Uplifting Leadership - ASCD
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February 1, 2015

Uplifting Leadership

Across education, business, and sports, these six leadership factors help organizations soar.

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The captain of the Vancouver Giants junior hockey team sat opposite us in the Giants office. James was an affable and articulate young man, but the scar on his left cheek, the swollen bridge of his nose, and the gaps between his teeth were clear signs that he plays a physically dangerous sport.

When James started to describe the Giants' year-upon-year success as the top junior hockey team, he talked about the vision of the owners, the passion of his coach, and most of all, the importance of the team. It's a cliché to say that teamwork matters in sports. But at the Vancouver Giants, you can measure it.

The Giants work harder than any other team. They may not be the most skillful team or even the fastest, but they're tougher than anyone else. "We're brash," said the coach, and James agreed. They outlast their opponents, scoring more goals in the final period than any of their competitors. They also do well on blocked shots, a metric that indicates how often you're prepared to put your body in the way of a 100-mile-an-hour puck to prevent an opponent's shot on goal. If a player's blocked shot ratio goes down, the coach takes him aside to go through videos and review where he might have interposed himself between puck and goal.

For Ron Toigo, the Giants' president and co-owner, starting up a hockey team in Vancouver was a counterintuitive move. The Giants are the only junior hockey team that's located in the same city as a professional National Hockey League (NHL) team (the Vancouver Canucks, in this case) and isn't owned by that pro team. But that's not a bad thing. Instead of seeing the high-flying Canucks as a competitor, the Giants regard them as an opportunity and an ally. When the Canucks do well, it's also good for the Giants, because it raises the profile of hockey as a whole. Vancouver is a big city, and many people who want to watch hockey can't afford the ticket prices or stay up late enough for the professional Canucks games. So the Giants are the team that attracts families rather than corporate types.

In the final game of the 2011 season, we watched players line up on the ice to give young fans the shirts off their backs in a ceremony that bonded players and fans together throughout the stadium. The Giants draw bigger crowds than some NHL teams.

What can we say about the Giants' leadership?

  • The Giants and their leaders know who they are. They are "brash," and they are family.

  • As a team, they all push and pull one another to higher levels of performance.

  • By setting up shop in Vancouver, they did something counterintuitive that none of their predecessors had considered before.

  • They are the only minor league hockey team to coexist collaboratively with their competitors from the NHL.

  • They use a broad range of valuable, just-in time data meaningfully and motivationally.

  • Their owners have learned to build sustainable success rather than make quick gambles just to get the next win.

The Vancouver Giants represent a particular kind of leadership. After studying them and more than 15 other organizations in three sectors (business, sports, and education) in eight countries on four continents over seven years, we found what we believe to be the secret of success in organizations that perform better than they used to, that have created something from almost nothing, or that have turned failure into success. Drawing on an extensive review of other cases in the literature and more than 200 interviews with leaders in these diverse organizations, our answer to how they achieved such remarkable success comes down to just two words: uplifting leadership.

We discovered uplifting leadership in an astonishing range of places. In business, these places include Italian auto manufacturer Fiat, Boston-based Internet footwear retailer Shoebuy.com, and iconic craft brewery Dogfish Head beer. The sports cases include Burnley Football Club—the smallest club ever to be promoted to the English Premier League of soccer—and the national cricket organization for Australia.

In education, one of the best examples is the island nation of Singapore. Arguably the world's biggest startup, Singapore established itself in 1965 as a new developing country with fewer than a million people. In little more than a single generation, it led the world on most measures of education achievement. Even so, it now seeks to "kick away the ladder it is standing on" (to use the words of one of the country's leading education experts, Pak Tee Ng) by sponsoring innovation and creativity and by trying to "teach less" so that children will "learn more."

Here's another example, from the United States. After the California Teachers Association successfully sued Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and forced him to return nearly $3 billion to the education budget, the association then changed the game of union leadership by deciding to take responsibility for turning around more than 400 of the lowest-performing schools in the poorest communities in the state.

The association achieved measurable success by supporting the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 (QEIA), incorporating an improvement strategy of reduced class sizes in grades K–12, lower counselor-to-student ratios in high schools, and school-based control of professional development. In addition, the teachers' association networked teachers across the state in every identified school, providing them with information, resources, and support.

By 2012, QEIA schools as a group improved significantly on Academic Performance Index (API) measures compared to similar schools not participating in the program. Beyond test scores, the schools had better climates, parent participation, and reputations in their communities.

