Lessons on leadership.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user woodleywonderworks

With every turn of the page or scroll through a Reader feed, someone, somewhere, is giving advice on what leaders ought to be. Consider this recent post from passionate teacher Megan Allen who describes for us the qualities she feels “amazing” administrators possess. Or Erin Paytner’s latest post, 29 Things I’ve Learned as an Administrator…So far… I found many of those lessons to ring true for me, now in my fourth year as principal, as did Jeff Delp’s post regarding productivity, priorities, and the challenges school leaders face.

So the articles, blog posts, and books on leadership will keep on coming, because the role of leadership is ever-evolving and increasingly complex with each passing day. (And with each passing mandate.) I enjoy reading the work of leaders in fields outside of education, too. While not every lesson can be translated to the work we do with students, many can, and should, be considered. In a recent issue of Entrepreneur magazine, a piece entitled “The masters” by Christopher Hann highlights the successes of leaders who’ve managed to stay at the head of their games, and the philosophies they live by to do so.

Consider Mark Leslie, the CEO of Veritas. One of his top priorities is transparency – making sure that everyone in the organization knows as much information as he does, to squash secrecy and avoid uneven shifts in power. He stresses the importance of trust.

“I believe if you want to be trusted, you have to trust first,” he says. “If you do that, you will be betrayed sometimes. But the value of engendering trust is greater than the cost of being betrayed sometimes. People believed we were going to tell them the truth, be straight, honest, and didn’t think we were going to screw them.”

Further, Leslie makes developing a strong working environment a priority.

“It’s not about command and control. You attract the best and the brightest and people and create an environment where they can use their intelligence and judgment to act autonomously.”

For all of us charged with leading organizations of learning, we know that successful schools are built around a strong, shared culture and community. Clint Smith, the CEO of a marketing firm in Tennessee, shared ideas for how to develop and sustain the often illusive, but always desired, workplace culture. He began by examining the physical environment and ensuring his workplace was one where employees could be productive and feel happy in their work. William Smith, founder of IT company Euclid Elements, highlighted the need for leaders to develop awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. This requires continual self-examination from individuals as well as the team as a whole.

“We want to get better at designing and developing products. That requires a real self-awareness as a team, and that’s an extremely important part of the culture we want to create- being aware of what we do well and what we don’t do so well.”

One of my takeaways from Educon each year is the way in which principal Chris Lehmann has built a shared culture for learning with all teachers, students, and the community, and it is both highly apparent and intoxicating. So while bringing the best team on board is an important part of a leader’s role, how the team is managed is equally as important. So agrees Leslie.

“You have to get great people to come in,” Leslie says. “You have to respect them, give them freedom. You have to provide the mission and the vision: Who are we and where are we going?”

Other leaders featured in the article stressed the importance of having fun with your teams;  weeding out employees who don’t want to be team players or don’t treat colleagues with respect; empowering and allowing team members to shine and reap the rewards of their hard work; and building an organization that is sustainable over time. With all of these philosophies and strategies shared, consider the quote featured in the center of the article:

“Creating a system that enables employees to achieve great things often comes down to the work of a single leader.”

No pressure, eh?

Leslie’s closing words touched upon the realities of leadership, which can be isolating and solitary.

“It’s an old cliche: It’s lonely at the top. It truly is. There’s no one to talk to. It’s a journey of discovery, a journey alone. And you actually have to be comfortable enough with yourself to do that.”

For school leaders such as those I’ve come to know through Connected Principals and other groups in my PLN, I think we have an advantage in that while we do embark on many solitary journeys each and every day, we know we have a strong foundation of colleagues and experienced voices to support us along the way.


Read the article online in its entirety here: Leadership Lessons from the Top of the Org Chart, by Christopher Hann.

16 Replies to “Lessons on leadership.”

  1. Great post, Pal. Thanks for sharing from outside of education. Sometimes I think we get stuck in our own echo-chambers because we fail to look beyond schools for lessons on leadership.

    A lot of strands similar to those you shared can be found in the story of Method — the ecofriendly soap startup that rocked the dishwashing world:


    It’s a great read.

    Rock on,

    1. Hi, hope you are well, and thanks for commenting here and mentioning the Method read… I noticed you mentioned it in a past post and it definitely peaked my interest. Off to check it out!

  2. Thank you for this post. It is a gift.

    Maybe that’s something I’m just realizing from reading today, you not only are leading your building but other administrators. The ones that haven’t gotten to the place where you are. The strength you draw from each other is huge and I couldn’t be happier….and you are not alone. Your “gang” is just found in a different place than most people.

    I know that, as a teacher who is on a different path than most teachers in my building and district, I’m at peace with the loneliness. For without that separation, I wouldn’t be following my dreams and my passions. I’d just be following the crowd and frustrated doing stuff that isn’t very interesting.

    I also have to tell you and the other administrators whom I regularly read….I am your biggest cheerleader. Rooting you forward and onwards. I cannot relieve the responsibilities of being the one where the bucks stops….but I can tell you are not alone. There are thousands of us who wish that we worked for people like you…who yearn to be led by someone who thinks like you do and sees the value in community and believes in the value of a teacher. Hang in there and we’ll be the ones cheering you onwards.

