The educational world is evolving faster than ever before, new pedagogy, new research, new policy, new skill sets, a constant stream of information and all within a day’s work. To combat this leaders are becoming increasingly strategic. We map out plans, initiatives, contingencies, re-evaluate, analyse, refocus and repeat. The frenetic pace of the work has many of us leading with our heads. I believe it is time to strike a balance and ensure that we spend time leading with our hearts.
It’s often said that as leaders of our schools our staff are our students. Each day we trust our staff to make an impact on the lives of the students trusted to our care. Our staff are exceptional in getting to know their students, they know their academic, social and emotional needs and are able to plan suitably challenging tasks to ensure the development of well-rounded students. How many of us can say we do the same for our staff? How many leaders can honestly say that their interactions have staff leaving school every day feeling valued, supported and cared for?
Recently I’ve spent time looking at my own leadership. I’ve spoken to leaders, I’ve read about leadership, I’ve observed leaders in action and reflected on my own practice. What I’m coming to realise is that the head style of leadership, can for the most part, be learnt by following a series of steps. Admittedly it’s not quite that easy and some of us are better at following steps than others. However heart style leadership requires something more. It requires you to give of yourself. It requires leadership of service, it requires compassion, it requires you to listen, to suspend judgement and assumptions and look for the good in everyone, it requires you to give more and care more. Leading from the heart involves getting to know your people, treating them like family. Let’s face it we spend many of our waking hours with our staff, they are our workplace family.
This idea of a workplace family is an interesting one. You’ve often heard the saying ‘you can’t choose family’ and for many of us this is often true of our staff. Just like a parent in a family you have the enormous responsibility of making sure that all members reach their full potential. As a parent, just like a leader, you are trusted to ensure the wellbeing, safety and fulfillment of those you care for or lead. I am by no means suggesting that you are the sole authority, that you alone have complete responsibility for your staff. What I do believe however is that as a parent we would never abandon our children if they made a mistake, we would never focus on their shortcomings. As a parent we would always look to support, guide and encourage. We constantly model and demonstrate the desired behaviours we’d like our children to adopt. We would never give up on our children. Sometimes though we have to apply tough love, it’s not always about making decisions that keep everybody happy. Being popular and being your children’s best friend is not always wise. There are lessons to be learnt and difficult decisions to be made but as a leader thinking about how you might parent could come in handy. I believe this will allow you to lead in a more intentional way, with the intention of ensuring your staff feel valued and cared for.
We all know that even small acts of kindness can have a ripple effect. Just recently we had ‘Happy Week’. A week when we were deliberate in our actions, we went out of our way to ensure that the week was as happy as it could be. Random acts of kindness, morning tea, kind notes and messages and a staff get together on Friday afternoon. We gave ourselves time to breathe; we intentionally created opportunities for people to sit and talk, to listen to each other’s stories. It was self-reinforcing for staff. The more we modelled the more it spread, influencing all corners of the school. What started as a small initiative sent such a powerful feeling throughout the school, it was quite staggering to see the transformation. It was almost a collective sigh of relief to know that we are in this important work of educating together. The challenge is to maintain this positive energy.
As a leader developing a culture that magnifies that positive energy can be difficult. Leading with heart, showing empathy and genuine care has the potential to create an environment of acceptance. Just as we’d like our staff to develop warm, accepting and encouraging classroom environments, our task is to create this on a larger scale. If we are able to achieve this, those we lead will be more willing to take risks, to share practice, to ask for help, to seek support and guide and to offer assistance. That trusting environment allows people to exert their energy on collaborative practice rather than developing silos of self-protection. The right environment allows people to stick their head above the parapet and have a look at what’s happening around them.
We are in a people centred environment. Professor Richard Elmore once said that “Teaching is not rocket science. It is in fact far more demanding and complex work than rocket science”. Add to this the individual personalities and it can be an emotionally charged environment. Therefore if we give more, care more, make each interaction matter, we place not just ourselves as leaders, but our entire school community in an environment that has a strong culture to withstand the tough times. We know that the tough times will come, they always do. There is truth behind the saying winning the hearts and minds. If you build the emotional connection you develop trust, this comes from the heart. In turn you develop reasoning, this comes from the mind. You need one before the other. As important as the analytical, strategic and visionary skills are, it’s a lack of interpersonal skills that derail most leaders.
To some extent this post may seem like I’m advocating for a free range, choose your own destiny environment. On the contrary, I will always maintain high expectations; I will always ensure that we place students at the centre of the decision making. What I will do however is consider the human impact and ensure that I take time to breathe, slow down and develop relationships. I believe this gives added strength and depth to leadership.