What Is Uplifting Leadership?

The first important thing to understand about uplifting leadership is that it demands consistency between what you lead, why you lead, and how you lead. In uplifting leadership, the ends and means are inseparable.

Second, uplifting leadership raises the spirits, hopes, and performance of the professionals and other adults in a community so that they will uplift all those they serve. We are uplifted by the inspiring words and actions of others, and our own deeds uplift others in turn. Like laughter, uplifting leadership is infectious.

Third, uplifting leadership is a journey—a narrative quest that people pursue together to be part of something greater than themselves. Uplifting leadership begins from firm foundations; it gets lift and takes flight from the resistance that it encounters; it has a clear sense of where it is headed; it has good instrumentation and piloting to ensure that it stays on course; and it strategically conserves its fuel and resources to ensure it will reach its destination. Uplifting leadership doesn't just connect the dots of a list of competencies; it also makes them flow in a positive direction.

Our research revealed six factors crucial for uplifting leadership in all sectors. We've already described how these factors operate in the case of the Vancouver Giants. These factors are paradoxical combinations of opposites—bringing together the hard and soft skills that are often set against each other in leadership practice.

  • Counterintuitive thinking combined with disciplined application.

  • Dreaming with determination.

  • Collaboration with competition.

  • Metrics with meaning.

  • Pushing and pulling people into change.

  • Long-term sustainability with short-term success.

Let's look at a systemwide, 10-year turnaround effort in Hackney, a borough in London, England, where we see these six factors at work. 1

A Case Study in Education

Hackney's 7.4 square miles accommodate a quarter of a million people living in some of the poorest real estate in London. The borough's 12 high schools and 53 elementary schools educate 30,000 students, well over half of them English language learners who speak 178 different languages among them. About 35 percent of students live in out-of-work families; most of the rest get by on very low incomes.

For decades, Hackney schools were the lowest-performing in England on national tests. In 2002, just 31 percent of students in Hackney scored proficient on five General Certificate of Secondary Education exams (the United Kingdom equivalent to high school graduation). More than 60 percent of families living in the borough sent their children to high schools in other boroughs.

Although the local education authority struggled to improve the schools, all the standard turnaround solutions failed. An ineffective top-down Hackney Improvement Team was infamously dubbed the HIT squad. A private company was paid to manage school improvement, but it ignored existing expertise and failed to build relationships with the community. It dragged the community down even further.

After these failed efforts, a creative and counterintuitive move placed the entire education system in the hands of a private, nonprofit company called The Learning Trust, which was under a 10-year contract to improve student achievement. This move appealed to the political Right, who said it would rescue poor students from Hackney's hopeless public services, and also to the Left, who said it would put an end to profiteering in education services.

Another counterintuitive move was the appointment of a well-respected educator to chair The Learning Trust, rather than a business leader (the government's usual strategy of choice). Sir Mike Tomlinson had retired in March 2002 as head of the national schools inspection service. Coming from a working-class background himself, Tomlinson went to Hackney with genuine humility and respect for the people who worked there.

Tomlinson set the stage for dreaming with determination when he told everyone, "I believe that at the end of this journey, you are going to be proud to work in Hackney." The Learning Trust's chief executive, Alan Wood, kicked off his first meeting with high school principals by presenting an imaginary inspection report about Hackney 10 years into the future that described the high standards the schools would achieve. Together, these leaders articulated an inspirational dream: By the time The Learning Trust had finished its work, parents would vie to get their children into Hackney schools. (That dream was realized two years ahead of target.)

The inspirational vision was matched by dogged determination and years of relentless hard work. The Learning Trust counteracted the negative press that schools had suffered for years by celebrating each successful step along their journey. Positive news stories about Hackney schools started appearing in local and national newspapers. Steadily, confidence started rising among both the community and the workforce. A well-respected principal told us that unlike its private-company predecessor, which had regarded existing Hackney employees "as being incompetent, inefficient, and not knowing what they were doing," The Learning Trust realized that "the solution has got to come from within Hackney."

As in the United States, successive governments in the United Kingdom have gradually turned the education system into a competitive market of schools. In England (unlike the other three UK nations), parents can send their children to the school of their choice, assuming that places are available, within or beyond the borough in which they live. Schools' budgets are determined by numbers of students, so popular schools thrive at the expense of the others. Yet in similar ways to the other organizations and sectors we studied, The Learning Trust showed that combining competition with collaboration creates more uplift.

