home-mum-type and went back to work fairly quickly and now, in my early 50s I enjoy work and am not looking toward retirement, as I find work to be energizing and engaging.

Again, part of me wants to clarify: there’s nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home-mum nor is there anything wrong with wanting to retire and play golf (or whatever they do). But, I don’t actually need to clarify, because when I talk about what’s good for me, I’m not criticising another.

What are my rules?

  • Be comfortable with who I am, not other people’s expectations of who I should be
  • Equally, be respectful, don’t put my expectations onto others, allow them to be themselves
  • Live to serve and encourage others, especially with my words
  • Know enough about what’s happening in the world, including sport, to communicate and engage with a broad range of people
  • Go with my strengths and identify (and fill) areas where I need help
  • Find creative outlets that fit me
  • Find a clothing style that makes me feel positive about myself
  • Understand the diversity of maleness
  • My opinion is an opinion, not what another person should or must do
  • Listen more and talk less

15 of my 17 years teaching were in boys’ schools and my husband and I have raised two sons. I think that this baptism into the male-world has helped me to navigate it relatively effectively, yet far from perfectly. I quickly learnt that I just need to say something once and then I need to give time to think about it. I have learnt a lot from the young boys I taught, and my husband and sons.

My desire is that I want to see women in places of leadership and influence in the breadth of spheres open to them. But our expectations need to be real. Considering ‘life’s big moments’, our career growth can be both incremental and successful, with the necessary pauses. Most importantly, relationships and especially those closest take priority.

We live by different rules. Work yours out.


She stepped back and replied, “You’re not one of those schools-with-no-walls, are you?” Who gets it and who doesn’t.

We talk about our passions, they just come up in conversations. sometimes we don’t even realise.

On the weekend I briefly met a young woman in her 20s who turned out to be English teacher from an inner London Academy. Once she heard about my work and why I was in the UK she stepped back and replied, “You’re not one of those schools-with-no-walls, are you?”. To her, the prospect of open space, students owning their learning and no longer teaching from the front sounded like a nightmare.

As an observer of people I take note of responses when I talk about what I do and tell them about  Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney. I anticipate reactions, quite often from non-educators: “I wish there was a school like that for [insert name/me].” From educators, It seems that they are polarised in the response, either love it or hate it.

A little later on the same day over lunch I was sharing this story and telling some non-educator friends about what I believe about learning. They got it. Project Based Learning, flipped learning, choice, personalised approaches and comfortable surroundings made sense because they knew too many people who have been let down and alienated by conventional schooling.

Many of my peers, whose children are now adults, often tell of those who felt disconnected from school. They were either creative in the performing and visual arts, or were just not that conventional. My friends could see how the open and flexible spaces, focus on learning and the learner and the opportunity to develop an individual’s strengths would make a difference.

I am travelling alone at the moment so its easy and fascinating to eavesdrop conversations at restaurants while I stick my nose in a book. At the next table a father and daughter were discussing the preparation year for the final GCSE exams to come. After they talked about study and a whole range of things the dad said, “you need a strategy for the last 15 minutes of the paper. Work out how you will answer the multiple choice questions that you won’t get to, within the  limited time. Have a plan, just do A, B, B, C, C, C, D…” or something like that. Obviously, the purpose of the assessment was to maximise marks, and not show learning. This dad didn’t get it because the school system doesn’t get it (because maybe the government doesn’t get it).

Educators generally seem to be polarised on the subject. Whether it’s because open learning had (apparently) been tried and then failed in the 1970s or they are skeptical about opening up the spaces, giving freedom and embracing a different role. Just like the young teacher I met, monumental change just feels impossible.

On the other hand, there is a growing tribe of devotees to a new paradigm for school. Like us, they have seen young people switched onto learning, the significance of the high stakes relationships between the teacher and student and the quality of work that the student’s achieve. Assessment becomes a meaningful part of learning.

What would help the young English teacher change her paradigm?

  • Constantly challenging the conventional wisdom of what is a school
  • Shake-up pre-service teacher education
  • Provide meaningful, challenging and continuous in-service PD
  • Rethink assessment processes
  • Grow courageous leaders who are prepared to challenge the status quo
  • Commitment to doing both: meeting government standards and changing the paradigm
  • Provide conditions for teachers to work together, rather than in isolation

I explained to my new friend that this is a process. Obviously we can’t just push out the walls, throw in the kids and the teachers together and hope for the best. There must be support, encouragement, challenge and time. However, none of these things will work unless there is vision to show the way forward.

Identifying leadership potential: Track record trumps talent

A colleague faced a dilemma. She had a leadership position to fill and a two potential candidates. Both displayed leadership ability, had the skills and qualifications to undertake the role, yet one stood out from the other. When he said ‘yes’ he meant it, he could adapt to change, he was not self-seeking and importantly he displayed a genuine relationship with and interest in his co-workers.The other person was less reliable, sought to further his ambition at the expense of others and was not well-regarded by his peers.

