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There’s been a great deal of talk about accountability and responsibility lately. As we’ve progressed through this pandemic the notions of being accountable and responsible are increasingly becoming part of the everyday conversation. In the current climate the terms are almost interchangeable. We see a wide variety of public commentary where those that are responsible for certain situations are also held accountable. We often hear leaders of organisations, systems or teams publicly announce that they are accountable for a result and will take full responsibility. Whilst this is admirable, there are slight but subtle differences between accountability and responsibility and I believe as leaders we need to understand this difference in order to clearly identify what it is that motivates those we lead to achieve the results we are looking for.
When we embark on the next iteration of a project or plan it is usually supported by us reviewing results and planning to accelerate what is successful and revising and refining areas that need improvement. This process is typically underpinned by some form of mechanism for measuring our impact in effect holding us accountable for the implementation of our plan. It can be here though where the term accountability runs the risk of changing the narrative. It’s almost like the term ‘accountability’ is being used to apply a consequential monitoring system. The inference that surrounds the discussion about accountability can make it seem like a punitive approach. In this instance accountability seems to remove the decision making processes and restricts the scope of a plan to a set of predetermined boundaries with a lineal path for achieving the outcome. It almost feels like an imposed rule. In short there’s no ownership. We know that as leaders those we lead are more encouraged to drive improvement when they feel they have been part of the planning and part of the design and can clearly see how their efforts will assist in achieving the desired outcome.
We’ve been conditioned to think of accountability as a compliance mechanism to get us to fulfil the demands of those that have authority over us. Through this lens accountability is almost like reliability where the organisation is held accountable for a particular result. Its process driven, fill the bucket with 500 beans, not 499, increase by 10% not 9%. In contrast responsibility is viewed very differently. When we think of responsibility there is a suggestion that it has a greater underlying purpose. Being responsible plays to the greater good, there’s a humanness to responsibility that can be perceived to be lacking in accountability. When we develop a mindset of personal responsibility my view would be that we are holding ourselves accountable. It may sound a little like semantics but I think the mindset of personal responsibility means that we do what we are supposed to do because we care about the result whereas when we achieve through overarching accountability there is a different and potentially less powerful motivation. With accountability there is a perception that we achieve because someone else has told us too. This slight shift almost abdicates our moral purpose and as leaders it’s understanding our purpose that really drives momentum and gets a shift in results. Taking personal responsibility for our choices and owning the role we play in an initiative is critical if we are to achieve successful outcomes.
By having those in our teams choosing to take responsibility we invite people to bring their expertise, skills and experience to the table. We encourage personal mastery, narrowing in on the individual skills and sharing expertise. In doing so we have the ability to identify and guide an individual’s point of implementation which will ultimately assist in driving accountability across our teams. Each individual knows exactly where their touch point is, what is expected and how it contributes to the overall picture. When people own their own choices there is an opportunity for real action. Taking responsibility is a conscious choice. Making that choice and understanding our purpose allows us to leverage the strong emotional attachment that is created when we have skin in the game.
Unlike accountability where feedback usually occurs at the conclusion of an initiative, responsibility allows for ongoing feedback generating refinement and continuous improvement. You know if you are personally on track, discussing your role and your progress with colleagues should become a regular part of the process. Having open and honest conversations about your individual progress towards the achievement of your role in the plan is a vital part of overall achievement. I spoke to a colleague recently about the concept of giving it your best shot. She argues that it’s not your best shot we want, it’s the ability to make the next one better than that and the next even better that that. This idea that as individuals we should always be striving to improve, seeking feedback on individual performance and refining our efforts where possible is at the heart of personal responsibility. You may be able to explain away results to others but you can’t hide the truth from yourself. Working towards all members of our team taking personal responsibility and supporting them to meet it will strengthen our systems and maintain momentum.
