This time of year – the end of a calendar year and the beginning of another – is a time for reflection and goal setting. It occurred to me that this end of year/new year transition is especially unique for me – professionally – for it was at the start of the 2010-2011 school year that I made a transition from the classroom to administration. So as I look to start the year 2020, I felt it important for myself to reflect on the time from 2010-2020 and the lessons I have learned about leadership, educational administration, and myself. Maybe there are “lessons” that I have learned that you can learn from, relate to, and build upon as you also start the new year. Below are Ten Lessons of Leadership that I have experienced (in no particular order):
Lesson #1 – More a Mirror, than a Display Window – I believe there is an assumption, when going into leadership, that its about “other people”. That you will be leading others, so your focus should be on others. While obviously you need to focus on and keep your people central, the lesson I learned early on in leadership, is that leadership is more of a mirror, than a display window. As a leader, like a teacher in a classroom full of students, YOU get exposed. Not the YOU you think of yourself or always hope of yourself to be, but the REAL YOU. Your tendencies, your style, your manner, your values, your blind spots, etc. will all get exposed. Therefore, leaders must know themselves, before they can ever lead others. And I’m not talking about knowing yourself on a surface level or only on your perceived level of how you think of yourself. Rather really knowing your true self. Push yourself to really see yourself – warts and all. Its analogous to the proverbial time when you first hear your voice on a recording and you say “I don’t really sound like!” Reality check – Yes you do! 🙂 Be honest with yourself. What are your strengths and how do I operate from them most? What are your areas that you are working on and how do you account for them? How do I react when I’m stressed? What type of work do I crave and thrive in? What rings my joy bell? What type of work do I avoid and struggle with? Who do I prefer to work with? Who frustrates me? Who is around me who can always tell me the truth – will I have the courage to listen? These are just some of the questions you have to truly ask yourself and then be okay with the answers – whatever they are. Furthermore, use these answers to make you a stronger leader as you can optimize your strengths and then share and look for help to account for your weaknesses. These questions, and many others, will help you get a better sense of you who are when you are both standing in front of the mirror AND when you in front of the display window.
Lesson #2 – It’s Humbling – Like so many things in life, leadership is a humbling endeavor. It seems to never fail that as soon as you accomplish something or feel like you really know what you are doing, something or someone will humble you. Every time. As a leader you have to know that. And that isn’t because you are bad or did something wrong. Its because it is part of leadership. Easy questions, easy situations, or easy decisions won’t get to you, that’s part of being a leader. These difficult responses/actions will test you, your leadership and will humble you. But you can’t run or attempt to avoid it, embrace the humble. Being humbled and showing humility is a great learning and growing opportunity for you. It keeps you balanced. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you sharp and focused on improving every day.
Lesson #3 – Keep Learning – Related to lesson #2, as a leader you can never believe that you know everything or have nothing to learn. As soon as you think you know it all, is the day you stop leading – yourself and others. Leading is not a destination, so stop worrying about arriving. The best leaders I know are ones that have the mindset of a learner and therefore are always looking to learn and grow. They are voracious readers. They are highly connected with their professional learning network (PLN). They are active on Twitter, Voxer, they blog. They discuss and debate. They attend professional conferences. They have mentors and mentor others. They prioritize learning to ensure they will always have time for it. They reflect on what they know, what they have learned, and how they can use it in their positions. Additionally, leaders who are learners serve as great role models for the people they lead. As the “lead learner” they can help instill in their people the importance of continuous learning, reflection, and improvement – all essential characteristics of effective employees and organizations. Practicing what you are preach is really important here, because embracing the mindset of being a learner is really hard for many, especially adults, because there is vulnerability in being a learner. As a learner you have to admit that you don’t know everything; that you can learn and grow more; that you are open to new ways of thinking and doing; that you are willing to change what/how you do things. Have a learner mindset and dedicating yourself to it will keep you fresh, flexible, and ever growing as a leader.
Lesson #4 – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships – President Teddy Roosevelt once said “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” This lesson rings as true for leaders in a school as it does for teachers in a classroom. As a leader you have to prioritize, actively developing and cultivating relationships with your people. Your people have to know you and you have to know them. A common stumbling block for organizations is the de-personalization that happens with “roles” or “groups” of people. How often to you hear someone referring to a position vs. the specific person? It sounds like this, “Administration doesn’t understand the issue” or “Teachers don’t want to change and try something new.” Have you heard these statements or something like it? Do you notice that statements like these don’t use individual people’s names, rather non-personal positions/titles? This happens because its easier to blame positions or titles than specific people. And it happens because there are not strong relationships or strong dedication to relationships present. As a leader, resist the temptation to refer to groups of people vs. specific people. Be curious before getting furious. If you are frustrated with something that is happening, take time and go to the person or people; talk with them; find out what they are thinking; use your “relational capital” that you have built to find a solution or common understanding. It is far more common that people are confused or don’t know how to do something, than they simply won’t do something. And you will know this and remember this if you have prioritized relationship building as a leader.