The decision was simple. One had a better track record than the other.

Track record is probably the most important consideration for identifying potential leaders, especially when they are known within your organisation. There are a few key elements of a good track record, including:

  • Reliability
  • Flexibility
  • Humility
  • Quality relationships

A track record shows a pattern of behaviour. None of us are perfect, but a good track record is skewed toward the positive side of the ledger.

How do you rate?

1. Reliability: Am I true to my word?

If I say I will be there, I will

If I say I will do it, I will

I look for people whose ‘yes’ means ‘yes’. It doesn’t mean that they will always say ‘yes’. I would prefer that if something can’t be accomplished because of time or extenuating circumstances that they would say ‘I’m not able at to this time’, then we can address the situation and work out a solution.

2. Flexibility: Can I roll with it?

I’m OK if plans change

I will step in to fill a gap

I can put my agenda aside

Organisations are dynamic and a leaders need to be able to adapt to change and adjust their plans. There are times when something needs to be done that is not specifically in the your role, but is crucial to fulfilling the mission.

3. Humility: Is it all about me, or not?

I don’t need/seek acknowledgement

I prefer recognition for the team

The Level 5 Leader, as described by Collins in Good to Great displays a combination of humility and will, demonstrating “compelling modesty, shunning public adulation; never boastful.” They look out the window (toward the team) when successful and in the mirror (at themselves) when things don’t go quite right.

4. Relationships: Am I liked and do I like people?

I have positive relationship – 360 degrees

I empower and develop others

I look for opportunities for my team to shine

Leadership is about people first and the successful leader in the 21stC values quality relationships, because they value people. For the emerging or potential leader it is equally important to ensure that time is invested in people, not just those who may give a professional advantage.

But what if your track record is a little patchy?

It’s never too late to get back on the right track. It does require making some commitments, especially in these few areas. Make a few resolutions, write them down and share them with a confidante or mentor for accountability. Things like:

  • I will say ‘no’ if I can’t get to something, rather than say ‘yes’ to everything and not show up
  • If my team need me I will deviate from my schedule
  • I will consider the team’s success to be my success
  • I will set a goal to meet five new people each week


“The DNA of a leader needs to be fundamentally different from what it was in the past…be the person you want other people to be” Leadership lessons from a driving instructor.

When your offspring reach a certain age, a sense of fear and trepidation rises. The time has come to teach them to drive. My husband and I considered ourselves good drivers and, at the time, we were teachers, so it seems only natural that we would be excellent driving instructors.

We spent several months driving with each son. When your kids are learning to drive you must take every opportunity to build up the mandatory hours, a requirement in our state.  At times the stress was tangible in the sweat on the back of the neck, but thankfully the driver, the parent-instructor and the car came out relatively unscathed.

In the last month or so, before the driving test we would engage the services of Ernie, the local driving instructor who had a pretty good pass-first-time record amongst the teenagers in the area. He had a very good reputation, and knew when his protégée was ready for the test.

After a couple of weeks driving with our first son we asked Ernie how Joe was making progress. “Pretty good”, he replied, “I just needed to spend a bit of time helping Joe unlearn some bad habits”.

What bad habits? My husband and I were his first driving teachers. He could start the engine, steer, indicate, navigate traffic lights and roundabouts. What was there to unlearn? We just thought Ernie would do what needed to be done to pass the test. Perhaps it wasn’t the ‘big’ things, habits are often the everyday things we don’t see.

Unknowingly, we had passed certain habits onto our sons, as we instructed him and as he had been our passenger over his lifetime.  We were unintentionally teaching these habits, both the good and not-so-good. Those not-so-good habits were mostly from my husband, I’m sure.

Recently, I was reading about Rebecca Dee Bradbury the head of Kraft Foods in Australia and NZ. She is a successful woman who has risen through the business ranks, and has been brought into Kraft to transform the organisation, what she does best.

Rebecca Dee-Bradbury represents the new style of leader,

“The DNA of a leader needs to be fundamentally different from what it was in the past. You need to be the person you want other people to be.”


21stC leaders take responsibility for the health and growth of their team. They also need to realise that the problematic aspects of the team, may just come from the leader. Let’s say it out loud, “you and me”.

Leadership today isn’t directing, it’s modelling. A procedures manual can tell people ‘what’ to do, but the essence of leadership is the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

What things are your team seeing and hearing?

Contributing to a greater cause or building your empire

Valuing people and communicating vision or merely getting the job done

Focusing on excellence and integrity or cutting corners and covering up

Conveying trust and empowerment or micromanaging

Learning from mistakes and errors or imposing punitive consequences when things don’t go quite right

The model of leadership that you and I project will be the one that our team members learn. Many of us intuitively lead, unaware of the habits we are modelling and teaching our people. Maybe from time-to-time we need an ‘Ernie’ to help identify and correct the transmission of our bad habits.

And, yes, both of our kids passed their driving test first time.