Don’t get me wrong we need accountability. As leaders we are ultimately accountable for the success of our plans. Without personal responsibility though we can rationalise accountability away claiming that it’s up to others to meet the targets. Personal responsibility places the onus firmly on us to make it happen. Each individual has to keep on top of their progress in an initiative making them an active participant in its success and not a passive bystander in its failure. This ensures that at every level there are people working towards putting all pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately enhancing the opportunity to reach the goal. We are all accountable, but if you want to amplify results identify and mobilise the personal responsibility that underpins it all. I believe we get more from our team when results come from an intrinsic motivation that is more aligned with our sense of responsibility than a numerical value developed through an accountability lens. Being personally invested brings with it a very different mindset.
As educators we aim to make a positive impact on the lives of students. This is an enormous responsibility. We’re not making chocolate biscuits, if one falls off the production line we can’t just sweep it up and ice the next one. Parents don’t have a spare at home for us to have another crack at. We build great people, that’s our product. As a leader I certainly have an eye of the accountability mechanism I’m working towards but it’s the enormity of the personal responsibility I have to educate students that weighs heavily on me. As we transition from this pandemic accountability has to be strong. We have to intensify our efforts. If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that we can do things differently, we have the capability and agility to pivot and achieve the impossible. It has dramatically transformed the way we work, the way we interact and the way we engage in our contexts. As we move forward all of us have to think deeply about the personal responsibility we have in our contexts. What is our individual role? How can we strive every day to ensure we are meeting it? How do we hold ourselves accountable? Our collective efforts are needed like never before. We can be divided by issues of accountability or united by purpose, one fuelled by individual responsibility. As I’ve said, I believe we are comfortable with accountability. The challenge we face is ensuring all members of our team fulfil their personal responsibility as this is the foundation for achieving results
Uncertainty is a great catalyst for learning. When we are faced with uncertainty a signal is sent to the brain that something is not right, that something is different. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a range of emotions that accompany uncertainty. In our current climate uncertainty is possibly the only element that is certain. Our current global challenge has provided the most uncertain period in living memory and has left many people in an unfamiliar environment where they have been forced outside their comfort zones. Many of us have found ourselves operating in the discomfort zone. This is a place where, whilst uncomfortable, we are open to new learning and if we act on it, accept it and wrestle with the challenge we have a significant opportunity to expand what may be possible.
The discomfort zone is a place that challenges how people view a system, a behaviour, a belief, an attitude or a plan. Being in the discomfort zone interrupts how we would normally deal with or behave towards a certain situation or in a particular circumstance. It poses enough challenge that it forces you stop and pause. In some cases it seems insurmountable which can lead to us finding a work around or in some instances ignoring it altogether and refusing to engage. Those that choose this path are closed to learning at this stage and will find it difficult to engage with the predicament. Currently, there is no ignoring the discomfort, it’s worldwide and how we choose to sit with discomfort may be a defining moment.
In many circumstances skilled leaders have used the discomfort zone as part of the development process for those they lead. Through targeted conversations they draw people to realisations, shifts in perception and possibly self-awareness of how values, attitudes and beliefs impact on behaviour. By having these conversations at the right time with the right person you may be able to help create a new awareness and see growth and change by developing an agreed course of action. For this to be most successful the person has to be open to change, feel safe and be ready for it. However given our current climate change is here whether we are ready or not forcing us deep into the discomfort zone.
While it may not feel like it at the moment, this period of discomfort will go a long way in building your leadership skill set. No one likes to feel uncomfortable especially when others are looking to you for guidance and answers. For many of us when we get into an uncomfortable situation in professional settings we start to second guess our ability. We have doubts, we question our skill set, we make comparisons with others ability to cope in this setting. A flood of questions wash over us, are we intelligent enough? Do we have enough knowledge in this area? What is someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t have a solution? This leads us down the next path where we start to think of reasons why we shouldn’t take on the challenge. The fear of making a mistake in front of our peers or those we lead can be crippling. This negative self-talk, this skewed perception, this sometimes visceral emotional response is a result of being in the discomfort zone. As leaders we like a plan, some certainty, there is comfort in knowing we have control over the direction. It can be extremely challenging to lead in uncertain times, when you don’t have all the answers. But we need perspective, this is not excruciating pain that is never ending. It is for the most part a moment in time, a series of events that are punctuated with briefs moments of discomfort.
