Trusting Leaders and Distributing Ownership

Ford Next Generation Learning
5 min readMar 8, 2021


Jennifer Edge, Director, Innovation, and Product Management, Ford Next Generation Learning

As many of our communities prepare to have students return to buildings and many of our community leaders define the supportive structures and practices (what aspects of pre-COVID will be intact and what aspects since-COVID will remain) the two things we continue to hear from all levels of leadership is the focus on student engagement and the importance of business engagement.

Recently, one of our communities surveyed their building staff members to identify the most important “thing” to focus on when students return. The number one survey response was the mental health of their students. I would agree with that response, and I’m sure you would too. We’ve seen companies and organizations across the US (including Ford NGL) focus on the mental health of their employees. “Our mental health is core to how we perform, learn, and just function on a day-to-day basis.”

So, why would any other choice have been selected in that staff survey, but mental health? It’s at the core — literally, it’s at the core of all of the positive things we work to accomplish. But what does supporting the social and emotional health of our students look like when they return to their buildings? What about supporting the mental health of the district and school building staff, too?

Whatever your individual community or student support plan looks like, we know it means change. Whatever your individual student support plan looks like, we know it means change. That support plan might be transforming something, keeping something, and/or adding something. The plans to support this change and the leadership required to make it happen ARE happening. They are happening right now across the United States.

Community and district leaders are conducting meetings, analyzing surveys, looking at their systems and structures, and brainstorming. You name it. They are doing everything they can to prepare for students returning to the classroom. It’s calling upon forces to join together and for staff members to lean into one another and lead.

This past month, four Ford NGL U Circles convened, and each Circle shared the same topic of discussion — distributing leadership. As I listened to the conversations, I heard discussions around team unity; ensuring that there is and continues to be trust among staff and the administrators; distributing leadership responsibilities; building opportunities for all students to have opportunities like leadership roles (beyond just the ambassadors); and convening existing and reconvening previous business partners to support the student engagement needs. Honestly, there was so much, but this gives you an idea of what we talked most about.

When you think about students returning to the building and some students choosing to stay home, you can imagine the innovation and shifts in practices that all staff must deploy. This requires the staff of each building (teachers, team leads, counselors, principals, front office staff) to find the glue that unifies them as one team. There is not one person who can do it all. When each person has the capacity to lead, the impact is just that much greater. And in this case, the impact is on students’ success.

During one of the Ford NGL U Circle meet-ups geared towards pathway and academy coach-like roles, there was a great discussion about building trust in an academy team and how one coach goes about it. Trust is core to a distributed leadership model.

Check out this video clip from a fishbowl discussion between an Academy & Transformation Coordinator in Wisconsin, and an Academy Coach in Tennessee.

In another Ford NGL U Circle geared towards building leaders (principals and assistant principals), we unpacked the distributed leadership model and what implications it can have on student success AND staff success.

  • Jenny, CA — shared that you can’t have a deep bench unless you believe in the leadership abilities of your team. “The power is in people, not power over people,” as Jill from Tennessee commented.
  • Chris, VA, and Noah, MI — both noted the importance of having student leaders (in addition to the ambassadors) and discussed the challenge there is with achieving that. Definitely, an upcoming discussion being prepared by Jane one of our amazing Ford NGL coaches.
  • Jarrad, KY — made the point that the power of distributed leadership is “leaning into systems of other leaders.” He goes on to share a very powerful statement. “As a building leader, it’s important to remember that we are not the legacy we leave behind. This requires a mind shift because our legacy is the system and structure that we put in place.”

What systems and structures are being put in place in your building to support the wrap-around mental health of students as they return? How are you ensuring the mental health of your staff so the operations of these systems and structures can facilitate a positive impact on students? How are you building and/or continuing to strengthen a leadership model that is glued together with trust? Is everyone leaning in and leading together?

Leadership, a Shared Approach

“In the distributed leadership model, shared responsibility is rooted in the structure and culture of the school. Talented leaders transform teaching and learning by developing the teachers on their teams. They emphasize interdependent interaction and practice rather than individual and independent action. This model requires high levels of trust, transparency, and mutual respect. Leaders must create conditions and structures that encourage others to lead, so they can build capacity. They must provide training and progress monitoring so teacher teams develop the skills essential for focused, disciplined professional collaboration around student learning and social/emotional needs.”

Source: Section IV: Environment of Shared Responsibility Among Teachers and Principals: Strong Principals and Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is a joint effort that requires you to do the following:

  • Lean on your team.
  • Empower your leaders to make decisions.
  • Empower your leaders to guide the development of the pathways/academies.
  • Build relationships with team members.
  • Rely on the strengths of each team member.
  • Actively listen to gain understanding.

Here’s a tool to play with.

I’m always a fan of tools and resources that support my work, especially those I can experiment and play with. So, I’m leaving you with a tool to play with, too. It’s a responsibility chart geared towards career-academy coaches, You’ll get the concept once you open it. See what you would change, add to, take out, and/or keep as is. The point is more about how you build up staff in your realm and encourage them to distribute leadership responsibilities and co-own leadership responsibilities. This tool’s purpose is to identify the strengths and opportunities to distribute according to the functions of the specific role in focus. Check it out here by downloading here.

Recommended Readings

Extreme Ownership & Podcast (by Jocko Willink) Thanks, Jill from Tennessee, and Mark, CA for the recommendations!

Interested in learning more? Reach out to us! We’d love to connect. Email me at

Curious about highly effective teaming training? We recommend contacting the Nashville Hub, a professional development provider we (Ford NGL) send many of our clients to experience!



Ford Next Generation Learning

Workforce and education solutions that advance success for all students especially those furthest from opportunity.