Our brains love stories. Especially stories filled with drama and intrigue, a villain, a hero and other pieces that make us talk excitedly and retell the story to others. It’s why so much of our history is built in stories. But stories can be like playing telephone. The first story that is told is often not how it’s told the 22nd time as it tends to change a little bit every time somebody gets a hold of it. When stories are told for entertainment value, this can make the stories more interesting and engaging, but when their purpose is to pass information, this can make them unreliable and potentially dangerous.
I’ve spoken about the importance of communication before in The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture. Communication and transparency are imperative for an organization not only because it provides people with a common ground for building a strong culture but also because trust is the foundation for relationships and part of building trust is having clear communication.
When communication is lacking, people will take a little pieces of information that they do have and they will create their own story. It’s human nature. We pull pieces and create a whole picture with any bits we have. Usually, because our brains tend to think in the negative, the stories will not be complementary and sometimes the people that end up the hero and the villains are maybe not the people who should be in those places at all. But our brains love stories and all the pieces of the hero’s journey and if we’re not communicated with we will make up that story with the information we do have instead of seeking to understand. These stories may then include biases and assumptions and create a single story that may not include actual facts.
As an educator and an entrepreneur I am a huge fan of branding for this very reason. I don’t believe branding to be as much of a marketing ploy as it is a way to communicate. For example, the reason that I wrote Divergent EDU was because I was so afraid of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking to be used as a compliance tool for teachers when it was really meant as a way to provide support. My brand is how I tell people what I believe in and how I operate. It’s based on my purpose and my core beliefs. And if I did not communicate this information I would run the risk of people making up stories about me that weren’t true and it would be my own fault for not communicating because I failed to give them the information they needed for a complete story and instead set them up to use their assumptions and biases to fill in those holes instead.
The same premise holds true for any individual whether it be a teacher leader, student or any organization, classroom, school or district. If you don’t find a way to communicate who you are and what you are about or why you do the things you do, be prepared for people to make up their own stories. Then, be prepared for a game of telephone where the first story that is told is made a little bit more dramatic and misunderstood a little bit more until it has reaches a group of people. What we want people to believe can be hampered by the desire for a good story with heroes and villains and monsters and drama. Clear communication that builds trust and maintains relationships and allows for asking questions and challenging assumptions and biases is the best way to make sure that if a story is told it’s the story that we want told because it truly represents who we are and what we do.
As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.
When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.
What types of relationships are there? Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.
There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.
What does support mean? Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.
Do I really need to love everyone? Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.
I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.
5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships
Be consistent The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.
Be vulnerable I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.
Be available When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.
Be non-judgmental It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.
When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.
Be the person you’d like to talk to Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.
There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.
Since I’ve been in my current role, I have focused my efforts on what I have believed to be important supports for my department and the teachers believing that when I support my department they are better able to support teachers who then in turn are better equipped to support students. In the last couple of years we have clarified roles. We have worked on new policies and procedures. I’ve worked hard on creating trust and relationships and I believe that while we always have ways that we can grow, we have an amazing group of highly qualified, hardworking, tech people that do their jobs really, really well.
But that’s not even close to what I love best about them.
Our department is a little different than other departments in our district or even in other districts because the physical location of our office space is in the middle of the building between the middle and high schools. Unlike many other district level departments, we have students in our offices all the time. While sometimes they are in for actual technology assistance, many times they just come in to chat with my device manager and programmer.
Like, the teenagers. Come in. Just to talk.
It began a couple years ago when we started our student led Genius Bar (tech support). The GB students would come in and eventually began opening up with us; sometimes joking, sometimes telling us serious news. Then they began bringing other students in to grab a piece of candy and “say ‘hi’ to the tech ladies.” Each and every time, no matter how busy they are, my device manager and programmer will drop what they’re doing and listen to the students. They often have to scramble at the end of the day to get their work done because they took time out for the students. I’ve heard them tell the students how smart they are. I’ve watched them cry with the students when something bad happens. They work with the guidance counselors to get extra help for the students when necessary. Sometimes they hug them and hand them tissues and other times they high-five over things that to anyone else would seem like an innocuous accomplishment. I have seen it countless times. And while many might say this is how it’s supposed to be, realistically, how often is it that it’s not?
