Leading an independent or international school the past 16 months has been humbling, overflowing with the unexpected, each day offering new challenges and dilemmas. Likely, you have had moments of loneliness and wondering when it will all end or from where help will come.
As the coming summer offers a change in pace, you may find yourself with moments of relative quiet and the not-so-subtle realization that what you've been through for more than a year is far from ordinary.
Yes, your crisis leadership has ensured the sustainability of the school, but what about making sense of it all? After living through the crucible of a global pandemic, is it possible you can benefit from a thought partner to help you tease out how you've changed and grown as a leader or to help call out your leadership blind spots? What about taking on a leadership coach?
A study out of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford University suggests that CEOs (including in academic settings) and senior leaders continually grapple with key leadership behaviors. While 100% of surveyed leaders were receptive to feedback, 70% had never considered receiving leadership coaching, yet their board trustees almost unanimously supported the idea.
With a note of irony, the fastest human being in the world, Usain Bolt, has a personal coach, and he says, "My coach has shown me new ways to improve myself both as a person and as an athlete." Tennis player Paula Badosa lost in the recent French Open quarterfinals. Depression has hounded her early success, but her new coach has helped Badosa learn that the body cannot do more without a healthy head. Coaching is about much more than the racket.
Consider this past year and a half. Essential leadership skills have been tested to the max. What is succeeding in your leadership toolbox, and what is, well, not working? Leaders in the Stanford study responded to a list of leadership skills and the question, "Critical to your future, what are leadership skills you need to develop further?"
The list included the following descriptors:
• Conflict Management Skills
• Listening Skills
• Sharing Leadership/Delegation
• Planning Skills
• Mentoring Skills
• Communication Skills
• Team Building Skills
• Decision Making Skills
• Persuasion Skills
• Interpersonal Skills
• Motivational Skills
Looking back on all the dilemmas during the pandemic, which leadership areas require improvement? Where are you least impactful with people? Where do your blind spots hinder teaming, collaboration, or forward momentum?
Know that you are in good company in identifying what may seem to be basic leadership skills that need a bit more than a tune-up. Back to the Stanford study, Fortune 500 CEOs and academic leaders cited most often the need to improve skills in conflict resolution, sharing leadership and delegation, communication, and listening. Really? People in the #1 spot struggle with listening skills?
Which brings up the questions: "Since when does being a head of school mean you have all the answers?" and "Why are we hesitant to consider leadership coaching as a cornerstone of professional growth?" Especially since we are not the only ones who recognize we have leadership skills needing improvement.
Maybe this is an excellent time to check our egos at the door and affirm our credibility as learners, where regardless of age or years of experience, there is much to learn from someone else’s ideas, perspectives, and intuitions, as well as having someone challenge our thinking and doing.
But, complicating it all, leadership coaching can be viewed (by a few) as a stigma for dysfunction or a problem that exists or a need for remediation—clearly a medium-sized elephant in the room. Yet the dynamic changes quickly when the school leader volunteers, taking on coaching to promote peak performance with receptivity to feedback, matched with continuous improvement and high achievement—the stuff of credibility.
Adopting leadership coaching as a tool for your effectiveness is a clear statement about the value placed on continuous learning. You choose to be accountable for your performance and high-value leadership practices. Listening to another's experiences and intuitions challenges assumptions and opens the door to the fact that you may think you've seen it all, but there is more to learn, even for a long-serving leader. Having a thought partner cuts through the cheap rationales when discussing areas for improvement and growth. A coach will hold your feet to the fire and help confront vision, values, behaviors—the conditions for leading with people and the problem-solving to go with it.
In the sense of "Good to Great," by Jim Collins, embracing a leadership coaching opportunity is to reveal personal humility with intense professional will to keep getting better. And a ferocious resolve to do what it takes to improve your abilities and to model for others.
If there is a silver lining within a global pandemic, it is that we are living the adaptive change model (see Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Lipsky) and marshaling people to handle tough challenges and emerge triumphant in the end. You and everyone around you have adapted to a complex and rapidly changing environment, and the game changer has been your uncommon “rise to the challenge” leadership and problem-solving. Having a leadership coach at your side can bring clarity to your time-tested abilities, new skills, the remaining blind spots, while confirming renewed confidence. There has never been such a time for change and improvement.
Just as we cannot escape every new dilemma, maybe it is best not to be alone to discover, achieve, and solve problems. You have been through so much, now let there be the will to ask for help and with the inevitable challenges ahead, keep going with confidence.