To borrow a phrase from the military, we live in a “VUCA World” — a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. Such a world requires agility to quickly respond to opportunities and challenges. Rigid and siloed organizations of the past will not do will. President of the National Dropout Prevention Center and the Successful Practices Network Ray McNulty will describe the changes we need to overcome and the types of performance and strategic systems needed to survive and thrive in a VUCA world.

An educator since 1973, Ray is a presenter at the state, national, and international levels on the need for school systems to accept the challenges that lie ahead. He is committed to raising performance standards for both teachers and students and to building solid connections between schools and their communities. Ray believes strongly that education systems cannot wait for the children and challenges to arrive at school; rather, schools need to reach out and help forge solutions.

In advance of his Bold Leadership session, NHSA had a chance to ask Ray a few questions about his philosophy, his outlook on the future of Head Start, and the most important values to demonstrate every day.

NHSA: Tell us about your talk on August 4 and what you hope attendees will take away from the discussion?

Ray McNulty: I will share the importance for leaders to understand the world today. Most leaders in early childhood education and in the K-12 world are not focused on the future, they are what I call “forward focused.” At the end of every year leaders look back on what they did and then think about how they can improve on it. Many leaders rarely look to the future to think about where are we going. The pace of change in the world is amazingly fast and understanding how to lead in this new world is critical. In my session, I will share the need to do both because it is about continuity and change.

NHSA: What do Head Start leaders need to thrive in the next program year?

RM: Many leaders have been trained and have been raised in a context that the world is predictable. They now need to lead with a different mindset. They need to be very clear about where they are going, but be very flexible about how to get there.

NHSA: What are the most important things Head Start leaders can focus on in the next program year?

RM: In a VUCA World, leaders need to build a culture of change. Head Start leaders must realize the need to build a learning organization, always ready to question the status quo. Uncertain times bring opportunities for bold moves.

NHSA: How can Head Start lead through change?

RM: The best advice I can give for leading change in the VUCA world today is this: Volatility is managed by vision. Be very clear about where your organization is going. Uncertainty is managed by understanding. You must understand your system’s strength and capabilities and maximize on them. Complexity is managed by courage. Courageous leaders make bold moves because they have a clear vision and understand the strengths of their system. This limits the risk in making bold moves. Ambiguity is managed by agility. Leaders in this new world must be flexible and move quickly. Systems need an infrastructure for innovation to happen. Most systems today only have an infrastructure for improvement of the system. Leaders need to build into their system the infrastructure to innovate.

NHSA: What are the three most important values you demonstrate daily?

RM: Respect, integrity, and empathy. Respect for different ideas and strategies. You can’t make someone the enemy because they have a different view than you do. Integrity is important as a leader you need to set positive examples, practice accountability and being dependable. Empathy is critical to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings, challenges and thoughts that may be different from others.

NHSA: What are two or three things you do or resources you use to lead during challenging times?

RM: In challenging times my two important things you must do are, first, place trust in the people and organization you lead, and second, ensure that people closest to the problems you face have a role in designing the solutions.

Emily Wagner

Emily was NHSA's director of communications. Previously, she was deputy director of advocacy communications for the American Library Association and worked for many years in communications for Catholic University and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Emily spent her early years as a newspaper reporter.

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