The leaders I admire, and the leadership I strive to practice, are mixtures of confidence, humility, and empathy. It’s common sense. While one may be the positional leader, leading by bossing people around is very unlikely to be effective, particularly in the long term. Leaders simply don’t need to have all the answers; in fact, the people with whom we work don’t want us to or need us to have all the answers; they may very well have answers that are as good as our ideas. So, I recommend leaders at all levels have the confidence and humility to engage colleagues in the continuous improvement process through a partnership and through questions. And, recognize that we’re all working as hard as we can; have empathy that changes are inherently stressful.
What follows are attributes of leadership that I have gleaned from the incredible mentors from whom I have been blessed to learn. These attributes match very well what leadership experts propose:
- We can only move at the speed of trust: Relationships matter so much. In the case of relationships between educational professionals, continuous improvements and changes cannot be rushed. If time is not devoted to defining the why behind the necessary shifts and to listening to concerns, questions, and suggestions from all stakeholders, then, in my experiences, the change will not be successful and resentments may develop that dwell for years. My current school district recognizes that trust and transparency are inextricably linked. The new standards in English-language arts, mathematics, science, and history-social science have created a need to engage school communities in continuous improvement and provided the opportunity to practice trust-based, interest-based problem-solving. The district leaders with whom I currently work have employed such practices for the past several years. Groups of stakeholders are brought together from within the school district and from the surrounding community, including parents, industry professionals, and college/university experts. This stakeholder group reviews the conditions that necessitate the change; in the case of new curricular frameworks, the reason for and the nature of required changes are defined and historical student data is shared with successes celebrated and opportunities for improvements identified. Next, the story of the district in relation to the area of change is collectively told – where have we been and where are we now? Then, stakeholders identify the interests upon which all agree. These are not actions or decisions on what and how; the interests represent the ideals or north stars that will guide the work of the stakeholder committee and the decisions of the district (the what and how) going forward. Trust is being built, in large part, because of the how and the what is preceded by devoting as much time as needed to the why. Leaders mandate at their peril. Trust must be earned and continuously nurtured.
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- Accept that Questioning Change isn’t Resistance, it’s Engagement: When the individuals that we serve and with whom we work as leaders seem to “push back,” we must resist the temptation to respond with equal force. Change is hard, whether the changes occur in our professional or personal life. If we can predict that change will create discomfort, then let’s prevent any negative outcomes we can by facilitating and leading the change in a collaborative, systematic manner. Among the reasons that change is difficult are: There are concerns with uncertainty; with perceived loss of control; with expected losses to the efficacy of the oneself and the organization; and with a mistrust forward the change agents and the change process (Fox & Amichai-Hamburger, 2001). Leaders can mitigate these difficulties by successfully addressing the five domains reported by Lippitt (1987). The first is sharing the vision; when stakeholders do not have a clear understanding of the vision and the whys, reasons, and need of a change, confusion will occur. The second is ensuring that stakeholders possess the necessary skills; when stakeholders do not possess the knowledge and abilities to successfully and confidently make the change, then anxiety will be the result. A commitment to initial and ongoing professional learning must be made. Third, there need to be incentives for the change; in what way will students benefit and in what ways will the satisfaction and effectiveness of educators be enhanced. A sometimes forgotten incentive is accountable. We must hold one another accountable to making changes that align to the vision. If an incentive to change does not exist, then changes and improvements will be uneven at best. The fourth domain is ensuring that resources necessary to implement the change have been acquired and shared; when resources are insufficient, then frustrations will be felt. The last domain is the presence and execution of an action plan. A clearly communicated and well implemented plan, through launch, ongoing supports, monitoring, and adjustments, will help prevent false starts. These five domains will help leaders successfully effect change. Assuming the best intentions of stakeholders, including those who ask the tough questions, is a necessary prerequisite. We have used this change paradigm to plan and manage our continuous improvement efforts. Schools deserve leaders who lean in.