Help Leaders Learn To Lead

By Adam Welcome
Your People Need To Make Decisions

If you’re a leader, and you are because everyone is – you have to let your leaders learn to lead.

It always baffles me that people try to do everything all by themselves. They lack complete control over letting anyone else do anything at all. No decision making. No leadership status. Just people that listen, and then execute that command. Something has to change. 

Stressed at work with too many initiatives? 

Working long hours and your personal life is suffering?

Too many projects happening at once and not making progress with any of them?

The people around you just can’t or won’t make decisions?

Too many things happening and you’re not feeling solid about any of them?

You need to let others around you take some of the control and make decisions.

If leadership is always present, and someone is always there to either make a decision or the decision has already been made, nobody around you will learn how to lead because there just won’t be an opportunity. 

We can’t expect anyone around us to lead and make decisions if we never give them the chance.

Here’s an example.

Years ago when I was an Elementary School Principal we tried really hard to distribute the leadership opportunities and decision make process into many different groups across our school. With well over fifty staff members, there were lots of moving parts, conversations, decisions and there was no feasible way I was going to be a part of them all. Distributive leadership is vitally important and here’s what it can look like.

We had grade level teams that worked autonomously amongst themselves to talk about what they needed, where they should go and they had permission from me as the Principal to do just that. The first grade teachers needed some new ideas for math center games? They looked at their needs, researched ideas, and implemented with their students. 

The lines after lunch were a mess and kids weren’t organized – the yard duty supervisors had control to assess the situation and make a change. They could ask for my advice and input, but they didn’t have to.

If we had a culture of ‘everything must be cleared with the boss first’ – then good ideas and initiative don’t happen. If you want your people to make decisions and lead, you have to encourage and allow them to do just that.

Something else we did was a Leadership Group that consisted of teacher representatives from each grade level that met with me on a monthly basis. The first decision you should make when meeting with your people, is to not over plan and complicate the time you have together. Come up with some basic and loose ground rules that will give your time together some loose parameters, and then just get people together to talk. 

Structure can be great – but too much structure can be debilitating in so many ways.

Funny thing happened with the Leadership Group, after a couple of years we kind of stopped meeting, because we didn’t have too. People had so much autonomy and practice with making decisions and leading the group just wasn’t relevant anymore. People knew our overarching goals, what we wanted to achieve as an organization, and that was our north star that people followed.

But something else happened.

Our teachers were really good at making decisions on local levels. Within their grade levels, or maybe some articulation up or down a grade. What they weren’t great at doing was looking across the entire school. 

A school – a business – a team – and pretty much any organization is like a village. If individuals in the village are healthy and prospering that’s great, but when the entire village is in sync and individual villagers can see the big picture and health of that entire village, everyone in the village is better, stronger and more prepared.

We needed the birds-eye view of the village, and as the leader I wasn’t sure how to expose that to my people. 

Know what you need – but don’t be in too much of a hurry to find the answer. One of the worst things a leader can do is rush a decision or an opportunity to teach something to their people.

So I waited. I changed what I did at our school and how I did it. I changed my daily habits and routines so I could see new opportunities that would potentially arise as a teachable moment to my staff. I even started wearing different shoes and a different type of outfit to school – you never know what’s going to make a difference and don’t over think what that difference maker could be.

Then a few months down the road something happened, and I saw our opening for that birds-eye view our staff so desperately needed to change their viewpoint just a little bit.

Every month at a school we’re required to practice a fire drill. Every school is a little bit different in how they prepare and notify staff. When I took over my school as Principal, the previous leader would publish all the fire drill dates and times in a newsletter so pretty much everyone on campus knew when they were. I changed that practice right away and they were always a surprise, nobody knew when it was going down. 

One day we pulled the fire alarm and all 550+ students and teachers exited their classrooms and walked out to the playground. Our fire drill norm was about six minutes to get everyone out of the buildings, onto the playground and accounted for – something that we were definitely proud of as a staff.

This particular day everything was just a little bit sloppy. Kids were chatting, teachers didn’t have the ’serious’ look on their face which is something we practiced and tried really hard to convey to our students. We all hoped these drills would never come to actual fruition, but my job as the leader was to take them so serious that if something happened in real life we would be ready.

I looked at my watch and we finished in just over six minutes. The time was good – our procedure and level of professionalism was not.

And I wasn’t happy.

We excused everyone back to class and I went to the front office. Our Office Manager had been at the school for many years, was amazing at her job, and also knew everyone in town. I told her to call the closest fire station and see if we could get a firetruck on the playground ASAP.

