Being a leader is hard.
With the vast array of duties and daily demands all vying for a leaders attention, you can quickly get wrapped up, burned out and lose focus on what’s most important.
It’s imperative that leaders develop strategies to help them navigate and thrive in the complex world that they lead.
In this post, I’ve brought together some of my favorite leadership strategies from my time as a school and district office leader.
Above all else, lead your organization
When a school leader is visible, it really sets the tone for everything else they do.
Some people may say relationships are number one. That may be true, but you can’t build solid relationships unless you’re visible with your people!
As a Principal it was always a rule for me to visit every single classroom at my school, every single day, for the first 100 days of each school year.
Don’t let people wonder what you’re doing or where you are. Every single student and teacher at my school, saw me multiple times every single day.
The worst thing that can happen is for your people to wonder what you do all day. You know what I’m talking about and who I’m talking about. It happens to great leaders everywhere, make visibility your default maneuver throughout the day.
I asked my neighbor years ago what their Principal does.
“They’re the person you talk to when you get in trouble.”
Besides making me completely sad, that answer shows the habits of so many leaders.
Here’s what visibility does –
- It lets you know where you are. So many leaders think they have the vision of where their school needs to go. But how can you know where you need to go, unless you know where you currently are. You can’t know that information from the comfort of your office. Put some walking shoes on, count your steps and spend your days in classrooms.
- At the beginning of each school year I would set alarms on my phone for each recess and lunch time. Unless something catastrophic was happening, I didn’t miss those times. If you want a line of kids and behavior problems at your office after recess, then don’t go to recess. If you to want connect with students, handle discipline issues, check in with teachers and students, build solid relationships and have fun – then be at every recess time and lunch time no matter what. You can learn a lot about students by sitting in the cafeteria as they eat lunch.
- I’ve seen so many leaders handling things in the office that simply aren’t their jobs.
- Filling out purchase orders – not your job, have your office manager or secretary do that.
- Scheduling meetings that don’t need to happen, and if they need to happen, make them a walking meeting around your school. Unless it’s totally confidential, take your meeting on the road so you can walk and talk and connect with your school at the same time.
- Schedules, agendas, committee meetings, etc etc etc. Have the people who are affected by the schedules create the schedules – ie: the teachers. Don’t create agendas – just talk about what you need to talk about when you need to talk about it. No committees, they don’t do anything, they’re not productive and they take up valuable time.
Don’t put ‘visit classrooms’ on your calendar, just spend your day in classrooms and make that what you do. All the other duties will fall into place around that.
I would even train my office staff on what to say if a parent came in to meet with me or called on the phone.
“Adam has made a commitment to be in classrooms during the day, connecting with students and teachers to make this school an amazing place to learn.”
My office manager would say that to parents who came in or called, and even people that called from district office.
Don’t just be visible, have your people tell the community why you’re visible.
Remember – don’t let them guess or rumor what you’re doing, show them in person what you’re doing and why.
Forgive and Support
Everyone makes mistakes. If you’re leading with an iron fist and holding a grudge, something needs to change. It’s time to forgive and support.
A neighbor of mine teaches in a school district where I use to work. The Principal they worked for years ago was known to be innovative and always pushing the envelope with new programs to best equip students and teachers in the classroom.
They were also known as someone who doesn’t forget when they’re upset.
One day I was chatting with my neighbor in our front yard and they were telling me about a meeting where they (my neighbor) had said something in front of the Principal and parents of the student that had made the Principal upset. The Principal didn’t say anything during the meeting, or after the meeting, and actually had never said anything directly to them.
My neighbor had heard through the office staff that the Principal didn’t like what they said, even though the parents were completely fine and had a great relationship with the teacher.
Summer had just started so I said –
“Well at least it’s summer time now and they’ll have time to forget about it over the break and you can start fresh for next year.”
What my neighbor said next totally blew me away.
“That meeting didn’t happen this year, it happened five years ago.”
That school leader had been harboring ‘the’ comment for five years.
They’d never said anything directly to the teacher about the comment.
And they were still holding a grudge.
I don’t care what my neighbor even said. For a leader to hold a grudge over one of their teachers for that long, without even saying anything to them about the experience as a learning opportunity, is just plain wrong.
If you’re a leader and someone on your team makes a mistake, which invariably will happen.
Forgive and forget.
Behind close doors, talk to your people about what happened. What they could have said or done differently and move on. Harboring resentment years or even months after an incident doesn’t do anyone any sort of good. It only brings good people down and along with it the morale of your organization.