Moving into the discomfort zone has become increasingly challenging in modern society. We have shifted from a landscape of challenge to one where we have so many supportive structures in place that we limit our interaction with discomfort. We have unintentionally eroded some of our natural resilience to discomfort. On a personal level we surround ourselves with like-minded people, our social media feeds are made up of those that we agree with, our posts are highlights carefully crafted to reflect a particular image, photos are cropped and retaken to ensure we are comfortable with what we are portraying. In some ways the ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality that has gripped our society has impacted on our ability to work in discomfort. These carefully constructed environments limit our potential to grow and explore what is possible.
There are many who try to resist discomfort. In doing so they deny themselves an important opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to break away from underlying assumptions and perspectives that may be limiting their view or potential opportunities. The challenge is to persist and move past that feeling of wanting to return back to what was comfortable. It’s a valuable exercise to listen to your internal dialogue during times of discomfort. What thoughts are you having? Are you looking for ways out? Are you using language that escalates your feelings of discomfort? Do you have a physical reaction? Does your pulse race? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? How do you manage this? Making yourself aware and drawing your attention to your reaction is the first step in overcoming it. Remember emotions are responses to stimuli and are no reason not to take on a challenge.
Once your mind settles into the discomfort of a challenge a change happens. As the work starts to unfold it actually becomes increasingly comfortable and possibly exciting as you lean into the challenge and explore what is possible. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be the most important skill we take out of this pandemic. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but think of the incredible work you and your teams have been able to achieve whilst operating in the most uncertain of environments. Discomfort forces us to view our circumstances from a completely different perspective and stretches us to imagine what might be possible. If we learn no other lesson maybe we could inject some unpredictability into our leadership challenges to normalise the feeling of discomfort. By doing this we can ride the wave and understand that it will end.
What is it that you will take away from this period that will become the new normal for you? What will you let go of that you have done without? What will you continue to use, do or act on? How will you manage another period of uncertainty when it comes, because it will come, maybe not of this magnitude but you will face uncertain situations in the future. We are now deep into this challenge. It would be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how you have responded. Did you lean in or did you try to swerve?
Just recently I was asked this question ‘Why would anyone be led you?’ It’s a pretty big question and one that I found difficult to answer. The natural reaction was a well-considered “I’m not sure”. There is certain degree of humility required to answer it properly. It definitely provides a significant pause point for reflection. I started by thinking about the most influential leaders that I have worked with and others that I know of or have read about. I considered the leadership traits that they displayed and tried to compare how I lead with how they have led me or lead their teams. It’s an interesting point of comparison. What was it about their style that had people follow them and, in some cases, actively choose to enlist support for them? They certainly displayed a range of highly developed leadership attributes that they were able to draw upon depending on the setting/context they found themselves in. As I started to cross reference the skills and try to identify if I shared similar attributes, I came to a conclusion. People follow you because you are you. Whilst I may collect elements from each leader, ultimately it is how I choose to implement the various skills that make up my leadership. I can’t try to be like another leader, I need to be me.
It’s not just a compelling vision or an ability to inspire that will see people willingly be led by you. Vision and inspiration help to get a journey started but they only last for so long. When the day to day work begins and the routine sets in it’s your leadership that helps keep the momentum. There is a wide range of leadership characteristics that form part of any successful leaders’ armoury. Courage, honesty, integrity, humility, instinct, empathy are all key qualities and not every leader has access to them all. The one quality that every leader does have access to though is themselves. Why would anyone be led by you? Because you are you. Being authentically you and not trying to be anyone else is a significant leadership lesson. I’m not suggesting we are all perfectly made, we all have flaws, but they make up you. The is no definitive list of leadership attributes because as the context shifts and relationships change successful leaders must adapt to the circumstances and call upon the skills needed at that time in that context. When circumstances change and they will, trying to lead based on someone else’s style can be difficult to navigate and leave you feeling like a fraud. If you are always trying to be copy of somebody else then your talents and gifts never get an opportunity to shine.