One of The Learning Trust's initiatives was to establish five new high school academies, similar to U.S. charter schools. Academies are public schools (known in England as state schools) but with some degree of outside investment and governing control from companies, universities, or faith-based organizations. The Trust was insistent that, unlike many academies elsewhere in England, these academies had to be nonselective and to view themselves as members of the family of Hackney schools. Parents still had choice of school, but schools could not select students on the basis of their ability or achievement.

Sponsors of the academies also had to have an existing link with Hackney. For example, Sir Clive Bourne, who was born in Hackney and made his fortune through the courier service Seabourne Express, sponsored the first academy, named in honor of his father, Moss Bourne. According to Tomlinson, The Learning Trust told the principals, "OK, so you're head of one school, but you have a collective responsibility for every young person in Hackney."

First, any school identified as failing by the national schools inspection service was closed, and students were dispersed to other schools. School principals were inevitably under the spotlight, and those who couldn't adjust to change were quickly persuaded to step out of the way. Next, the old school was demolished and replaced by a new, state-of-the-art building. Then the new academy started with a single grade and grew year to year. Other high school principals took responsibility together for accepting the dispersed students as each failing school was closed, even though each new academy that replaced a closed school actually increased competition among them. The principals felt they belonged to a family of schools. By collaborating and competing, they also knew they would improve the overall quality of schools in Hackney so that more parents would find them attractive and stop sending their children to schools outside the borough.

Federations were also established among the borough's primary (elementary) schools to support one another when they were struggling. The first federation started in 2004, when Siân Davies, a principal who had turned a failing school into an outstanding one before The Learning Trust was established, agreed to take on a second school while still running her own. As executive principal of both schools, Davies could now switch around teachers and build mentoring and coaching relationships using outstanding teachers in her original school. Within 12 months, inspectors proclaimed the school Davies had taken over to be a good school. By this time, both schools shared common values, teaching practices, and a sense of collective responsibility for all students.

When another school failed its inspection, Davies's federation took it on, followed by more after that. The Primary Advantage Federation, as it is now called, currently includes six elementary schools. In a well-judged blend of pushing and pulling, the federation pulls staff together into one large faculty with much more collective professional capital than a single school could have. At the same time, the schools push one another to higher performance and compete in a friendly rivalry over test scores. Other federations were formed and followed the same pattern.

The Primary Advantage Federation uses a wide range of meaningful measurements to judge the quality of instruction, including lesson observations with constructive feedback; analysis of students' progress using test data; scrutiny of students' writing and other work; monitoring of teachers' lesson plans and self-evaluations; learning walks to gauge the quality of instruction in classrooms; soliciting and supporting students' voice; and surveys of the social, emotional, and behavioral aspects of classrooms. Within the federation, colleagues (rather than just principals) assess one another's schools and classrooms using these common measures.

At the start of this improvement journey, The Learning Trust separated out short-term and long-term strategies. Find and fix strategies dealt with short-term issues, such as a weakness with 5th grade math in a particular school, which could be remedied by assigning coaches to deal with the problem. Predict and prevent strategies dealt with the long-term challenges like investing in the early years before children fell behind with their learning. The trust pursues these long-term and short-term changes together, ensuring that improvements are secure and sustainable for many years.

The results speak for themselves. By 2012, Hackney performed well above the national average on all key indicators of student achievement. The school workforce has also been uplifted. More than 90 percent of staff members recommend Hackney as a good place to work, and for the first time Hackney doesn't have a recruitment problem.

A New Leadership Direction

Leadership should lift us up, not drag us down. We should be shooting for the moon, not racing to the top. We should be stimulating and supporting our teams and their leaders to be as creative as we want our students to be. We should be collaborating with other schools for mutual advantage and greater good rather than trying to vanquish them in a win-lose competition. We should be combining good data with good collaborative judgment rather than being driven only by the data in everything we do. We should pull our people forward whenever we can by inspiring them, yet push them out when we absolutely must. Last, we must not pursue short-term gains in test scores or other outcomes at the cost of long-term, sustainable success. If you uplift others in this way, you will also uplift yourself. But most of all, you will uplift a whole generation of students who deserve a far better approach to leadership and change than many of them have been experiencing.

End Notes

1 Our analysis of the turnaround in Hackney draws on an extended case study reported in Boyle, A., & Humphreys, S. (2012). A revolution in a decade: Ten out of ten. London: Leannta; and Fullan, M., & Boyle, A. (2014). Big-city school reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto, and London. New York: Teachers College Press.

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