People make mistakes, including you. The only way you’re going to grow your people is by being honest and supporting them when it’s needed.
Do As Little As Possible
This isn’t click bait, I’m being totally honest.
I truly feel that leaders should do as little as possible, let me explain.
I can’t tell you how many school leaders I’ve talked with and personally seen in action, that are doing way to much. If they weren’t doing it for their school or organization it basically wouldn’t be getting done.
Now there’s a difference between doing and knowing. Leaders should know about everything that’s going on, but do as little as possible.
Years ago when I was a school Principal we ordered our very first 3D printer. The excitement level when that thing arrived in my office was through the roof.
My initial inclination was to tear open the box, download the software, figure out how to make it work and print something on the spot.
Thankfully I know better and abided to my ‘do as little as possible’ mantra.
So instead, I called one of our 5th grade classrooms and asked for two random students. They showed up in my office and this is what I told them.
“We have a new 3D Printer for the school, they have a website and a YouTube channel. I want it set up in the learning commons, call me when it’s ready to go.”
Twenty minutes later the call came over my walkie-talkie.
“Mr. Welcome – it’s done.”
The 3D Printer was my idea, but I knew that’s as far as my involvement needed to go. Those students didn’t just set it up, they trained every 3rd-5th grade class on campus how to design and print using our new learning tool.
And a few months later when it got jammed and wouldn’t print – who do you think they called.
Not me – those two 5th graders who had set it up.
If I or any other adult had been in charge of the set up, trouble-shooting and training of it all, we wouldn’t have so rapidly distributed the access and implementation of the printer.
When a leader does as little as possible, your organization actually goes much farther, much faster, with more depth and empowerment than if you were calling all the shots and taking care of all the details.
Do as little as possible and see how far you can go!
Don’t Act Like An Administrator
When I took over my first school as Principal at 31 years old, my goal was to be the un-Principal. For so long there’s been this dismall image of a school leader. Wearing boring clothes, sitting in their office, nobody talks to them and this almost untouchable like stigma about them.
My first goal was to learn every single students name by the winter break. That’s 560 names in less than five months.
I was going to dress a little bit differently and ‘blend’ in with the students and community, rather than dressing over everyone I worked with.
We were going to have fun, lots and lots of fun. Because when people are having fun, they’re more apt to be engaged in their learning and most importantly feel invested in the organization.
You were going to ‘feel’ the culture of our school from the minute you walked on campus and wherever you went to visit.
I started by inviting groups of students to my office so we could chat. It was one simple way for me to learn everyone’s name and something about them.
But I also wanted to change the stigma of the ‘Principals Office.’
The Principal’s Office has been depicted in movies, books and society as this place where only the naughty kids went when they’ve done something wrong.
This was going to change.
Students very quickly started asking their teachers if they could go to my office. Because they knew it was a place to have conversation, learn, celebrate and was no longer the devised dungeon of years past.
I’ve also for a long time been a firm believer in dressing like the people around you. Some people believe you should ‘dress to impress.’ I’ve taken the ‘dress for success’ approach and that means doing things a little bit different.
The school where I was Principal had many families who kept horses either on their own property or at nearby stables. Kids would often wear their work boots to school because they had either just come from the barn or had chores to do right after school was out.
If you want to click and connect with your people, watch their habits and act like them.
For me it wasn’t an act, I had a great pair of cowboy boots at home that I had bought years before and only wore them once or twice a year. I started wearing those boots, a pair of jeans and a school spirit shirt every Friday and oh my gosh what happened.
More kids started wearing their boots, even the ones who were previously embarrassed to wear them started to wear them. Kids who didn’t even have boots were asking their parents for some so they could wear them too.
Instead of shined up loafers, neatly ironed slacks, a white shirt and some boring tie – we changed the dress culture of our school and the community reacted in an amazing way.
There were some kids who didn’t even wait for their parents, they got construction paper and created their own books that they taped over their regular school shoes. When a child uses that level of creativity and ingenuity to dress like their leader, you know you’ve done something right!
Listen, Listen, Listen, Then Talk
With complete transparency I tell you that this leadership strategy did not come natural to me.
Halfway through my first year as a Principal I thought it would be a great idea to send a survey to my staff.
How was I doing?
What did you like about our school?
What could I improve on when best supporting you?
For a lot of people (myself included) this puts you in a vulnerable position. People will undoubtedly critique you. They’ll give you advice even on a question that you didn’t ask.
