The Soviets launch Sputnik, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, OPEC enacts an oil embargo, the Challenger Shuttle explodes, or the World Trade Center falls—these events and others help to define generations. Because a generation has a shared memory of important events, it also shares similar assumptions about what matters based on their formative experiences (Raines, 1997; Kunreuther, 2008). Therefore, generations can influence people’s perspectives and behaviors.
School leaders may not be aware of their generation’s effect on the way they lead change. But awareness of these influences can help principals use reflective practice, consider their effectiveness as a leader, and adopt new behaviors. These changes can improve overall school organization and increase the efficacy of leaders as they become more aware of their influence. For instance, Gen-X principals tend to use decisive, yet inclusive decision-making processes, which may help in leading change more effectively than other generations.
I recently finished Leading Schools through a Generational Lens (Kuhn, 2012) that identifies these generational differences in leadership. Connecting my data to the 21 leadership responsibilities from McREL’s Balanced Leadership Profile® research, I found five major trends:
- A significant gap exists between how principals and teachers perceive the same change. Principals tended to see the changes they led as 2nd order (i.e., a change that is significantly and fundamentally different) by a much larger margin than their teachers. This gap was significantly greater for Gen-X principals.
- The top and bottom five leadership responsibilities were similar across generations. Teachers rated the top five leadership responsibilities as Outreach, Ideals & Beliefs, Optimize, Focus, and Knowledge of Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment and the bottom five as Relationships, Order, Discipline, Involvement in Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment, and Input.
- Principals tend to self-rate their leadership capacity significantly higher than average compared to their teachers’ ratings, especially when they were thought to be leading 2nd order change. This occurred about three times more frequently in Generation Jones and Baby Boomer cohorts than the Gen-X cohort.
- When they felt their principals were leading 1st order change (i.e., a change in process, not in type), teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Gen-X principals significantly lower than average in some responsibilities. Conversely, teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Gen-X principals significantly higher than average in many responsibilities when they felt their principals were leading 2nd order change.
- Teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Generation Jones principals significantly higher than average when they felt their principals were leading 1st order change, but lower than average when they were leading 2nd order change.
If supervisors have a more holistic understanding of the leadership characteristics of principals, principal professional development improves. For instance, it appears that principals tend to rate themselves higher in many leadership responsibilities than teachers do; therefore, exploring the nature of this discrepancy may lead to a deeper understanding of what teachers want and need from principals to be successful.
Every generation of leaders has strong and weak leadership characteristics. What differences have you seen in how generations of principals lead change?
Written by McREL Principal
Consultant Matt Kuhn, Ph.D.
Kuhn, M. (2012). Leading Schools Through a Generational Lens: Perceptions of principals' change leadership disaggregated by principal generation. University of Denver.
Kunreuther, Frances (2008). Working across generations: Defining the future of nonprofit leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Raines, C. (1997). Beyond Generation X: A practical guide for managers. Menlo Park: Crisp Publications.