Leading a culture of innovation, creativity and community

Disruption means pushing boundaries and rewriting the rules
By: | Issue: January, 2019
January 3, 2019

When I started teaching nearly 30 years ago, my principal, Elizabeth Terronez, challenged both of us. My job was to create an environment where creativity and innovation could thrive, while hers was to find a way to say “yes.” My mission made perfect sense, but hers was beyond me. After becoming a school leader myself, I realized that she knew that the only way her teachers, and ultimately their students, could be innovative and creative was for them to take risks, question the norms, and maybe even break a few rules. She knew that we would run into barriers—funding, bureaucracy, tradition, protocols, policies—and that her job was to help us overcome these barriers.

The power of ‘yes’

It seems that educational leaders, especially, are trained to say “no.” We are conditioned to be concerned about everything from supervision and safety to policies and procedures. But if we want our teachers and staff to dream big and think outside the norms, then we have to support that by having faith in them and saying “yes.” Saying “yes” is more difficult than saying “no.” It forces us to question our philosophies and beliefs. When we say “no,” we don’t have to find out if an idea will fail. When we say “yes,” we expose ourselves and our educators to risk and fear of failure. But as leaders, it’s our blessing of the idea, as well as our removal of any barriers, that will ultimately lead to a more innovative and creative community.

Dial up some disruption

One of the great myths of education is that learners need a routine to feel comfortable, to have lower anxiety, and to perform. We certainly seem to cling to routine in our schools and in our personal lives. But a routine is not the same as a protocol or norm. Routine leads to complacency and automation. We can keep our rubrics, forms and systems, but if we want to encourage innovation and creativity, we might need to break routine.

As Tom Robbins wrote in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: “In times of widespread chaos and confusion, it has been the duty of more advanced human beings—artists, scientists, clowns and philosophers—to create order. In times such as ours, however, when there is too much order, too much management, too much programming and control, it becomes the duty of superior men and women to fling their favorite monkey wrenches into the machinery. To relieve the repression of the human spirit, they must sow doubt and disruption.”

Let’s disrupt the routine. Let’s throw that proverbial monkey wrench at our school and classroom complacency. If you want innovative and creative endeavors, one has to be willing to push the boundaries, reshape the environment and rewrite the rules.


Want more? See “15 hands-on ways to create a culture of innovation


As the principal of a small, project-based high school, I tried to continually push the boundaries for both students and teachers. For example, we used to reverse the schedule on occasion. The last period of the day would become the first, and the first period would end the day. This simple switch produced a variety of reactions. Some loved it, and some hated it—but all were disrupted. It forced teachers to evaluate why the last class of the day had a different culture. Students said, “I loved having math first thing in the morning for once” or “It was hard having math at the end of the day.” We added just enough chaos to get people thinking, reflecting and creating.

Culture is a mindset. Our institutional mindsets will need reprogramming to produce new environments and learning communities that are innovative and creative. Like anything transformational, this has to be a lifestyle and not a bumper sticker.

Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development