It continues to surprise me how many leaders try to be someone who they are not. It takes a great deal of energy to be someone you are not and those that we lead get a sense that there is an incongruence between your words and actions. Being ourselves and showing that we have areas for development sends a very strong message, that we accept growth, that we can’t do it all alone and that we will always strive to improve because we can. Being authentic in your leadership by knowing who you are, what your strengths are and your areas for development will do far more to enlist support than striving to be someone you are not. Authentic leaders show a self-awareness that allows them to display their vulnerabilities without losing influence. These leaders have an sharp sense of timing. There are times for strength in leadership, when everyone is looking to you for guidance and there are times to share vulnerability. Authentic leaders are astute at taking the temperature of the environment and picking the right time to share. It’s not a case that they are trying to manipulate an environment but more an emotional intelligence that allows them to determine that this is what is needed at that point in time. Sharing one of your less glorious moments can certainly take the heat out of a room and lighten the mood whilst a well-crafted narrative about a success can rally support and inspire action.
Authentic leaders hold to their principles. Principles are different from values and beliefs. Your values and beliefs can change over time as you become exposed to a range of experiences. Your principles however are fundamentally you. These are the things that you will not compromise on. Authentic leaders stick firm to their principles, and this shows through in their leadership behaviour and decision making. I’m not suggesting that authentic leaders display a stubbornness that does not allow for compromise. It is more a case of their moral compass is strong in particular areas and this will always drive their decision making and leadership behaviours. These leaders are often described as being genuine. They are honest and don’t have hidden agendas which leave people guessing about their intent. They may not be open books and are certainly gifted strategists knowing when to share and when to keep information close, but their purpose is always aligned to their principles and is perfectly understood by those they lead. There is a consistency about their leadership that provides a degree of certainty and dependability. You know in times of complexity these leaders will roll up the sleeves and get to work to ensure that those they lead have the confidence to get the job done. There is a great deal of trust that develops when our leaders provide certainty amidst the chaos. The calming influence of a leader who has both hands on the wheel as they navigate the obstacles can never be understated.
The one significant challenge that authentic leaders face is growth. Being authentic can mean sometimes the default position is to rely on the skills and talents that have been successful for you in the past. The difficulty here is that what has gotten you to your current level may not be what is required to get you to the next. It’s been described as being caught in your stylistic comfort zone. Expectations change as responsibility increases which can leave you feeling like you are not being authentically you as you are challenged to move outside your comfort zone and potentially re-invent your leadership style. This is where a strong sense of self awareness is needed to identify what it is that you need to do next to continue to develop your leadership capacity. Successful leaders have the self-discipline that is needed to test themselves, to move outside their comfort zone and take on new challenges that will expose them to new learning. The attitude of ‘if you wait until you are ready, you’ll never be ready’ is a driving force here. At times being able to move toward a goal and keep moving forward despite setbacks displays more about your character and authenticity than the actual achievement.
The paradox of authenticity and leadership growth is a natural part of the leadership pathway. I guarantee that you are not the same leader now that you were 5 years ago. We must learn from other leaders. It would be foolish not to examine different styles, but it is your responsibility to take the various elements of leadership and make them your own. You can then choose to implement them in your way, in your context with your people. As you grow and adapt your style you are making it your own which brings authenticity. Herminia Ibarra, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, describes this as being playful with your leadership development. Just like a child would explore and experiment during play, leaders too can extend themselves by moving outside their comfort zones bringing new dimensions to their leadership. Trying on different styles and seeing if they fit your purpose and work for you is all part of the journey. In the end being authentic in your leadership is about being you. Yes, we need to develop, yes, we need to grow but when you look in the mirror you will know the truth. It’s not the title, the position or the power that makes a great leader, it’s the ability to add value to the lives of those you lead. Authentic leaders build trusting relationships, they understand it’s about the people they lead. How do you know if your leadership has left a positive impact? How might you identify this? Take some time to reflect on these questions and then maybe you can answer , why would anyone be led by you?
