Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lessons for New Leaders

I am often asked the questions "Can leaders be made or are they born?" This is a central theme that has spurred discussions, indeed arguments, among leadership experts always.

I tend to believe that with a few exceptions, all leadership skills can be learned and developed overtime if one is willing to truly self-reflect and improve. Instead of an absolute in terms of leadership (i.e., you are or you are not), I see leadership as a journey. As we begin we may have many gaps in our approach and style that causes us problems. As we develop, we improve and grow into more well-rounded leaders. If you view leadership as a continuum, the first thing we must admit is this: Not everyone is a great leader. While an individual may develop into a great leader, their current leadership practice may be missing the mark in a dramatic way.

In K-12 education we are often looking at the role of principal or assistant principal when we ask this question with a particular candidate in mind. New school administrators are often facing their first true leadership role. And what a challenging role it is. I often tell clients that to be a good principal, you need to be a great leader. Other roles in school districts may require some leadership skill but the role of principal requires excellent skills in this regard.

As much of my work is with new principals, it seemed relevant to share a few themes that I try to underscore with new administrators. We all have blind spots: those areas where we lack skills and, furthermore, make lack the ability to identify this specific lack of skill. New leaders are no different. Some of these blind spots that I see consistently are among the following. And while these may seem obvious, there is a depth to each of these that even the most accomplished leader does not do well enough.

Be Collaborative. But Do Not Vote

As leaders we often times strive to define our style of leadership immediately. We may want others to see us as democratic. Alternatively we may perceive that the situation requires that we be direct, decisive and even authoritarian. Many elements of leadership style are personal to each of us. It is our leadership thumbprint which defines who we are as a leader and provides our subordinates with a certain level of expectation as to how we will approach a situation. And while there is a large degree of flexibility in style, I tend to believe that new leaders should be collaborative with their staff, but only to a degree.

Why is this? Collaborating with and seeking buy-in and involvement from your faculty is the only way I know of to generate a shared sense of vision for a school. Without their involvement, it will not matter if you have the perfect vision, the best mix of academic plans, or the exact right intervention model. You will have failed if the faculty does not also see the way. We get that through collaboration. Many leaders spend more time on coming up with what they think is the right solution rather than developing buy-in among staff. It is better to implement a solution that, to you, feels only 80% right but with 100% of the faculty behind it, than to implement a perfect solution alone.

There is a caveat to buy-in. Schools are public institutions and funded by the government for the local communities. We are beholden to our communities and elected school board to perform in the roles we are given. But schools are not democracies. Majority opinion does not rule and sometimes teacher are, in fact, wrong. Indeed, you will hear so much conflicting opinion that by definition everyone cannot be right. As the leader it is your job to listen to ideas and opinions and then make a decision. The direction of the school is a decision on the part of leadership, not a vote. But we must have buy-in from staff to make it all work.

Be Visible, Be Positive

As new school leaders, we are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job. With a job that has you moving as quickly as this, it is easy to lose focus on what is important. Many new leaders spend large amounts of their time in meetings with district administrators, parents, community, students, and teachers each presenting a variety of issues and challenges. The frenetic schedule can often create two problems for a new leaders. The nature of dealing with daunting challenges on a seemingly non-stop basis can sap our positive energy. Meanwhile, the demands on time may make if difficult for new leaders to maintain a level of visibility among staff and students.

The power of being visible and positive to staff and students is often overlooked. And yet it is one of the most important thing a new leader can maintain. Visibility may be as simple as walking the halls throughout the day, every day, and greeting everyone you meet. Positive means simply not letting the stress show. Always project the sense that, even if the solutions is not obviously apparent, we can address the issues before us. Great leaders project this sense of positive, confidence. It may seem phony to you at first if you doubt yourself; however you will develop more confidence over time if you maintain a positive outlook and continue to believe that your team can tackle any issue in front of it.

Over-communicate Your Focus

"But we talked about this at the last staff meeting! How come they do not remember?" Principals ask me this question (or questions like it) all the time. Truth is, just because it is crystal clear in your mind does not mean it is so clear in the minds of others. John Kotter, of the Harvard Business School and noted expert on change management, once said if you believe you are communicating your vision enough, do it ten times as much and then maybe you will be doing it enough.

Leaders consistently under-communicate their vision because they think people may already know or even be sick of hearing it. Great leaders figure out ways to integrate the discussion of their focus into almost every conversation. They weave the theme of their school through every component of the school system and ensure that conversations relate back to the focus of the organization.