While I believe that relationships are not going to “fix” every issue you have with students, they certainly are the foundation for anything else that’s going help move a student forward. It’s definitely where we need to start. Students, especially ones in crisis, need at least one caring adult to believe in them when they have difficulty believing in themselves. For goodness sakes, I would hope at any given time students have more than one person doing this for them.
I sit back and watch the interactions in my department with a huge amount of pride. Yep, that’s our tech department. I’m so proud that we have been able to build a place where students feel comfortable to come and share their stories. And I feel a bit like if those “tech ladies” can do it, then anyone can.
When I work with districts on the ideas in #DivergentEDU, communication is one of the most common areas recited as either supporting the positive climate and culture or being the hole in the climate and culture foundational level. Communication is so much more than telling people stuff or giving them information.
Includes a variety of ways to articulate thoughts
Practices effective listening strategies
Adapts to a variety of situations and purposes
Uses media/technology to effectively send messages
Comes from a place of empathy
Includes an awareness of non-verbals and their impact
Then there are the things that communication does. While the list above includes ways to be an effective communicator, the act of communicating (or a lack thereof) sends a message to anyone involved in the situation. Sometimes the message is an unintended perception and sometimes it’s intentional, but the impact is unmistakable. Communication can determine everything from the lens in which we look at a situation or the feelings we have toward a person or role.
Impacts of Communication
Transparency, Trust and Communication I’ve written about the correlation between transparency, trust, and communication before in The Art of Transparency. Effective communicators understand the balance between what people need and want to know and what is too much information, but still open the door for discussion about anything that may be in question. However, when there is a lack of trust more transparency and communication is needed as one of the ways to rebuild trust. When I do what I say I’m going to do or situations turn out positively based on information I’ve given that increases trust. In the same vein, if there is a high level of trust, there is less information needed. Think of a person you trust and a person you don’t. Who are you going to need more information from in order to believe what they’re telling you? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the untrusted person has outright lied to you. It could mean that they broke your trust in other ways, but transparency and communication still needs to be there in order to rebuild the relationship.
Allowing People the Right to a Decision Communication and providing people information and answers allows them to have what they need in order to make decisions that make sense for their situation. I’ve been in situations where a lack of communication has been the catalyst for decisions being made that didn’t make sense for my role/department and left me scrambling to fix the issue which could have been avoided if I would have been a part of the conversation. A lack of communication in these circumstances leaves people no choice but to be reactive instead of proactive, and when the lack of communication continues, can result in a climate with anxiety (what’s coming around the corner next?) and a culture of playing “clean-up” to avoidable messes. Clear communication with the right people ensures a proactive approach with the decision-makers that make sense for the circumstances.
Valuing the Opinions/Decisions of Others Communicating with others also ensures that the people who should be in on a conversation or decision have a seat at that table and their opinions are valued. Not only are we all #bettertogether and have a variety of experiences that we bring to any issue but showing someone that their opinion is valued builds and strengthens relationships. By intentionally or unintentionally (doesn’t matter which) not communicating, the message being sent is that the opinions or decisions of that person are not valued because they were not taken into account.
We should always be working to be more effective communicators, but sometimes we forget that even the act of communicating has an impact on the people around us. Communication can have a direct and deep effect on trust and relationships, therefore affecting the climate and culture of a school or district as so much of climate and culture rests on the relationships we have and our ability to problem solve as a team.
When I taught I used to joke about how I wished I would have kept a book all along about putting together words that I never thought I’d have to say to students. For example, “Please stop cleaning out your ear with your pencil. It’s not safe nor sanitary” or “Do we really need to laugh every time I say lunch duty” (the answer is yes, we did – ALL of us). In these cases though, even when I had to speak with students about things that I never thought I’d say but in a more serious conversation, I had a relationship with them first. I relied on the trust I had already built to be able to talk to them about hard things. Those kinds of relationships don’t happen easily nor do they happen overnight.
In my current role, and I don’t know if it’s a small district thing, but as the Tech Director, I am responsible for speaking to students about when they break the rules in the handbook regarding technology. Many times, these are not small infractions and can be serious in their nature and truly do require adult intervention. And I do it because it’s my job but I hate every minute of it for a few reasons. One, I have not had the time to create relationships with these students as at the district level I am not in every classroom every day. Second, I know that in the small interaction I have with these students it’s not going to change their behavior. Third, with every word that escapes my mouth during these exchanges I know that I am destroying any chance of trust in the future. And with everything I believe I am at the core of being an educator, how much I truly believe that relationships are everything and getting to the bottom of students’ behavior is so much more important than punishment, this piece of my job goes against every reason I got into education in the first place.
