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Leadership Lessons Learned!

Too often we rely on some superficial definition of leadership: “She’s got presence” or “He’s got what it takes.” Without a doubt, there’s a part of leadership that arises from temperament or personality. But temperament and personality alone are not enough to sustain an effective and long-term legacy of successful leadership. In short, leadership is learned. It takes effort! Here are some lessons from the field.

Early in my career, a wise and experienced head of school stated with conviction, “You aren’t a leader if you haven’t cultivated followers.” I took it to heart that the foundation of good leadership was the ability to develop relationships and trust among colleagues. Hence, listening became more important than talking, collaboration more important than flying solo, and caring as important as evaluating. Getting any group from Point A to Point B was going to require a combination of absolute clarity on where we were going in combination with a laser-like focus on the temperature of the group, and the individuals in the group going there.

Then I “met” Ed Friedman whose seminal work, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, was another important revelation. According to Friedman, a leader manages competing emotional fields and must cultivate a “non-anxious” presence. It’s a slippery slope for a leader to become swallowed up by one of the competing fields, and effectiveness relies on the ability of the leader to stand at arm’s length, calmly, in order to determine the next right move. My most oft-heard advice to the leadership team? The hotter the discussion, the calmer you become. “Go limp” was a familiar admonition, and it was code for “First, seek to understand” rather than leap to reaction. (Thank you, Stephen Covey.

Patrick Lencioni was next. His well-known book,
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is a masterful description of the importance of how establishing trust will eventually lead to accomplishing results. Take ten minutes at your next leadership team meeting and ask everyone to share a bit about their birth order or a tough childhood experience and watch how trust deepens. Or try a “gratitude whip-around” and learn who in your organization is making extraordinary contributions. It’s worth the time, and relationships will deepen.

Lencioni’s advice on how to escape from “meeting stew” is beautifully laid out in his provocative 
Death By Meeting. Reorganizing meetings into “tactical” and “strategic” allows a leadership team to get what it needs from a meeting—and to know how to use the time together. Just about anything by Lencioni is worth reading and will give you the chance to reflect on the art and science of leadership.

Marcus Buckingham, 
First, Break All the Rules, directs leaders to focus on the strengths of each person on the team. He differentiates among leaders, much as we ask teachers to differentiate for the best outcome for students. Do you know the strengths of your leadership team? Your division directors? Your business manager? Think about using the Clifton StrengthsFinder as a way to know more about each leader in the school and use those strengths to deepen the skill set of the entire team.

Recently, Kim Scott gave us another good lens into effective leadership in Radical Candor. Her thesis is that “Bosses guide teams to achieve results,” and in her book she urges leaders to “care personally” and “challenge directly.” Have you taken the time to know the individuals on your team well? Have you had a direct conversation about a mistake or a problem that has lingered? Leadership requires us to care, and to care enough to be direct when things could be better. The end product? Good results!

We hope your leadership “library” is filled with provocative, energizing, and powerful strategies about how leaders make a difference. Our work in schools is too important to leave to chance. Be intentional. Make the study of leadership a hallmark of your work. We look forward to hearing your lessons learned!