She called, and fifteen minutes later a huge ladder truck was rolling through our gates in stealth mode – I had a plan in the short term, even though my long term birds-eye plan still hadn’t become clear.

We pulled the fire alarm again and it was an entirely different scene. Teachers and students exited their classrooms with a much different look on their faces. We had just done a drill less than twenty minutes before, why would another one be happening so soon. And to top it off, there was a firetruck at our school, something must have happened?

Teachers tried to make small talk with me looking for information, I gave them nothing but a serious face and looked right through them.

Everyone assembled, was accounted for, and then the Fire Captain spoke.
Your Principal just called our fire station and told us you were sloppy on your last drill. We’re here to talk with you all about the drill and why you should always take them serious.

It was a great fifteen minute lecture that didn’t come from me, and everyone got the point. Teachers looked at me and smiled for the lesson that we were able to teach everyone. They understood and the kids did as well – point taken.

Later that day is when it really hit me. 

I’m always at the fire drills. A fire ‘drill’ doesn’t happen without the Principal. But a Principal is off campus at times. Meetings, visiting another school, picking up supplies, etc.

Teachers and students didn’t know when the drills were happening anymore, but I’m always there. Absence of my presence and leadership – what would happen? I had just found my birds-eye view opportunity.
The only person I told of my plan was our amazing Office Manager. She smiled and kept her comments to herself. 

We planned to have our next drill without either of us at school. 

When the expected leadership is gone, what happens?

She was off campus at a meeting, I was ‘gone’ also and there was a substitute in the front office holding down the fort for about an hour at school. I parked my car across the street, got out my binoculars and called the front office. I wanted my own bird’s-eye view of everything as it went down.

“Hey, it’s Adam. We totally forgot to do a fire drill this month and need to get it in today so we’re not out of compliance. Can you please call the fire station to let them know it’s going to be a drill and pull the alarm?”

“Uhhhh, but you’re gone and so is our Office Manager?”

“I know, I know…..but we have to get this done today and I’m not back until after school lets out.”

What happened next was so fun to watch and the leadership repercussions were amazing!

The fire alarm got pulled. Everyone left their classrooms and made their way to our playground where they normally would. Teachers started looking around. They didn’t see me. They didn’t see our Office Manager.

The moment of truth. 

When the expected leader is gone, what happens.

Someone stands up to lead – and that’s exactly what happened.

A teacher who I did not expect – started going down the line checking in with classes. 

A new leader had emerged!

“All accounted for?”

After everyone was done, someone with a walkie-talkie called into the front office and reported everyone was safe and released back to classrooms.

Two new leaders had emerged. The one counting all our classes, and the other with their walkie-talkie!

If you want your people to lead and make decisions, you have to give them those opportunities to do so.

Without these opportunities – leaders that are hidden, or have been stifled, or have not yet been empowered – will not emerge, and that’s a detriment to your organization.

I put down my binoculars, called my Office Manager, and told her everything went smooth. What I never told my teachers was that the entire drill was planned that way, because that would have taken away some of the effect.

We talked about it briefly in our next staff gathering, but we didn’t really need to. Teachers started looking for different leadership opportunities, which helped me out as the Principal. They started looking at our organization in a different way, which helped the entire organization. They started thinking with a birds-eye view mentality and it made a big difference across our organization, which took some of the work load and decision making off of my plate. They started thinking bigger than just their classroom or department, which in the long run helps the entire organization.

We can’t expect our students to leave school being independent thinkers that are going to lead if we never give them that opportunity when they’re in school.

We can’t expect our teachers/employees to lead without being asked and make decisions, if we never give them the opportunity to do so.

Your people need to make decisions. 

Your people need to be put in leadership opportunities. 

Your people need to be supported when they’re in these situations. 

And you need to get out of the way. 

You need to stop making all the decisions. 

You need to delegate to the lowest possible level when thinking about those decision making processes. 

You need to make a leadership decision as late as you possibly can – because someone else may be able to do it for you, and that’s a win.

And sometimes, the best thing that you can do is absolutely nothing. 

Train your people. Give them the tools and permission to do their job. Support them with whatever decision they do end up making. And new leaders will emerge. 

Your people need to make decisions and leaders need to learn how to lead- what are you NOT going to do today, so they can do something new tomorrow.

Adam Welcome

Adam Welcome

Adam has been an elementary school teacher, Principal, Director of Innovation for a large school district in the Bay Area and is also an author and speaker.

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