Culture and strategy are two of the most powerful tools that a leader has available to them. They shape the lived experience of every member of a school community. Culture is like your school’s personality, it can be welcoming, supportive and encouraging, it can also be the very opposite. The culture of your school is evident as soon as you enter the front office, it’s there when you walk through the playground, when you go into a classroom or sit in a staffroom. With a sharp focus on meeting a range of performance measures, this critical element of school performance can often be overlooked. It can be a strong multiplier in overall school performance when all members of the school community contribute to a positive school culture.
Unlike a strategy that can be copied and shared across schools contexts, culture is comprised of a wide variety of elements that all need to combine in just the right dosages. Culture is embedded and takes a great deal of effort to shift and get right. It’s a moving target that grows over time in response to how we interact with the varying elements that make it up. It sets the expectation and unifies a school under the one umbrella. A strong successful culture is based on a shared set of beliefs that is supported by structures and strategic decisions that help it flourish. Culture helps guide behaviours and decision making. You often hear “this is the way we do things around here”, that’s your culture outlining the expectations.
In understanding how culture is formed you must recognise that people come into an organisation with certain beliefs and assumptions formed through previous experiences. Recognising these beliefs and assumptions, whether they are true or false is crucial as they form the basis of values and can impact on your culture. Our job is to clearly articulate what it is we stand for. Carefully challenging underlying assumptions to assist in shaping values is critical in developing culture. Our values turn into norms which if guided in a skillful way can develop a shared and acceptable way of behaving. This in turn will become our social norms. The power of social norms can never be understated as people generally conform to the norm. If treating people respectfully and approaching life and learning in a positive manner become our norm, imagine what we can achieve.
With this in mind we need to consider how we induct new people into our schools. How are we socialising them into the setting? What are they seeing as the norms? What are they observing that will shape their beliefs and assumptions? Obvious things like how do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved? How do leaders interact with other staff? How do we interact with students and community? These are all clearly observable interactions and send a very clear message on the way the school is developing an environment which is conducive to teaching and learning.
Whilst there is usually a dominant culture within a school there can be subcultures that can be quite powerful and if not monitored can work against your overarching direction. This is where the skilled leader needs to ensure that they consistently support all members of the school community in building a positive culture. It is not enough to have systems, routines and structures in play. The strategic leader takes the opportunity to respectfully challenge negative subcultures outlining why the environment they are working towards is achieving the vision of the school and draws upon positive examples that are assisting in creating it. In many cases where sub cultures have differing views on how things can be achieved, looking at our moral purpose can assist in finding common ground. It’s difficult to argue when decisions are based on positive outcomes for the students we serve.
One of the most important elements and perhaps the one that either reinforces or pulls apart a school culture is relationships. The basis of any solid relationship is trust. Where there is a strong sense of trust across the school and we know we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. There is a proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement. A school culture that is focused on and celebrates positive strong relationships where people feel valued, respected and supported will generate whole school success across all domains.
As a leader I firmly believe we need to work on getting the culture right. The ideas below may assist you with your work.
Model a mindset – A positive mindset can go a long way to assisting in maintaining and developing a positive school culture. As a leader modelling a ‘can do’ attitude and demonstrating how hurdles are not barriers but opportunities for growth can set a very powerful example.
First impressions – From the time you walk into the front office there is a feeling associated with a school. Make yours a positive one. First impressions are lasting and set the tone for future interactions.
Challenge opposing forces – Establish sound protocols for challenging ideas respectfully. Negativity can be contagious and can gradually seep into a culture. It’s ok to not agree and for things not to always work out. What’s not ok is to constantly complain about them. Use the energy towards refining, reworking and improving. An environment of continuous improvement is much better to work and learn in than one of ‘I told you so’.
