Leadership has always been a bit messy, especially in schools, where leaders have always had to navigate ambiguity and complexity, write Sean Slade and Alyssa Gallagher for an article in EdSurge. The collective, and somewhat traumatic, experiences of the pandemic, racial and civil unrest, and difficult school reopenings have exposed many cracks in education and revealed a certain vulnerability in education leadership.

While there may not have been many guidelines, this form of leadership — messy leadership or leading in uncertainty — does have a history, with roots in design thinking, collaborative leadership and even the flat hierarchy movement.

Messy leadership refers to key mindsets and behaviors that have allowed leaders to successfully lead rapid change within organizations able to thrive within the messiness.

BTS Spark, a global education nonprofit, recently reviewed its data of over 1,000 school leaders who had been coached during 2020 in the peak of the pandemic. Anonymized data from these coaching conversations offer rich insights that highlight how certain leaders struggled, staying stuck in certain habits, and how by contrast other leaders thrived and succeeded in the messiness.

Messy leadership offers these benefits:

  • Multiplying perspective: Taking the broader view of an issue and of the potential outcomes. It’s moving away from a short-term or myopic view of an individual problem.
  • Emotional connection: Bringing emotion and empathy back into leadership and decision making.
  • Seizing momentum: Being prepared to adjust or alter course and not get stuck in a predetermined path or process. This requires flexibility in thinking and a willingness to admit mistakes.
  • Sensing the future: Being open to new ideas, solutions and processes and testing them quickly. Leaders create quick learning loops with rapid iterations where ideas are prototyped and tested without going through full committee cycles.
  • Your ego: Being comfortable with “I don’t know” and setting aside ego and role as traditional leader.

This MESSY acronym was selected intentionally to describe the type of leader who doesn’t try to control a fast changing, chaotic environment, but finds a way of leading in it with a different level of maturity.