    1. Marsha, I so appreciate your kind words. There are days that the negative energy can bog you down, and you feel hopeless, like nothing you’ve done has made a difference. Those are the lonely days, interspersed with days when you share great conversations with teachers, parents, and students, and you know that dedication to this difficult role has paid off and will continue to do so. Kudos to you for embracing your passions and not allowing yourself to become sucked into the stream of mediocrity. We need more TEACHERS like you as well! Thanks for reading and posting 🙂

  3. Lyn – Great post! I am amazed at how different and more applicable these words are in year 5 of thr principalship. During the first couple years it seemed like things were moving too fast to process all the important but diverse needs of leadership. The job is never done. It’s just amazing to think how much I’ve learned ona. daily basis learning from mistakes, decisions and reflections. Sometimes I think Im getting “punked” due to the craziness that ensues on a given day, but you gotta love it. Ive learned the students and staff need leaders with short memories when things don’t go as planned and great vision to know you always have their needs and interests in mind.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Joe! Wow, you’re right, those first few years definitely moved at warp speed, and the comparison to being “punked” is too funny! Just this Friday I thought I had made it to the end of the day unscathed… and then something cropped up just after 3. Such is the life of an administrator! I appreciate your thoughts on a great vision leading the way, throughout the bumps in the road we may encounter. Thanks again for commenting.

  4. Lyn,

    Excellent points. One of the issues we have been working on is determining exactly what is our workplace culture. Several of us have asked a variety of people inside and and outside our district to get their perceptions of our culture. It is interesting to hear their responses, and it’s helping us understand how our culture is perceived. This is our first step in working to shape the culture. It’s like the concept of seek first to understand…

    1. Scot, this is a great point. What’s fascinating to me is how within the organization, there are varied perspectives on what our culture is. Some teachers may be perfectly happy with existing culture and strive to maintain positivity and grow professionally. Others may be resistant to change, negative, and seek to bring down others with them. So which groups drive the actual culture of the school? An assessment like yours would be integral in finding out more about that. I know that this summer our admin team is experiencing some Covey training where leadership trust surveys will be part of our exercises. While trust in leadership is essential, is it enough? Shouldn’t the leader also be able to trust those whom she leads? Really looking forward to learning more about that. Thanks for your comments!

  5. Great post and comments too! Each morning a principal friend and I talk before the day begins. We encourage each other and cheer one another on for handling whatever the day may hold. What we know for sure is that it’s going to ‘hold’ something and we have to be ready! I continue to learn with each new experience to trust my ‘gut’ and the vision being communicated to others – not in isolation but, your inner voice (reflection) is one that we should always be able to hear too.

  6. Lyn – Thank you so much for this post, both aggregating so much great information and adding your insightful perspective to weave them together into a meaningful and reflective piece. I’m looking forward to the opportunities and the challenges of leadership as I entire my first year as a building principal and know that the most important decisions I make are happening right now in the hiring process. Luckily, our team makes this process extremely collaborative and I was fortunate enough to add a great leader to our team in our new assistant principal. I look forward to working with our team to hire new teachers this spring that will each be invaluable in their contributions over their careers. This is an aspect of leadership that I feel is often overlooked – this should be the most carefully considered and informed decision we make, and hiring a teachers should always be viewed as hiring someone for their career.

    1. Jason, you’re very lucky to have entered into a collaborative admin team… I know you’ll embrace it and flourish in your first year! Be sure to keep sharing the wonderful things you do.

  7. Lyn,

    Thanks for an outstanding post.

    I’m becoming increasingly convinced that people underestimate the critical role of leadership at all levels – the principal leading the school and teachers leading their classrooms – in establishing and propagating a healthy, positive school culture.

    Could you share some thoughts (I’d welcome a blog post, a reply to this comment, or a link to a previous blog post I’ve failed to dig up) on how best to incentivize effective teachers?

    Much discussion in recent years has centered upon the rise of standardized testing and evaluation of students (and teachers) at the district, state, and federal levels on the basis of numerical scores that don’t do a great job of encapsulating the picture. The alternative, of course (in my thinking) is a means of teacher evaluation centered on a combination of peer and administrative review.

    I see a lot of ‘stick’ being used out there. If your students’ scores aren’t X, Y, or Z or they don’t demonstrate this amount of improvement, we will cut your funding or take your job(s) or doing this, that, or the other thing.

    I think that, just as we see a lot of problems at the classroom level that could be resolved through judicious positive reinforcement rather than dropping hammers, there’s a lot at the school level that could be done to incentivize effective teaching, if only we knew how to evaluate it fairly.

    Every time I hear about a means of peer or administrator evaluation for incentives, though, howls of favoritism, subjectivity, etc. go up. Consequently I see districts where recognition that ought to be reserved for outstanding teachers is simply passed around on a rotating basis, and the dead weight continue to reap the same benefits as those who pour themselves into the job.

    What are your thoughts?

    What sort of incentives should we offer? How do we evaluate fairly?

    Thanks for your time!

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