I swear it’s going to break me.
I spoke to a student the other day and he couldn’t even look at me. Not even once did he make eye contact. I never yell, I simply speak calmly to them about their choices, why they made them, blah blah blah. Honestly, some of them would probably rather I yell. As I was speaking to him, and again in a situation that did require adult intervention, I could hear my words in my own ears and could see him struggling and not looking at me, and I thought what in the world am I doing? I never thought I’d say these words to students. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.
I’m doing most things that I believe anyone would tell me. I’m trying to be proactive in enlisting people to focus on digital citizenship and we have spoken openly about digital leadership (not enough, but we are growing). I try my best to create relationships as much as I can with the students by speaking to them in the halls and greeting them when I pass. I try to get into their class meetings in the high school and speak to them so they know who I am and they know I’m there to support them in good times and in bad. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t nearly enough to create a lasting relationship nor is it enough to keep every student from making a poor choice that needs to result in a consequence. What I’m doing is not enough. In these cases, I’m not enough. I know it. I don’t know how to fix it.
Sometimes we put out these blanket statements in education as a way to encourage us and light our fires…things to remember when we are interacting with kids. Quotes that can simultaneously light me up and make me feel guilty and want to try harder. Even in my book Divergent EDU I mention how we create relationships in every interaction that we have, but our focus should be creating positive relationships versus negative ones and I realize that I am absolutely sucking at this when I need to speak with students about some of the choices they make. With some students, I am only creating negative relationships. I am going against my own advice, for the love of God.
So, I am resolving to get better at this. To try to find a way to flip the story when it comes to these interactions and make time to have more positive relationships with the students from a place where I’m not working with them every day nor do I see them on a regular basis as a district administrator. Those relationships are what I’ve always wanted anyway. It’s what I got into teaching for, and I’m not sure that my EDU heart would be able to take much more of what I’m doing now.
Recently, one of my favorite teachers in the high school approached me about students starting student managed social media accounts for the Art Club. My teacher side was ready to go, but my Director of Innovation and Technology side had red flags and alarm bells going off…not because I didn’t want the students to do it but because we often have situations where teachers are asking to do things that are actually against privacy and other technology regulations. I wanted to make sure that the students were set up for success which meant I needed to do a little bit of research first.
As a leader, I’m a big fan of creating a Culture of Yes, but I think sometimes people think that a Culture of Yes means that we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case, which to me, makes a phrase like Culture of Yes a little misleading. It’s really a culture of let’s see how we can make this work, although I understand that phrase isn’t quite as catchy. In technology, in particular, there are rules and regulations that sometimes stop us from being able to do the things that we want to do whether those are district regulations or state/national laws. It’s my job to know those and see how we can still provide a top-notch level of service while working within those constraints. It’s also my job to help others understand an overview of these things so they get why exactly what they want to do may not be able to be done.
I was so fortunate that the first time I was asked to do this type of thing was with this particular teacher because she may be the easiest person to work with ever. She wholeheartedly trusts what I have to say and knows that if I say it can’t be done there is a legitimate reason. I asked her to give me a few days to do some research and headed to the Twitterverse to see if I could find others who were doing this same thing. I received lots of “go for it!” messages which were awesome, but I needed to know how. Another tech director, George Sorrells, responded to me that warning bells would be going off for him as well, which validated that I had reason to try to frontload this project as much as possible. Again, this wasn’t about finding a way to say no, this was about finding a way to say yes and set students up for success. His idea to set the teacher up with an alias in Google was genius. That way the students wouldn’t have access to another Gmail account and the teacher could monitor all emails/messages/notifications from her own email instead of logging into something else. The students would use the alias account in conjunction with the teacher’s support to set up the accounts.
The next order of business that I knew needed to happen was to have a meeting with the students along with getting a contract signed, which was another idea that I received from Twitter and Steven Anderson. I set up the students with a meeting. Ideally, the teacher/advisor would have been there as well, but finding a time where four people can meet throughout the day is nearly impossible. I met with her separately.
During the meeting we discussed these additional points beyond going over the contract:
I gave the “with great power comes great responsibility speech.” It’s literally written in the contract as well.
Discussed how school districts were held to higher standards than other businesses because we work with children. Reiterated that they were representing the school district and anything that may typically seem ok on a personal account needed to be thought about extra hard.
