We need to pause, think about why our typical approach may not be effective, and then experiment with a new approach that will likely be uncomfortable at first
I don’t know what the ‘new normal’ will be, but after supporting school and district leaders for the last few months as they address one novel challenge after another, I know what good leadership looks like.
The demands and conditions of K-12 leadership have transformed nearly overnight, driven by the pandemic, its economic impact, and racial justice protests. In the face of these challenges, I’ve noticed that the most effective leaders have moved away from their traditional approaches and are trying new leadership skills.
At this point in our careers most of us have tools, skills, and attributes that we’re confident in and get rewarded for. And we’re hesitant to drop those tools even when they’re not effective in the moment. Our skills and attributes are preferences. We learned them early in life, they worked for us, others admired them, and over time they became what we think of as our leadership style. As we created this style, we left some skills and approaches behind.
The good news is that each of our well-developed skills points to a complementary, under-used skill that we can develop. But first, we need to pause, think about why our typical approach may not be effective, and then experiment with a new approach that will likely be uncomfortable at first.
9 leadership polarities
Let’s look at nine of those leadership polarities. For each pair, your preference may be on one side or the other. Notice that you’re likely to have a strong response even to the descriptions themselves, believing that one end or the other of the polarity is better. The question, though, is: “When is it better?” Whenever your go-to approach isn’t working, try moving toward the underused and underdeveloped end of a polarity that you’ve noticed.
- Act-Plan. When you face a new challenge or have an exciting idea, do you prefer to move immediately to action or do you prefer to first develop a step-by-step plan?
- Think-Feel. When working with others, do you focus on their ideas or on their feelings? When making a case to others, how much do you say about your thought process or your feelings?
- Confident-Modest. Because we have responsibility for children and large numbers of people, K-12 leaders need to have what the military calls “command presence.” But beyond that, this polarity asks: Do you always present that you’re sure of yourself and your decisions, or do you present as open to new ideas or questions?
- Just-Compassionate. Are you willing to make exceptions in the interest of equity or fairness? Do you often appeal to policy or rules? Do you worry that an exception will be seen as a precedent?
- Answer-Ask. When someone approaches you with a question or dilemma, what’s the first thing you do: ask a question or give an answer? How does it feel to say, “I don’t know?”
- Solution-Problem. How often do you stop and consider the root cause of a problem before proposing solutions? How easy is it for you to immediately create a solution no matter how difficult the problem is?
- Facilitate-Direct. How often do you facilitate group discussion while consciously holding back your own suggestions? How accountable do you feel for the decisions made by your teams? When a solution needs to be implemented by many people, how do you engage with them upfront?
- Flexible-Consistent. Under what circumstances are you willing to reconsider a decision? Are people able to predict what your response will be to a question or problem?
- Spontaneous-Reflective. How often do you ask for time to think about a problem before responding? How often have you felt the need to go back and correct a misunderstanding or to apologize?
I encourage you to think about your preferences, celebrate how well they have served you, and experiment with new behaviors and approaches.
6 tips to improve effectiveness
As you reflect on and refine your leadership style, here are six additional tips that will improve your effectiveness as a new, challenging year begins:
- Tell people why. Explain your moral reasoning, not just the policy or constraints. Who is being better served by this decision? How is equity being improved?
- Be clear about the specific behaviors you want. Physically rehearse new procedures such as student arrival and virtual parent conferences. Create an FAQ or other documentation for people to refer to.
- Build networks of support. In addition to the normal cycles of the school year, each person will have their own ups-and-downs. Provide time and space for people to check in and offer support. Plan ahead for covering the absences of team members and leaders as well as sudden disruption to routines.
- Lighten the load. The most traditional norm of teaching is independence. It made sense, traditionally, to have each teacher design their own lessons and activities but in a blended learning model, one teacher can design the lesson while other teachers focus on student engagement. Take advantage of virtual tools and technology to share resources, even across schools.
- Measure and track success. Identify a handful of leading indicators such as online student engagement, student attendance, and technology use. As a team, use the measures to ask: Are we making progress?
- Vary your pace. It’s exhausting to treat everything as an emergency and to keep our energy level dialed up. Set aside a week or two for you and your team to regroup and relax several times a year.