Communicate your message – Think of your message as your brand. It needs to be publicised and communicated. In the world of business advertising sells, why, because smart operators get people to believe in their brand. Build your brand with your school community with positive news stories.
Invest heavily in your staff – A strong focus on professional learning that is focused on classroom practice with a balance of support and accountability empowers staff with skills and knowledge but also sets clear expectations. Supporting this to be transferred into the classroom is pivotal in improving student outcomes. When people feel that there is a real investment in their growth, they are more willing to buy into the culture.
Students first – They have to be the top priority in any decision making across the school community. If we are to truly putting students first they will know. They will be able to see, feel and hear that we are placing them at the centre.
Culture over technical skill – It can be far easier to develop technical skills than adjust to a new culture. Our work is relational, technical skill alone will not develop the supportive trust and bonds that underpin a positive school culture. A culture of continuous improvement will allow technical skill to develop in the right environment. As Dylan Wiliam says “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”
There are many elements that make up the culture of a school and every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact. As a leader you need to live your culture every day. It needs to be more than just a poster on a wall or a well worded address at a staff meeting or assembly. As the leader you need to live it, breathe it, model it, inconsistencies in this area create doubt and uncertainty. It’s one thing to say you want a great culture; it’s another task altogether to strategically build and maintain it.
I’d like to address the elephant in the classroom. The one that’s standing right in the middle taking up lots of space, crowding the learning environment. Data. Is it taking the fun out of teaching? I guess the answer is yes and ……… no. There is no question that systems, governments and schools needs big data to identify trends, predict patterns of behaviour, allocate resources to emerging and identified areas of need and provide high levels insights. Big data has its place but what about the small data? it can be structured and non-structured, it can be scheduled and randomised and is collected in usable sized chunks that are contextually relevant to a specific setting. Is it possible that using small data can be fun.
Many professionals are getting bogged down in the debate over what seems to be a relentless schedule of data collection. What we tend to overlook in the debate, is the purpose. If our data collection is serving no real purpose other than to complete a spreadsheet and rob us of teaching time then I agree, what is the point? On the other hand if we are using it to sharpen our focus, to specifically target our teaching then it is critical. Useful data connects people with timely, meaningful insights into student areas for growth and achievement and when used purposefully can be an extremely powerful tool that actually puts the fun back into teaching.
Whilst I agree that data walls, visible targets and performance measures have assisted in creating a sharp focus on evidence based practices and demonstration of impact, is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far in our pursuit of individualised accountability? Nothing is more important to the success of our students than high quality teaching. I am in the privileged position to be able to view our teaching staff in action across schools in our system. What I have observed are staff who have high expectations, are able to cater for the wide range of needs of their students and use highly effective techniques that both engage and challenge our students. High quality teachers are always striving for student improvement. They are possibly their harshest critics, analysing their lessons, their delivery, levels of student engagement and the impact of their work on students. They are using small data all day, every day as a way of improving practice.
Small data allows us to provide our own insights into the relationships we have with our students, it allows us to develop achievable bite sized chunks that we can celebrate and this is where the joy comes back in. I spent my last years on class as a kindergarten teacher. By the end of the year my students could read, write, work mathematically in combination with a whole range of social, emotional and communication skills. I did that. I gave a gift that they would have for life. No matter how old they are or where they are in the world I started that learning journey. When we are able to see the improvement, see the skill development, know that we have had an impact, that’s the incredibly powerful and rewarding element of teaching. The question is how do we know and what role can data play?
Data talks, data walls, data walks, assessment schedules, moderating, criteria analysis, individualised, tiered, standardised the list goes on and all play their role. What is more powerful though, is a strong focus on teams of teachers using contextually relevant small data as a powerful vehicle to drive student improvement. Time spent imputing data into a spreadsheet could be better spent in teacher teams working together to observe practice and refine our craft. Our system actually supports this process through the Performance Develop Framework. At its core it underpins the notation that every teacher, in every school will improve, not because they have to but because they can. High performing teams use this system developed process to increase levels of performance, to strive towards personalised goals that impact on student outcomes. How do we know if we have improved? Small data. Colleagues observe and provide immediate contextualised feedback specific to the individual, its formative assessment for teacher colleagues.
