(Note…based on the first few comments I wanted to update the post to reflect my VERY strong belief that principals/superintendents should model their learning. It has been updated below and I appreciate the pushback that helped me to communicate my thoughts!)
The term “Lead Learner” has been one that has been thrown around a lot by superintendents, principals, and other people at the top of the traditional hierarchy, mostly in reference to themselves. As a principal, I actually used the term referring to myself in a blog post I wrote in January 2011, and am not sure where I heard it, or just used it on a whim. What I do know now though is that I am reluctant to using the term when talking about a principal or superintendent, and I rarely (if ever) have heard someone else call their principal or superintendent the “lead learner”. Does that say something about the term?
I do however, understand why it is being used so often though. Principals, superintendents, and other traditional “bosses” see their roles changing, and see this as part of flattening the organization, or at least that is how I saw it when I first used it. I wanted to model that I was a learner just like everyone else in my school, and, as Chris Kennedy would say, I wanted to be “elbows deep in learning” with them. The reality though is that the term still refers to one person being in an authority position, and for me now, evokes the ideas that the principal is seen as the “holder of all knowledge”. This was not how my school worked at all. There were not only people who knew a lot more than me in many areas, but they were also more passionate about going deeper in the topic. I was definitely not the “lead learner” in many areas, nor did I want to be. If you think about it, in any school a “lead learner” could be in any area, and can be any person, and is often our own students. In a culture where “everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner”, the term “lead learner” could and should be applied to many.
The role of principal is evolving, but I also know that some people need the principal to be the principal. There is a point where people need to know that in tough situations, they can count on someone to back them up and be there for them. I had many principals step in for me when I didn’t know what to do, or supported me in tough situations. I didn’t need them to be the “lead learner”, I needed them to be the principal. Great leaders don’t get consensus on all decisions, but sometimes have to make the tough ones on their own. This comes as part of the role and sometimes it is important to know who to go to when there is a struggle.
The title does not necessarily make the role, only how you do it.
Yet words mean something and if we are truly to create a culture where all people can step up and explore their passions and we believe that everyone has the potential to lead and bring out their best, the term “lead learner” should never be reserved for one person.
Should the principal/superintendent still openly share their learning? Absolutely. With technology now, that is easier than ever, but note I used the term “model” their learning. Administrators have been learning forever but it was hard to communicate and share their learning on an ongoing basis. That being said, there is a difference between a “leader that learns” and a “lead learner”, as one creates the notion that there is a “top learner”, where we should create an environment that in organizations, both inside and outside, learning by all is essential to success.