Stressed the importance of staying away from sarcasm or anything that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
Most importantly: I told them we wanted them to do this. That it is an amazing opportunity to showcase the amazing things we know they do. That the guidelines that I was going through were to set them up for success.
The students repeatedly thanked me for helping them and I really wanted to make sure they understood that we were in support of their positive and proper sharing 100%. I wanted them to simultaneously feel proud that they were chosen for this honor, but also know that we were proud of them for taking the leap and sharing their awesomeness.
In some ways, this may have a follow-up post… something like, “What I’ve learned from allowing students to manage a district social media account.” As this hasn’t been done before in our district before, I am also putting myself knowingly on the line and taking a risk with something I have very little control over. However, we will learn together and move forward, and I am hopeful that this turns out to be an amazing experience for all of us.
***Also on Twitter, Jennifer Casa-Todd, author of Social LEADia, recommended co-creating a contract with students. I think that is an amazing idea. Unfortunately, due to a time crunch, we weren’t able to do this together, but should definitely be the ultimate goal. I highly recommend if you do this that you get your district Technology Director involved in the process so they can not only be aware but they also will have some input as to certain pieces that need to be in the contract through their specific lens.
While going through the editing process for Divergent EDU my editor left me a comment in an area where I alluded to divergent thinkers using deep reflection to develop their core beliefs. She told me to give readers examples of questions that they could ask themselves to drive deep reflection. My first thought was that deep reflection is so personal, how could I give anyone directions on how to do it? But I started to pay attention to my own line of thinking while I reflect, and I think there are some questions that can be used to guide deep reflection in a variety of situations, even though the path of the reflection is very personal to the one doing it. It took me until I was an adult to figure out how to deeply reflect. Nobody taught me how to do it and the only reason I know now is that I made it a mission to discover what deep reflection could do for me. Deep reflection is also one of the five characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I laid out in this blog post.
Deeply Reflective – Divergent teachers recognize that significant growth cannot happen without taking time for deep reflection. They know how they reflect best, whether it’s through writing, meditating, or driving quietly in their car on the way home. They have strategies in place to allow them to take the time and hold reflection in high regards as one of the reasons they are who they are professionally. Deep reflection goes beyond what could go differently in a recent lesson. It also leads an educator down the path of discovering how their own beliefs and assumptions affect what they do in the classroom or how they perceive and communicate with others. Understanding the difference between surface-level reflection and deep reflection is an integral part of divergent thought. Once you understand what you believe, how it affects what you do and how you are perceived, it is easier to change your behavior and push yourself forward.
So often we regard the question, “How could things have gone differently/better?” as the be-all and end-all of reflective thought. It’s a fine place to start but does not necessarily lead us down a path of reflection that will end with how our involvement affected the ending. It still gives us the room to blame other people or things for anything that may have gone wrong. Deep reflection begins with questions that force us to think deeper about a situation. We may use just one of these questions or a few, but the result will be our discovery of adjustments or changes we can make within ourselves to change the trajectory of similar situations moving forward.
Is there something in my own personal or professional journey that is creating an assumption or bias? Lately, there has been special attention brought to how our journeys and personal stories affect the way we act, believe, and teach. I am 100% in support of that being the case (as proven by my book The Fire Within). After all, it’s our differences that make us stronger together. However, it’s also our journeys that have embedded certain assumptions and biases into our thinking. It is nearly impossible to operate completely without them, but it is important that we recognize if there are internal drivers for decisions we make and the interactions we have that may be affecting them in a negative way. Recognizing assumptions and biases and opening ourselves up to testing them in favor of finding alternative ways of handling situations will move us to more effective decision-making and divergent thought.
Are my expectations appropriate? This reflection path will most likely be followed up with additional questions that can range from logistical (Have I provided them with the professional learning opportunities they need to do what I’m asking them to do?) to spiritual (Is there something in their past/current situation that makes this change/decision/action difficult and they may need more emotional support?). In order to answer this question completely, you may need to gather additional information and return to the reflection. Another question that would fit into this category: Do I have the right to have my expectation of this person, or should it be up to them to set their own expectations upon themselves?