Spending time in teacher teams using our collective knowledge of our students and curriculum to design learning draws on a range of small data for a very specific purpose. In NSW Public Education a strong focus on collaborative instruction is driving this approach across schools. We have strong evidence based, system supported teaching strategies that provide high level direction for our schools. Our teacher teams have the ability to contextualise best practice to become relevant practice for their context. It’s the small data that allows teacher teams to contextualise and target the specific needs of their students. Learning sequences designed with the selection of appropriate assessment techniques allow us to identify what it is that will move student learning forward. This is supported by the purposeful collection of a range of small data. Without the small data it’s just another unsubstantiated opinion that offers little direction.
It’s not the quantity of the data it’s the purpose and how we use it. The fun comes back into teaching when we view data as an avenue to investigate ways to unlock student potential. When we take time to reflect on where a student is, where we want them to be and how we are going to get them there in small achievable and measurable segments we target our teaching. Working this way we identify what students can already do and what they need to learn next. When we bring this down to a very specific skill level and provide a definite timeframe for evaluation and refinement it has the potential to bring a sense of accomplishment that can be almost addictive. It’s the small data that allows us to really know our students. Understanding the purpose behind our data collection and using it to target our teaching will help us build a better relationship with the elephant in the classroom.
Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.
Have you ever had to make a decision and it just didn’t feel right? As leaders we make decisions all day that have a direct impact on those we lead. We aim to get them right and use all evidence at our disposal to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of doing so. Occasionally, we’ll be faced with a decision that has us feeling uneasy and a little voice in our heads starts nagging that something is not right. You know that feeling that makes you go back and check that you’ve turned off the iron or makes you hesitate just that fraction before you cross the road in front of a car. We all have those stories when we ‘just knew’, when we had a ‘gut feeling’. Using our instincts has long been a mechanism used for survival. Our ancestors used instinct to recognise that big prehistoric monsters coming over the horizon were dangerous and needed to be avoided. In the modern world our instincts protect us from the metaphorical monster and if used correctly can assist us to navigate the complex nature of leadership.
There is a theory that trusting your gut instincts may be the result of years of experience playing on your subconscious guiding you away from a path you have been down before. Some call it instinct, some intuition, some relying on their gut. Research out of John Hopkins and Harvard Medical has supported a growing body of evidence linking the connection between the gut and the brain. They have identified that within the walls of our digestive system is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which acts as the brain of the gut. The ENS links directly to the brain via the central nervous system on what is known as the gut-brain axis. This axis allows for two way communication between the brain and the gut sending and receiving impulses, and responding to experiences and emotions. Any time you get a physical reaction when faced with decision the axis is at work. If you get a light feeling in the stomach when excited by an idea it’s a pretty good sign that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. On the other hand if you have a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and there is a sense of apprehension it’s pretty clear that this is a definite no. This system acts like an internal moral compass.
There are many great stories of exceptional leaders who are said to have great instincts; they have the capacity to read situations and react to them with a clarity that defies logic. They are able to pick up on subtle clues, patterns and changes to behaviour and automatically make a judgement without a thorough analysis. Is it a skill they are born with or is it something that can be developed? I believe it is something that can be developed, if you take time to identity the signs. Intuitive leaders subconsciously tune into these signs. The gut- brain axis connects to the limbic system of the brain where all of our habits, emotions, experiences and feelings are stored. This section of the brain is actually where all decision making happens and plays a vital role in action selection allowing us to decide between several possible behaviours to execute at any given time. Intuitive leaders can tap into this subconsciously drawing on previous successes and failures using this stored data to guide their instincts. You know when you just can’t put your finger on it, you can’t explain why you know you just know, that’s a culmination of your previous experiences reacting to the situation and letting you know to think deeper about the decision you’re about to make. That’s why we ‘sleep on it’ or ‘mull it over’ our gut instincts are telling us that our first reaction needs further consideration.
