Lessons Learned Along the Way ...
Ah, September! The beginning of a new school year. I remember the excitement that I had as a child going to school that first day in September. New shoes that were not yet worn comfortably, book covers made from brown paper bags, a fresh notebook, and that ever favorite box of brand new Crayolas! Anticipation of a new year, new friends, and new adventures. As students arrived to school, they had that same look of excitement on their faces! I wish you all that same sense of wonder and eagerness as we begin the 2018 – 2019 school year.
When I was asked to write an article on women’s leadership for the September edition of On Target, I eagerly accepted the challenge. While I am extremely passionate about women’s issues in leadership, it was somewhat daunting to write an article that is, hopefully, meaningful and interesting to all leaders. I decided to share with you my “Lessons Learned Along the Way,” which are tried and true tips of leadership that have helped me and which I have learned from my successes and mistakes as well as from observing thousands of outstanding leaders and just a few who were not so outstanding. We learn from everyone.
- Be Passionate About What You Do.
School leaders deal with problems, complaints, and unexpected issues on a daily basis. These are the joys of leadership and what we signed up for. No matter what the task is, I have learned that if it is tackled with sincerity, enthusiasm and joy, that passion will translate to all who are around you…and may even give pause to your detractors. When you “speak from your heart,” your sincerity will shine through.
- Respect the Trust that Constituents Have Placed in You.
You have been chosen to lead a district. You are in charge of simply everything. That is the utmost honor and vote of confidence which can be bestowed upon you. Respect the trust you have earned, cultivate it every day, and never, ever take it for granted. That is the way to keep it.
- Trust Your Intuition.
Each of us has a moral and intellectual compass which gives us great intuition, integrity, and insight. My biggest mistakes have been when I did not pay attention to my gut instinct but, rather, let other factors intercede in my decision-making. Your intuition will never fail you or steer you in the wrong direction. Listen to it.
- Build a Strong Team.
School leaders cannot do it alone. We need mentors, other leaders, teachers, and support staff to help identify key issues, formulate and implement plans, candidly assess progress, and then anticipate the next steps. Encourage, cultivate, and grow your team of key individuals who you trust implicitly. Group successes are so much sweeter!
- Embrace Your Mistakes.
No matter how hard we try or how long we work, we all make mistakes. Some are big, and some are small. I have learned from each and every one of them and have a goal of trying not to make the same mistake twice. The strongest leaders I have observed own their mistakes, learn from them, dust themselves off, and then move on.
- Do What You Do Not Like…and Do It Well.
While most aspects of school leadership we probably like, there are always some tasks that are definitely not favorites: waking up at 4:00 a.m. to determine if it will be snowing at 9:00 a.m., developing, revising, and editing numerous grants in the hope that our district will get just one, writing endless reports… You get the picture. It is often said that the hallmark of a true leader is one who superbly accomplishes those tasks that are liked as well as those tasks that are not. Think about it.
- Take Risks.
Being a school leader is all about risk taking. Sometimes, however, we shy away from the risk of a new job, added duties, or new events because they become one less risk that we “have” to take. My greatest joys come from embracing risks I did not need to take but which resulted in enhancing awareness, perspective, and contacts. Go for it!
- Bad News Is Better Coming From You.
It is far easier to give good news but, as a leader, you will need to convey bad news to your constituents at times, which may include students, parents, staff, or the board of education. As soon as you anticipate that the “bad news” is or may be a reality, it is far better to candidly and promptly share that information and your plan for dealing with what has occurred. I have learned that it is always better when bad news is conveyed by you rather than those around you who may embellish or distort the facts. Remember, bad news does not stay hidden long.
- Low and Slow.
In an emotionally charged situation, I have learned to instantly go into “low and slow” mode. “Low” means my voice goes several octaves lower than my normal speaking voice and “slow” means that the cadence of my speech is slower than normal. Since it is impossible to try to talk over people with raised voices, this is a means of quieting the crowd and having audience members focus on your words since they will not otherwise be able to hear you. Try it…it works!
- The Gift of Time.
In our hectic world of leadership, the efficient default answer can sometimes simply be a quick “yes” or “no.” I have learned to give myself the gift of time when making decisions that may have residual impact. The only instance when a decision must be immediately made is if staff or student injury is imminent. By taking the time to reach a thoughtful answer, you may realize a very different result.
I invite you to think of your own Lessons Learned Along the Way. I am sure you have many. I would love to read them! Please feel free to share them with me (email@example.com) and NJASA Director of Communications Anne H. Gallagher for possible publication in a future issue of On Target. We are our own best resource. Welcome back, friends and colleagues, to another terrific school year!