What could I have adjusted to create a possible alternative ending? In Wisconsin, if you are in a motor vehicle accident and you have gotten rear-ended, you are still partially at fault. Why? How could this be when you were just sitting there waiting for the light or parked legally minding your own business? Because you were there. Because had you not been in that spot, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Every situation that we reflect on is similar to this concept. We have had a part in the outcome. Sometimes, it’s something major that affects relationships, breaks trust, or perpetuates a negative feeling. Sometimes it’s as little as an unintended initial reaction or facial expression. There is always something that we can adjust in order to adapt to any situation and possibly change the ending. Deep reflection allows to see these things and create an alternative ending when it happens again in the future.
Do I have something to apologize for? A friend once told me, “I don’t like to apologize because it’s hard.” But I feel like if it’s really that difficult, that usually means it’s the right thing to do. Something being hard should never stop us from doing the right thing and sometimes that means swallowing our pride and apologizing. An important follow-up question is: Am I really sorry or am I just saying it to move on? Also, just saying I’m sorry really isn’t enough. When the apology isn’t specific, it loses some of its power. It needs to be truly authentic and the added specificity will help the person know that you’ve given it thought and you know where you went wrong. If you just apologize just to satisfy someone or move past a bad situation, people will know. I have actually said these words: “I’m sorry that I made a decision that didn’t make sense to you at the time. Not only did I allow other situations around me influence the decision that affected you, but I didn’t give you the information you needed to see why I was making the decision. For all that, I am sorry.” Also, just because you reflect and process and decide an apology is necessary, don’t forget that the person you’re apologizing to may need additional time to reflect and process the apology depending on the severity of the situation. Be reflective enough to understand that just because you’ve decided to say you’re sorry doesn’t mean that the other person is ready to accept it.
What did I do that went really right? Deep reflection doesn’t always mean we are looking for ways we have screwed up. It’s just as important to remember and celebrate what went well so we can replicate it if similar situations would come up in the future. If we never celebrate the great things we do we will live with the anxiety that nothing we ever do is right and that’s certainly not true of anyone. The trick is to find the balance between recognizing what went right and what could be adjusted in order to find our areas for growth while still remaining positive about what we accomplish.
True, deep reflection is a skill that needs to be practiced. Some people do it during quiet, alone time and some need to write it down to work through it. It’s not always a fun process as we are looking for ways we can improve or situations we may have negatively impacted, but the amount of personal and professional growth that can be experienced is exceedingly rewarding. There are few other activities that can have such a lasting impact on how our relationships function and our decision-making process.
I have been paying special attention lately to what I need to do to be a good leader and in order to do that, I need to reflect on the leadership around me, the leadership I see online, and on the qualities that I possess within myself. This seems obvious, right? But many times we do not pay attention to the leadership qualities that others need from us. I believe that good leaders find the qualities that others need from them and adjust to those people rather than remain stagnant.
Within this reflection and in the experiences I’ve had both in being a leader and being lead (or managed, depending) I’ve realized that I value trust first (as most people do, I think), but more than anything else, I need to know that my leader has my back all the time. If I don’t have that, the rest of their strengths in leadership become a lot less effective to me. When speaking to one of my mentors I asked him the same question. He said he values open communication above all else and a leader having his back is less important to him. Ironically, for me “having someone’s back” is a strength of mine and for him, open communication is one of his strengths. So, two questions have come out of this for me: 1) How can we be more effective leaders if everyone places a varying amount of value on certain characteristics and 2) Do we value leadership characteristics based on our strengths OR do we value them based on our own past experiences with other leaders (or both)?
I believe that our ultimate goal should be able to encompass all leadership qualities and then adjust to what others need in a leader by focusing in on those specific needs. In my book Divergent EDU (coming soon), I describe both characteristics of a great leader from 10 Powerful Habits of Highly Effective Leaders (Peter Economy, INC) and my added characteristics of a great educational leader. Some of the traits described in the book are:
Highly Effective Leaders
Confident but not arrogant
Sensitive and responsive to others
Additional Characteristics for Edu Leaders Empathetic and compassionate
Understands appropriate communicative differences Recognizes themselves as a servant
Truly and authentically reflective
Recognizes trust as essential
So, back to question number one: how can we be more effective leaders if everyone places a varying amount of value on certain characteristics? I think there are a few things we can do. First, we need to be reflective and know what it is we truly value in a leader and if there are certain leadership qualities we hold above all others. Second, we need to be able to effectively communicate that to our leaders. I truly believe this can be as blatant as “One leadership quality I really value above all else is…” Third, as leaders, we need to be aware enough that the people we lead may need things from us that will take more effort for us to discover and more time on relationships to discover them. And that isn’t their fault for valuing other things, it’s just our responsibility if we want to be servant leaders. It is also our responsibility to ask if we don’t understand what someone needs when they express what is important to them. If you don’t know what I mean by having my back, ask me for examples.
