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.

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.

Difficult Conversations

Having a difficult conversation is never easy, but relying on your gut and core values certainly makes the decision to proceed somewhat easier.  If you believe that having a crucial conversation will result in an improved situation for your students and/or staff, then it’s a no-brainer; you’ve got to have the talk, no matter how difficult.  The challenge is to carry out the conversation even though it may make you feel uncomfortable.  As well, making it a priority when it first comes to your attention is key because, the longer you leave it, the more difficult the difficult conversation may become.

The point of the crucial conversation is, often, to bring about a change in practice, which can be uncomfortable and intimidating for the person involved.  Remember to keep the person’s dignity intact and be understanding while having this talk.  Being a good listener and trying to remain empathetic will go a long way to achieving a positive outcome.  However, being forthright about the reasons for the conversation and the need for change is critical.

Keeping your goal for the conversation in mind is important.  Often, bouncing your ideas off another colleague or seeking advice from others to get a different perspective before proceeding can help.  Having said this, dealing with the situation in a timely manner is important.  However, it is never advised to enter into the conversation in an angry or upset state so, taking some time to centre yourself as well as to reflect and formulate a “game plan” is crucial.

Having a clear focus will help you stick to the point during the conversation and avoid the pitfall of straying into tangential topics.  A clear plan, including not only what you’re going to address but also where and when the conversation will take place is key.  Giving the person involved some advance notice is often a good idea.  Finding a time that works well for the individual as well as a location that affords privacy will set the stage for success.

These difficult conversations aren’t my favourite part of the job but I believe that they are a very necessary piece.  Not entering into a crucial conversation, when one is warranted, is the equivalent of burying your head in the sand as a leader, hoping that the problem disappears.  Addressing issues and working to improve practice will ultimately help not only the person, students, and parents involved but also the staff morale, in general.  It’s draining on the staff’s morale when they see that their leader is not addressing an issue that needs to be dealt with; it’s our job as leaders to meet these challenges head-on, when needed, thus working towards improvement in our schools.

Management as a Principal #SAVMP

Management and leadership go hand in hand; effective principals blend both into their daily practice.  I agree with Bruce Beairsto when he says, “You need management to build a house but only leadership can make it into a home” (from Chris Wejr’s RSCON presentation) – certainly, both management and leadership are essential.  A principal’s vision, no matter how clear and worthwhile, cannot be carried out in a school characterized by chaos and disorder.  So, without being able to manage as well as to lead, a principal will not be able to fulfill the vision for his/her school.

I think an effective way to manage time on a daily basis is to link my everyday practice to my vision.  In other words, the work with which I’m engaged every day should ultimately tie into my vision.  At our school, building a positive, connected community and establishing caring relationships are what we aim for and how I deal with students, staff and parents is always tied to that vision.  Thus, in my everyday dealings, whether talking to students in the office, or teachers in their classes or with parents in the parking lot, I focus on building and growing positive relationships along the way.

Of course, the occasional hiccup like having to unclog toilets (I feel your pain Daisy Dyer Duer) doesn’t really fall in line with my grand plan but these tasks still need to be done.  Certainly, I can’t predict the occurrence of these types of situations but I can deal with my predictable work in an efficient and timely manner so that these hiccups don’t throw off my whole day.  Writing reports or preparing for upcoming meetings ahead of time in an organized fashion nullifies the sense of panic when these unexpected problems occur.  Nothing becomes an emergency when it is dealt with ahead of time; preparation is key.

Long-term preparation involves building school-wide systems to ensure that, when problems arise, there is a procedure in place to deal with them.  When the systems are pervasive and well-established, issues are addressed in an efficient manner, thus avoiding the development of lingering and chronic problems.  Effective systems in place in our school help to prevent me from spending too much time in Stephen Covey’s “urgent and important” quadrant.

As much as I try to integrate my vision into my daily practice and to have efficiently run systems in place, I know that I still won’t be able to complete all of the things on my “to do list”, without delegating some of the tasks.  No matter how effective I am at time management, I will still need help to accomplish everything.  I learned this concept the hard way when, in my first of year of being a vice principal, I tried to get everything done on my own.  This experience taught me that without asking for help, I wouldn’t have a long “shelf life” as an administrator.  I learned that delegation was not (and is not) an abdication of leadership but, instead, a sign of its strength.  Of course, the other benefit of delegating is that it engenders the development of more leaders in my school.  I discovered that letting teachers take charge of initiatives about which they are passionate is an effective way to develop more leaders.  This indispensable leadership lesson for me was a wonderful bonus in learning how to blend management with leadership.