When I began the journey to become a school administrator many years ago, I took the typical courses that were required. These focused on topics such as school law, instructional leadership, change management, school finance, and curriculum development, among many others. While I felt adequately prepared when I finally became a building leader, I quickly realized how valuable the on-the-job training was to my growth. Truth be told, no book or course can replace authentic experience.
Leadership is hard. Initiating and sustaining change is even harder. Below are some thoughts I shared a few years back:
It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges they will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made. There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught. It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go. Making decisions in a time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses. The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical. Talking the talk must be accompanied by walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done. Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement. Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction but rather the collective efforts of all.
Knowing the inherent difficulties in leading, it is critical to developing an understanding of what can stymie or ensure success. Relationships are of utmost importance, but these do not materialize out of thin air. Trust is a leader’s best friend. Recently my publishers Jeff Zoul and Jimmy Casas, shared their views on the topic. I encourage you to give the piece a read, as it contains some valuable insight. As I work as a leadership coach in schools, the topic of trust comes up all the time. The following seven elements are critical in building and sustaining trust: empathy, delegation, consensus, transparency, autonomy, feedback, and communication.
Empathy through kindness, compassion, and gratitude is fundamental to creating powerful relationships. Whether it is a simple thank you, consoling a staff member, or handwritten notes of appreciation, using a consistent empathetic lens pays dividends ten times over.
Delegation builds capacity by empowering others to take a leadership role. If a leader tries to do everything by themselves, the result can lead to mistrust. Look for opportunities to develop the leadership potential in your staff.
Consensus values the input of others when implementing large-scale initiatives. When warranted, use a committee approach or create a district or school-based leadership team that contains a wide range of staff to garner input.
Transparency validates major decisions using research and data. When there is clarity as to why decisions are made, the seeds of trust begin to take root. Transparency also infers personal accountability by a leader if things don’t work out, as a unilateral decision is made when needed.
Autonomy creates a culture that promotes the freedom to take risks and fail forward. In Disruptive Thinking, I highlighted how autonomy helps educators move beyond their fears, which leads to a pursuit of innovative practices. Additionally, influential leaders know when to get out of the way of their staff and let them flourish.
Feedback that is timely, specific, consistent, actionable, and focuses on a dialogue sets the stage for growth. Trust develops when leaders are always looking for ways to help their staff improve or avoid pitfalls.
Communication, when done effectively, relies on getting the right information out at the right time using the right medium. While disseminating information consistently and with clarity is critical, non-verbal means such as listening and body language are just as, if not more, necessary. As I shared in Digital Leadership, you won’t find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.
All of the elements above help a leader build trust amongst staff resulting in a positive school culture. While there is no single silver bullet, consider where there is an opportunity for growth and the actions that need to be taken to either build or strengthen relationships through trust.