Lesson #5 – Schedule Your Priorities – In one of my first years in administration I met with our school’s agenda planner salesman, who was known at our school as “Mean Gene” as he was an amazingly nice person. 🙂 He was a retired school administrator and he always managed to work in some “advice” during his sales meetings. One piece of sage advice that he gave me that has proven to be prophetic was plan your day or your day will plan you. What Gene knew and I now understand, is as a leader you will never be bored. There will always be more to do than time to do it. However as a leader, you have to prioritize what you will be doing with the time you do have. It is easy to get thick in thin things. You have to have your own clarity as to the work that you need to do. You need to be able to delegate things to others – not to do less work – but so that you can engage in the work of a leader. Be purposeful about this. Literally schedule parts of your work day to do your leadership work. As Brian Tracy is quoted to have said, “There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing.”
Lesson #6 – Find a Way to Say YES – There seems to be a tendency with too many leaders that their default stance/response to a question is NO. While a leader always has to understand that they are responsible for any/all decisions that are made in their organization, this ultimate responsibility cannot paralyze a leader to always say NO. Your job as a leader is to set the vision, establish expectations, and then to get out of the way of your people. Within your organization you have talent, expertise, and leadership – as the leader you have helped create that (through hiring and development), so by saying YES you empower that potential. By saying YES you create a multiplying affect of impact. By saying YES you increase employee engagement. By saying YES you increase trust. By saying YES you increase buy in. By saying YES you build confidence. By saying YES you encourage risk taking and innovation. By saying YES you increase the chances of better decisions being made. As Steven Anderson reminds us, “Alone we are Smart, Together we are Brilliant.” As a leader challenge yourself to work hard to create solutions, to encourage big thinking, to find ways to say YES.
Lesson #7 – Not All, but Most – As a new leader, I remember the pressure I felt to know everything, to have all of the answers. Its the same pressure I felt as a new teacher. As a leader you feel the pressure to take the burden of responsibility from your people as they may struggle. You feel pressure to fix things, to take on all the problems, to do everything. Hopefully this burden/pressure is felt because you want to help vs. you want to control. But regardless of why this is felt, the lesson learned is this perceived pressure/burden is self-induced and foolhardy. A leader doesn’t have to know or do everything and shouldn’t. The reality is leadership has weight and leaders make a mistake when they hide their people from it. Share that weight, make people aware of the full weight of things, and whenever you can, share it with others – empower them to help find solutions and take ownership of decisions made. Don’t be the person who speaks first, last, and most in meetings. Ask more questions than making statements. Now with all of that said, please don’t take that to mean that leaders don’t have to work. I don’t believe that in the slightest. In fact, I believe the separator of good leaders and great leaders is their ability to roll up their sleeves and see things through. To have the vision and the determination to make things happen. As Simon Sinek says in his book Leaders Eat Last, “ Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more.”
Lesson #8 – Change – If there is a guarantee that I can ensure any leader will face it is that you will work with change. Change is not an optional excursion, something you can decide to engage with or not. Change is a constant. Change will not stop. In fact, in the transformative times we are living in, change is accelerating. Change will happen. The choice you have to make as a leader is how you will lead that change. Change is inevitable, growth is optional. How will you view change? How will you use change to improve yourself, your people, and your organization? How will you help your people understand that change is happening? How will you explain/vision the opportunity with change? How will you support your people to understand that change is an opportunity – not scary or a commentary on their current practices/performance? How will you ensure change is not over-whelming? How will you ensure that the change you are engaging in is for a reason/that there is a need? There is great opportunity and risk that lies within the “change question” for leaders. See it. Be ready for it. Tell its story. Support your people through it. Use it to better things.
Lesson #9 – You Better Miss It (Educators only) – It was May of 2010 when I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I was offered a job to become an administrator. It was a great opportunity to learn and grow. However, if I took it, it meant that I would leave the classroom – and in education that means for good. I loved teaching. I was really good at it. I loved the creativity of lesson planning. I loved the challenge of engaging my students. I loved building relationships with all of my students (that still lasts to today, over 10 years ago). It was an honor and a privilege to be a teacher. While I still consider myself a teacher, leaving the classroom to become an administrator changes what that means. I have described it like this – when I was a teacher I made deep, lasting relationships and impact on 120+ students a year. Now as an administrator I get to impact more students (and teachers) in number, however my impact/relationship with this larger group has become less deep. That has been a difficult transition and something I miss every day. If you want to be an effective educational leader, you better miss the classroom and while you have left the classroom, you better always see yourself as a teacher. An interesting phenomenon that I learned happens when you make that teacher to administration transition, your teachers become your students. Your school becomes your classroom. You remain a teacher, it just looks different. You should continue to be student(teacher) centered. You should continue to build strong relationships. You should continue to see your job to grow your students (teachers). You need to continue lesson planning. You should ensure differentiation for your diverse learners (teachers). You should continue to “teach” the right thing, not the easy thing. You should remain a teacher.
Lesson #10 – It Matters – One of the greatest and most difficult parts of being a leader (or an educator) is the same. It matters. Leadership matters. There are no in-betweens on this. There are no great schools or great organizations without great leadership. Great leaders hire, grow, and empower their great people (because there are also no great schools without great teachers). I have worked with and witnessed great leaders and poor leaders – and both of them have impact. Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Leadership is not for those who aren’t willing to work. Leadership is not for those who want total command and control. Leadership is not a destination. Leadership is not a position – its an obligation. Leadership is an opportunity. Leadership is hard. Leadership is infinitely challenging and rewarding. Leadership is about striving for excellence. Leadership is about learning. Leadership is about compassion. Leadership is about vision casting. Leadership is about hope. Leadership is important…and leadership matters.