Ed O’Malley on the Power of Leadership in Early Education
Practicing leadership is like baseball. In order to win, you have to swing the bat. When you get a hit, big things happen in early childhood education in Kansas.
In the opening address for the EC11 Summit, Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center, laid in on the line: Leadership is powerful. It’s risky and requires sacrifice. You won’t always succeed. But in order to achieve our ambitious goals for children and parents in Kansas, all of us must practice leadership.
Leadership is mobilizing people to reach our fondest aspirations. Everyone can lead at any time, in any situation, regardless of their title or job description, explained O’Malley, who has served as a Kansas state legislator and on Kansas Gov. Bill Graves’ staff, guiding blue-ribbon task force committees charged with addressing economic development, education, agriculture, energy, social justice and health care.
It will take a lot more than passion and advocacy on the part of those working in the field of early childhood education to bring about the kind of positive changes that will benefit children and their families. It will take everyday leaders who can effectively mobilize systems for change.
Leadership is Necessary to Reach Your Greatest Aspirations
What are our fondest aspirations for early education? On April 18, 2017, O’Malley faced a room packed with early childhood education professionals from across Kansas, and threw out this provocative question for debate: When you think about the future of your work, what is your fondest aspiration? What are the things that really matter to our state, to our own programs, our agencies, and to the kids we serve?
The audience was quick to respond: We want children to be safe and healthy. We want equity among all children. We want to be effective advocates so everyone can see the value of early childhood education.
O’Malley listened, then said, “None of these things will happen without a whole lot of people exercising a whole lot of leadership. These are the things for which we need to marshal leadership.”
What impedes progress toward our aspirations? Once you’ve identified your most important goals, he coached, you need to then identify the obstacles that are keeping you from achieving them. “What makes progress so difficult for the things we most aspire to?” he asked the audience. “We do kids and families a disservice if we just stop thinking about this at the level of aspiration. If we are serious about exercising leadership, we have to see what the barriers are now.”
The audience broke into groups to identify and report out on the obstacles that thwart their efforts.
“We are splintered as a field,” said one. “We are all doing the best we can with our funding, but there is no cohesion between us. We have so many different goals.”
Others responded with additional challenges, including the lack of adequate funding for programs, inequity, and a feeling of disconnect between the early childhood professionals who are providing services and the people in authority who are making the decisions that impact those services.
What do we need to do differently to achieve our goals? “How would you describe the type of leadership it’s going to take to make more progress toward our fondest aspirations? O’Malley asked the audience. “What actions, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs are required from all of us if we are going to overcome the challenges, and make more progress?”
The first, he challenged, is to think of yourself as a leader, capable of bringing about important change. “I don’t think leadership is a positon,” he explains. You don’t need to have a position of authority to practice powerful leadership. Anyone can practice leadership, right where they are, if they take the risk and seize the opportunity.
To Get a Hit, You Have to Overcome Fear and Swing the Bat
We must address the fears that change brings. Many challenges face would-be leaders that keep them from taking action on their ideas, O’Malley says. One is the work involved in persuading others to change in order to embrace a new idea.
“Don’t buy into the trap that people don’t like change,” he said. “People are fine with change, as long as it’s certain types of change. If the state were to say to you that they wanted to invest billions into early education, you would be fine with that change, wouldn’t you? No, people are afraid of loss, of giving up something they know and facing the possibility of losing something they care about.”
As early childhood education professionals introduce new ideas in their communities, he warned, they will likely bump up against resistance from people who fear that the new idea will result in loss for them personally. Instead of just using data and intellectual arguments to persuade others to adopt your viewpoint, O’Malley suggested speaking openly and honestly with them about the realities of the change and the impact it will have on all those involved.
“A key part of leadership is being able to speak to loss. You need to let them know you understand that you are asking them to do something different,” O’Malley explained. “Resistance isn’t usually because they don’t understand the data – it’s not a matter of knowledge – but the fact that they are having to give something up. You will get better support if you acknowledge the risk but tell them why you think they should take the risk.”
Leaders face their own fear of failure. Solving the diverse challenges involved with providing early childhood education across the state is not easy. If it was, someone would have already come up with the solutions, O’Malley stated. But too often, would-be leaders have great ideas they don’t pursue because they are afraid they will fail, that their solution won’t be 100% correct.
“We hold ourselves back out of fear because we might not have the right idea,” he pointed out. “Leadership is incredibly risky; it’s rare because it’s risky.”
Practicing leadership will cost us. All of us have a set amount of time and energy. So when we take on new projects and initiatives, we must redirect a portion of our efforts from other things in which we are engaged.
“Leadership is always a clash of values,” O’Malley said. “If we were more purposeful, working on the things we most aspire to, what would we have to sacrifice? It will cost you something to exercise leadership.”
For O’Malley, practicing leadership is like baseball. In order to get a hit, you have to swing the bat. “Even the best hitters strike out seven out of ten times. Those are moments of learning,” he exhorted. “Sometimes, we see a moment when we can lead, and we connect and make something happen.
When we do that, we will see some special things happen in early childhood education in the state of Kansas.”
The EC-11 Summit was hosted by the Cabinet on April 18-19, 2017 and highlighted the importance of investing in Early Childhood. We know that there is an $11.00 return for every $1.00 invested in early childhood initiatives in Kansas. The EC to the 11th Power (EC11) Summit focused on the successes of Cabinet-funded initiatives and the power of those programs to improve the lives of children and families in Kansas.