The Vulnerable Leader

I’ve been through a roller coaster of emotions recently, as I was accepted into a principal cohort in our district.  Of course, I was very excited at first, but after a few minutes of joy and elation, I started to panic.  I couldn’t help but think, “What have I done?”  All of a sudden, the confidence I had gained as a VP vanished.  I started to wonder, “What if my new staff discovers that I don’t have all of the answers?”  I know that I was being completely irrational, since I don’t even have an actual principal job yet.  However, I began to have the same pangs of doubt as when I first started to teach and wondered what would happen if a student asked a question to which I didn’t have the answer!

After overcoming this brief bout of panic, I calmed down and regained my sense of confidence.  I realized that, at my new school, I will remain genuine and true to whom I am and, if that means admitting that I don’t know everything as a leader, then so be it.  In fact, some of the best principals I’ve ever worked with embraced this sense of ambiguity and said, “let’s learn together.”  I am a life-long learner and if I don’t know something, I’m really good at working hard to find an answer.  As well, I’m quite comfortable in acknowledging that I don’t know it all because I am resourceful and a collaborator when it comes to finding a solution.  After some reflection, I realized that I, myself, have the leadership qualities that I admired in my previous principals; the challenge for me will now be to deal with my angst regarding the ambiguity and uncertainty that I’ll experience in my future role as principal.  Welcome to leadership?

The idea of moving to a new school further adds to my sense of unease.  In my current position as a VP, I’m okay with taking risks and I realize that the only difference is, at my new school, I will not know the staff as well as I know my current colleagues, therefore I won’t feel as safe to show my vulnerable side.  It’s so much easier to take risks amongst friends.  However, I can turn that angst into a strength since I’ll be able to model vulnerability for my staff so that they will feel safe to take risks and learn alongside me.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m going to have to be okay with ambiguity and vulnerability.  If not, I’m going to waste my time as the leader of a new school trying to mask the fact that I don’t know everything.  However, I need to strike a proper balance between being vulnerable and being a strong leader.  My staff won’t want a leader who lacks confidence.  So, I’ll need to call upon my resources of past experience and trust in myself.

I went through the same sort of feelings when I was first hired as a VP. I was scared because I didn’t want to disappoint my colleagues who depended on me.  As it turned out, I ended up winning the trust and confidence of my staff and parent community.  I will have to trust myself to do the same thing again, whenever I’m called upon to lead a school.  Previously, I’ve always had the safety net of being able to rely on my principal. The difference with my new challenge is that I’m going to be that net. However, I know that even as the principal, I will always be able to rely on my colleagues and mentors for help. The point of good leadership, I think, is that you never have to go it alone.

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Communication Essentials

When it comes to communicating with parents, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings.  Having said this, because the majority of our parents are unavailable during the day, a phone call is a really good second choice.

An important part of my job as an administrator is to build relationships and sometimes this means conveying bad news.  A relationship will not be solidified by refraining from telling bad news or by finding less direct ways to send the difficult news.  Sending an email to convey bad news is akin to breaking up with someone by texting them; it’s a no-no and a relationship breaker.  I believe that parents actually appreciate an administrator’s efforts to relay any difficult news in a direct manner.

Every time I phone a parent, I preface the call with “this is not an emergency call” so that parents aren’t worried about the health and safety of their child.  When communicating a behaviour issue to home, I have the student in my office as well and I ask them to call their own parents to talk to them about the situation while I’m in the room.  This strategy has two important benefits:  one – having to talk out loud to your mom or dad about something you did somehow brings the message home much more strongly; two – it most likely will result in a continuation of the conversation when the student goes home.  Without a phone call home, there may never be a conversation at home or, worse, there may be a completely different version of the situation portrayed by the student.  By making the phone call in “public”, we all work with the same version of events.

Communicating about a difficult topic can become that much more difficult if an email or text is sent because there is no immediate dialogue.  Furthermore, tone is best conveyed face-to-face or by a phone call.  There is much less ambiguity when you can hear the person’s voice.  Also, you can clarify on the spot if there are any misconceptions, rather than letting misunderstandings linger.

Face-to-face conversations and phone calls are not the only way to communicate.  There is definitely a place for technology and the use of email / Twitter/ Facebook / Remind 101.  However, I believe these tools are meant for a different type of news.  They are useful for conveying a variety of information to parents, ranging from school events to happenings in the classroom.  I see these tools more for communicating global messages of what’s going on in the school.  Of course, there can be two-way communication using these methods as well when, for example, parents respond to a photo of their child doing something in his/her class.  However, when the need arises for difficult conversations, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face or making a phone call.  Of course, the same can be said when you want to relay a positive message about a student.  Phoning home to say how well a certain student has done will go a long way in boosting the school-home relationship.