As far as question two: do we value leadership characteristics based on our strengths OR do we value them based on our own past experiences with other leaders (or both)? That I don’t have an answer to. I think that we the reason we develop certain thoughts and ideas is very personal and has more to do with our journey than we might even realize. I know for both myself and my mentor the value we placed on certain characteristics had to do with being lead by people who did not do those things for us. The absence of those qualities made it obvious to us that that’s what we needed. In this case, knowing how you feel best supported and communicating that to your leadership may be more important than knowing how we got there.
I’ve found that, in general, usually when people have specific needs it’s because there was a hole that was created there at some point. Leadership is really no different. I believe we all value certain qualities more than others. The important part is knowing what those are and how we can make sure we are both giving what we can and communicating what we need to really build those trusting relationships that leadership relies on.
I’ve been the Director of Innovation and Technology for two full years in my district and I’m a few months into my third. When I began my position in this new-to-me district, I went in wide-eyed, naive and excited. I had finally made it into an administrative role where I could develop my own leadership style and support teachers which in turn would positively affect the learning for so many students. I was convinced that everyone would see the passion and excitement I felt, but it didn’t exactly work that way. I immediately ran into a roadblock; I wasn’t trusted by the staff because the position itself wasn’t trusted. I came in looking to move forward, but I was actually already behind the 8-ball.
I don’t honestly know why, and although I can speculate some of the reasonings, spending time doing that does little more than give me something to blame, which isn’t useful. I do know that the majority of the mistrust didn’t have much to do with me personally because nobody knew me. If anything, it had more to do with my outsiderness. When I’ve reflected on the experience, I know that there were a few necessary but unpopular decisions that the previous tech director made that I had to initiate, which fell back onto me and didn’t help the trust factor. That being said, when I began this job, there was an obvious distrust for me that was initially attached to the position I held.
There are definitely times when a new person comes into a district where they inherit the trust (or lack thereof) that was built by someone else. While this definitely isn’t fair, the unfairness doesn’t make it less true. If an administrator (and I’ll pick on them because these are often the positions we see this happen to the most) comes in and their predecessor has been weak in leadership qualities, didn’t spend much time in the classroom, or treated people poorly, the new administrator will have a more difficult time changing the perception of them in that position than an administrator who is replacing someone who had built up the trust already. If a new person replaces someone who was not trusted, there may be camps of people who are anywhere from cautiously optimistic to downright mistrustful, no matter the background or previous track record of the newbie. They will rarely come into the position with the trust they had earned elsewhere or even the trust they deserve.
Again, unfair? Maybe. But, I guarantee that if this happens to you, the best course of action is first to get over the unfairness of it all. Living in that feeling will only grate on your nerves and cause you stress and will do nothing to build up the trust you so desperately want. If anything, the attitude that accompanies that feeling will do quite the opposite.
I read this quote by Patrick Lencioni (author of books like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) today:
The key ingredient to building trust is not time. It’s courage.
I slightly (and respectfully) disagree but only because I think you need both.
Have the courage to do the opposite of what you might feel and begin doing all the things you know that good leaders should do. Be kind to people even if they aren’t always kind to you. Let go of negative interactions, be reflective on how communication can be more positive the next time, and try again. And again. And again. Assume positive intent. Surprise people with your proactiveness, your ability to appear when they need you most, and show compassion where others might not. Have difficult conversations as they are a way of building trust (see this blog post). Apologize when you’re wrong, no matter how difficult and pride swallowing that might be. Be strong. Be supportive. Be the leader you would want to have in a difficult time. And just when you’re exhausted and you start to wonder what you’re doing wrong, you will begin to see little changes; more people saying hi to you in the halls or people asking you to join them for lunch just because they enjoy your company. Building trust takes time and being courageous enough to fight our initial negative emotions and do what’s right. We want it to be fast, especially when we don’t believe ourselves to be the initial cause, but the only control we have over when others change their perceptions is the relentless fight we put up in convincing them to change. It has to be us that keeps on a steady path doing the right things and being a foundational support to make that happen. It has taken me two years and three-and-a-half months, and I’m just beginning to getting there.