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Lead by Listening

The pandemic left behind many casualties in its wake, but among the most concerning is also the most basic: leadership. Assailed by forces beyond their ken, and buffeted by competing (and usually unsolicited) advice from many different directions, school leaders found themselves out of their element. Heads were in the position of making snap decisions where parents and teachers did not agree on what was in the best interests of the school. Used to knowing the answer, or at least being able to point the way, heads were at the mercy of the know-how of others, and in many schools and boards the result was a vacuum of leadership. Stakeholders with varying degrees of legitimacy felt free to weigh in on topics beyond both their expertise and their good manners. “Meddling,” in other words.

At the same time, school heads needed advice and expertise, so they were obliged to ask for it. This was particularly acute in schools with scant resources where heads turned to board members and parents for know-how rather than their administrative teams. As a result, board members and parents were now involved in decision-making and liking it. In an attempt to form consensus and lead from it, many heads spent more time asking people for their thinking than they did actually leading their schools. 

In many schools, tension brought on by both COVID and social justice movements led to acrimony, a climate of negativity, and ultimately to the decision for a Head to leave—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not. As a result, in nearly every HOS search my colleagues and I have mounted in the past two years, the search committee has wanted a “centrist, a bridge-builder,” someone who can bring the warring outliers back into the fold, unite the community, heal the school. We want middle of the road, they tell us.

But what does it mean to be a bridge-builder? A centrist? “What skill set does that require?” a new head might ask. Let’s start with listening. Your constituents want to be heard. They need to be heard. With public schools increasingly preaching parental involvement and seeing themselves as “community schools,” and with politicians all over the country yammering about “parents’ rights,” parents want to get in their two cents’ worth and you’re going to listen. You’re not going to argue, you’re not going to try to make points, you’re not going to arm yourself with logic—you’re going to listen. You’re going to take their burden off their shoulders and thank them for sharing. They may hope you do something with it, but it’s more important for them simply to be heard by the head, whether they expect immediate action or not. 

Listening is one of the most undervalued tools in your kit. Practice it. Use it. And after you’ve heard from numbers of people, you’ll start to form an idea about how to address their various issues. And when you speak out, you let people know what you think and how the school is going to proceed. Don’t forget to keep your board in the loop as you do your listening and planning, because if you go public with any statement about the school’s direction without having vetted it with the board, you’re risking a short tenure in the head’s office. 

A school’s constituents expect the Head to listen, to lead, to tell them what s/he thinks, and to be clear about it. After listening and finding out what’s on people’s minds, tell them what’s on yours. You’ll be surprised at the support such leadership will engender, and the naysayers will either drift away or keep quiet and eventually join the team.