In order to grow as a leader you have to put your ego aside and realize that the better you become, the better your organization becomes.
I didn’t really know what would come back from the survey results and I was prepared for some jabs that may sting.
One leadership strategy that does come naturally to me, is having a thick skin and not taking things personal. Whatever came back I would digest and learn from.
One comment that came back repeatedly surprised me, and has probably been the most important leadership strategy to evolve my daily actions as a leader.
“When we talk to you Adam it feels like you’re listening, but not completely listening. It’s almost like you’re listening really fast, and then give us a response so you can move on to the next thing.”
That comment came back numerous times in slightly different ways, but they all had the same meaning.
I knew exactly what my people were talking about.
Long ago my wife diagnosed me with ‘too much energy’ and it’s been a constant area for growth both professionally and personally.
Even my wife will ask me – “Adam, are you listening.”
I am listening, but I’m also thinking about five other things, it’s just how my brain is wired.
But I knew, if I didn’t fix my listening skills, nobody on my staff or my personal life would be listening to me at all.
So whenever someone came to my office, I turned my phone upside down and put my laptop at half mast.
If someone stopped me in the hallways my phone would go in my pocket, I’d cross my hands to purposely put all attention on them.
During meetings when I wasn’t typing notes on the computer, I would often stand up in my chair so everyone knew I wasn’t ‘on’ my computer and was an active participant in whatever was being discussed.
I employed a listen, listen, listen, then talk strategy.
Leaders are problem solvers, but if the leader is always trying to solve the problem, the people with the problem can feel they’re not being heard and they also never learn how to solve problems.
Put away what distracts you, listen with purpose, ask lots of questions, even if the topic doesn’t interest you, act like it does, and then open your mouth to talk.
If you don’t listen, others won’t listen to you.
Find A Good Mentor
Mentors can be a tricky thing.
People know they need one, they even go out looking for them, but how you incorporate that mentor into your leadership is most important.
To start off, I think it’s important to clarify the difference between a mentor and a supervisor.
A supervisor is someone you work directly with, in your organization. They are oftentimes the person doing your evaluation, and making sure that you’re implementing the programs and policies that have been put in place from higher up.
My definition of a mentor is someone that you don’t work directly with, but they do know the functions of your job and the inner workings of your type of organization.
I’ve always sought out people that were older and more talented than me many different times throughout my life.
I was a catcher for my varsity baseball team and knew there were some skills I didn’t have and also felt my coaches couldn’t provide. So I called a local college and asked for the baseball coach. The mentor does not always come to you, most times you have to go out and find that person.
As fate would have it, there was an injured catcher who was supposed to be drafted into the Major Leagues the year before, but his injuries kept him out of the draft and he was still practicing with the team hoping for another shot.
I talked my way into having the coach give me his phone number and I called him up.
“Hey, my name is Adam and I’m on my high schools varsity baseball team and was hoping you could coach me.”
Silence on the other end.
“How did you get my number?”
I didn’t want to tell him the truth, I had to protect my informant – the coach.
“I’ve seen you play and you’re the best catcher I’ve ever seen, I would really love to learn from you.”
He never asked another question and we met up every Saturday morning for three months. I learned so much from him in such a short amount of time it was unbelievable. He was not a coach, he was a mentor.
He knew what it was like to be a catcher on a high school baseball team. He didn’t know the inner workings of our team, but he knows what being part of a team is like.
I could call him up before or after a game to ask strategy questions, and then debrief after a game so I could learn some more.
His services were free.
Coaches will charge you money, a great mentor will never ask for a dime.
I learned the mentor lesson and the huge benefit they can be as a teenager. So you can bet one of the first things I did as a new leader – was to find a leadership mentor.
Some things to remember –
- Be genuine in your search for a mentor. You’re going to get what you look for, and if you have positive intentions with finding the right person, that person will come along.
- Don’t look for someone that’s going to tell you yes and how wonderful you are. Find someone who can be pragmatic with feedback, give a boost when needed, but not sugarcoat everything. Reality is reality – and reality is being a leader is challenging work.
- Mentors sometimes need to remain confidential. Whatever you talk about with your mentor should always be confidential, but sometimes their identity does too. Jealously is a real thing, and if your supervisors or peers find out who you’re connecting and learning from, it can sometimes cause more strife within your organization.
Last but not least – when someone reaches out to you because they want you as a mentor, do it. Giving back to the community is one of the best things you can do, and being able to pay it forward is something special, and not to be taken lightly.
Part II will be coming soon – what are your must have leadership strategies?