The Case for Embracing Messy Leadership in Schools

Sean Slade and Alyssa Gallagher
August, 2023

Originally published in EdSurge, this article highlights the need to alter what we consider to be effective leadership – and unpacks the BTS and BTS Spark leadership research.

Leadership has always been a bit messy, especially in schools, where leaders have always had to navigate ambiguity and complexity. But prior to 2020 much of the messiness was hidden.

Before the pandemic, strong leaders were often expected to focus their leadership on process, accountability and strategic planning that presented a very controlled picture of leadership. The leader led and others followed. There was a theoretical rhythm and cadence to how effective leadership should look.

This of course wasn’t necessarily true in practice, but these were certainly long-held assumptions of how good leaders acted. There was an expectation of professionalism, and in some extreme cases, leaders were viewed as superheroes whose schools and organizations depended on them for survival. The collective, and somewhat traumatic, experiences of the pandemic, racial and civil unrest, and difficult reopenings, have exposed many cracks in education and revealed a certain vulnerability in education leadership.

We all have witnessed very different leadership responses during this time. We saw leaders who wanted to wait it out and continue down the traditional path. Such leaders were most comfortable showing up as they always had as a leader—reserved and in-control. They were most comfortable in seeking stability and wanting to return to the status quo. But we also saw those who responded differently. We saw leaders who were vulnerable, who were open to listening and acknowledged they might not have all the answers. These were leaders who whole-heartedly embraced the ambiguity and looked to thrive in the uncertain messiness. As Bryan Goodwin and Kent Davis of the nonprofit McRel have written, this shift can be difficult for some as it “requires them to reflect on not only what they must do, but more deeply, who they must be as leaders.”

These phenomena didn’t just show up in the education world, of course. Globally, leaders in every industry were faced with similar choices. There wasn’t a discreet handbook for a global pandemic, the majority were trialing and experimenting as they went. And the most successful were those that shared their work—their successes and their failures—as well as those who were empathetic and learned from others.

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 and transformations within organizations able to thrive within the messiness.

In 2020, BTS, a global professional services company focused on effective leadership development, was interested in unpacking what made such leaders successful in these uncertain times. They undertook interviewing more than 40 of the world’s most senior leaders accountable for leadership learning with the goal of understanding how the COVID-19 crisis has changed what leading companies need from their leaders.

In addition to this research, BTS Spark, the global not-for-profit education arm of BTS where we work, reviewed its coaching 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 offered rich insights that highlighted how certain leaders struggled, staying stuck in certain habits, and how by contrast other leaders were thriving and succeeding in the messiness. Messy leadership may have become more of a reality during the pandemic but is likely to have staying power. Our world is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA for short), and our leadership styles will need to adjust.

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

Messy Leadership has many benefits:

  • Multiplying Perspective – in short taking the broader view of an issue and of the potential outcomes. It is moving away from a short term or myopic view of an individual problem.

  • Emotional Connection – bringing emotion and empathy back into leadership and into decision making.

  • Seizing Momentum – being prepared to adjust or alter course and be not 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 putting your ego and your role as the traditional leader aside.

What do these attributes have in common? They show the human side of leadership, bringing in others to help solve problems and reveal an openness to new ideas. They are nimble, adjustable and ready to move. Although it’s never easy to be the one questioning practices, exposing your own vulnerabilities or saying “I don’t know” can be empowering and those who engage in these bold messy acts of leadership are more likely to make progress.

The reality is that change has become the norm. It’s an essential part of our high-speed world where life is increasingly lived in beta. Educators, like everyone else, have two options: dig in our heels and attempt to push back the tide or learn to ride the wave and see where it takes us. If we dig in our heels, we run the risk of making the world even more disorienting for our students when they leave us.

Extraordinary leaders lean into these challenges and adjust, according to one foundational text on messy leadership. They soon discover that “compassion and courage are best achieved if a leader is agenda-less. In other words, techniques that revolve around how to motivate others to do a task need to be set aside to focus on better understanding and connecting with a human being.”

This will not be the only crisis we face as a society or as a profession. It may not be a pandemic that confronts us, but the future is guaranteed to be filled with more unpredictability. The leaders and their schools that thrive will be the ones that have established a new form of leadership— not a rigid top-down hierarchy of decision-making—but rather one based on the true messiness of leadership.