Letter to Leaders
03/21/2016 | Scott Springston
As a leader you may be asking yourself - “I signed up for this?” The answer is yes and many are glad you did. As a superintendent or building principal you have the talent, desire and disposition to lead others. You accepted this challenge and responsibility as a servant leader and your task will not be for the faint of heart. You will need conviction, courage and most importantly commitment to yourself and others to be successful. So what does it mean to be a leader and more importantly, what do effective leaders do differently? John Buchan states, "The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already." If transformational- truly effective leadership - is to occur it is through developing the leadership in you and of those around you.
Truly effective leaders instinctively and intentionally live out their beliefs through their actions. Many of your actions as a leader will be counter intuitive to institutional training, practices and belief structures within your organization. Your ability as a leader to recognize and navigate through challenges will be the difference between systemic vs situational change. Traditional approaches to continuous improvement reform begin with the mentality of how to address the issue within the existing institutional structures. From the onset this approach will yield typical results when the expected results are far from typical. As a transformational leaders you must be anything but typical.
Reform efforts need to be approached with a fresh set of eyes open to all possibilities for truly impactful and sustainable results to occur. As a leader you must have the skills to predict and withstand the institutional resistance to protect status quo that inevitably will occur. As a transformational leader you must have the courage to relinquish positional authority and entrust leadership in others. This distributive leadership approach comes through empowerment, collaboration and shared accountability as the norm and expectation for all.
Every person in your organization has innate and learned leadership skills. Superintendents and building principals must have an acute awareness of each individuals’ talents and leverage them for the benefit of the organization. If you understand what institutional barriers are in place that act against coordinating these efforts you will be more successful in breaking them down. In doing so you will create a culture empowered to take responsible risks and support innovative approaches to solve the complex issues your school or district may face. We are all born with innate curiosity but over time institutional norming confines our instincts. Leaders cannot fly in the face of institutional practice but rather, find ways to change the belief structures that define the culture and nurtures curiosity.
As a school leader you have a daunting task yet one that is necessary. Now, more than ever, your transformational leadership is required to ensure schools across this country are prepared to meet the challenges they face and here is how you do it.
Be True to Yourself
A leader is a person to whom others naturally gravite, and through this connection, improve the leadership and productivity of others towards completing the organization's goals. A leader must have full awareness of your staffs’ strengths, limitations and you must have the courage to recognize your strengths and weaknesses as well. There is no doubt that you will be tested professionally and personally on every decision and action you take. You must be clear and consistent in your espoused and enacted beliefs on what is best for the organization and how you intend to move the organization towards the direction you seek. Stay true to your personal and professional convictions and you will find others will invest in you and your leadership.
Put People over Processes
No organization will be successful until the leader surrounds the organization with talented and committed employees. Human capital is the most important asset to any successful and sustainable organization. This is also the most difficult area facing talented leaders yet absolutely vital to success - or failure. People trump processes. As a leader you are directed through policies, statutes and expectations to follow certain processes. Processes are important. They provide a clear “road map” for others to follow to ensure efficiency of actions. Clearly understood and identifiable processes enable each person in your organization the ability to work more efficiently. As a leader you will find situations where processes may bump up against what is best for your personnel. When this happens you must be willing and able to assess these barriers and change them. Always remember your personnel will be expected to carry out the processes and your responsibility is to ensure they have every chance to be successful. If procedures or policies act as barriers to leverage your organization’s human capital - change them.
Have a Plan
Once others believe in your convictions and commitment to the organization they need to know you have a plan. Be specific as to the goals of the organization, processes for collaboration, have a distributive leadership framework in mind. Identify and explicitly lay out the steps to execute the plan. Once this is accomplished your staff can visualize action. Be consistent. Do not mistake consistency with inflexibility. Others will invest in you when they feel convinced you are consistent in your belief structure and approach to complex problems. Transformational leaders embed continuous feedback processes and the flexibility to pivot when necessary. If your actions are inconsistent it will create a heightened environment of anxiety limiting or eliminating others to invest in your direction and leadership.
Communicate and then Communicate Again
Communication is the key to getting all the moving parts working in synchronized fashion. A leader communicates conviction, purpose and commitment every minute of every day through actions, decision making as well as the typical communication mediums. Above all, leaders understand listening is the most important factor of being an effective communicator. The message is more important than the medium. As a leader you must be open to input from others, process that input and make the changes necessary to ensure success.
The role of a leader can take on a life of its own and should be prescriptive and not descriptive. As a leader everything you do prescribes what you believe in yourself and others. Your title alone will not describe leadership. Effective leaders are grounded in what is most important to their personal life and do not sacrifice those commitments. A lifespan of a leader will be cut short if he or she does not balance personal life (self, family, spiritual beliefs). You will be tested on every front and may likely question what you are doing and why when it feels like so many want to see you fail. You will have to revisit the Be True to Yourself section. You are a leadership position because you have the disposition, talent and conviction to lead others. Leaders who can balance their personal life and professional responsibilities will not only have the energy to be more productive but will also model this balance for others. People are watching and will trust you, follow your lead and find balance in their lives when they see you living out what you expect of them.
Every one of us is a leader and the only separation among us is the differing levels of responsibility. Transformational leaders mobilize the greatness in themselves and in others. When you internalize and enact these tips you will be a more successful person, father, mother, friend, and colleague. The leadership legacy will be measured in your ability to empower others. Find the greatness in yourself and others for the task before you is important.
Dr. Springston is the Chief Collaboration Officer with the education consulting firm Strategic Education Collaborators (www.scottspringston.com). He spent 23 years in public education with 9 of those years as superintendent of schools. His education, experience and passion is in sustainable leadership development. Current projects Dr. Springston is working on are assisting WestEd’s School Wide Leadership for Learning division for distributive leadership development as well as serving as the Director of Higher Education for Grand County, Colorado.
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