So what does this mean for us on a day to day basis? For me, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. In a system where rigorous analysis of data sets, increasing levels of accountability, compliance and fiscal responsibility challenge decision making it can be a brave decision to say no in the face of mounting evidence. Whilst all indications might be overwhelmingly in favour of a pathway, if it doesn’t sit right then take some time to think it through before making the final call. I’ve started to keep track of situations when I’ve had to make a decision and I’ve had an initial ‘gut reaction’. I am hoping that over time I can actually build up a profile of when my instincts where right and when they were off track. I’m not allowing my gut reactions to override all decisions making, that would be foolish, I’m just monitoring. What I’ve noticed is that my gut instincts have the ability to subconsciously read a situation, they pick up on ‘the vibe’ whilst my conscious mind is running the analytics. As my brain rationalises my gut will instinctively guide, the pair working in unison to survey the environment within which I am working. I’d have to say that so far my instincts have been pretty accurate and have aligned nicely to the supporting evidence behind the decision making process. In general, I’ve found when I’ve had to trust my gut; I have felt good about the decision believing that what I was doing was right. Obviously not all decisions will have a gut reaction, most made on a daily basis are founded in logic and reason, but tuning in when the odd situation arises may be useful.
We all have looming deadlines; we all feel pressure to make decisions but as leaders we need to take time to consider the implications prior to making them. When the situation arises when the gut says wait but the mind says go, I believe there are a few things you can do.
- Firstly determine if there actually is a choice, sometimes despite your instincts there is no choice, the decision can only go one way. If there is a choice, does it have to be a yes or no answer? Are there other possibilities that are a mixture of both?
- Take time to think of the pros and cons. Look at the decision from an alternate point of view and see if you’d make the same decision.
- Has your intuition clouded your judgment? Remember it’s influenced by past experiences.
- Does it feel right? Are you able to rest comfortably knowing that you made the decision?
- Finally, allow yourself time to make the decision.
I know there have been times when I’ve had to make a judgment call and for no particular reason it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Despite the logic, the reason and the mounting evidence I just had a gut feeling that this was not the right option so I chose not to do it. The next time you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when making a decision and you just can’t seem to figure out why, I’d ask that you consider your instincts, they may be better than you thought.
Always the bridesmaid. You know that feeling like it’s never going to happen for you. The roller coaster of emotions that is merit selection. You left the interview feeling confident, all your referees were strong, it’s only a matter of time, you’ve got this one, you can feel the positive energy. Then you get the call, you can hear it in the voice straight away, that familiar tone that always seems to deliver bad news. It was a high quality field they say, you did exceptionally well they tell you. It’s a process that is both mentally and physically draining and at times makes you question whether you can go through it again. This is the point when your courage, grit and sheer tenacity have to kick in. You must push through and not let that downward spiral of emotion turn into a force that derails your ambition.
It can be extremely frustrating getting so close on so many occasions. The power of not being the chosen candidate can leave you feeling incredibly flat physically and emotionally. Scientists from the University from Michigan conducted a study using MRI images that demonstrated the physical and emotional power of rejection. Their study was able to make direct comparison between rejection and physical pain. They concluded that not only were both rejection and physical pain distressing but that they actually share a common neurological response. They were able to provide evidence that the region of the brain that became active in response to physical pain also became active when exposed to rejection. This supports the thoughts of unsuccessful candidates who often express that not getting that last job ‘really hurt’. For many of us we spend a great deal of time trying to balance our emotional response to rejection by adding illogical thought processes to our perceived failure. We must be careful not to overgeneralise by thinking that we will never get that job we are seeking.
Whilst it is natural to feel disappointment I firmly believe that we must turn the negative into a positive and use it as an opportunity to grow. Try not to take the decision personally. Just because there was a better candidate on this occasion does not mean that you are not highly skilled and if given the opportunity would do a magnificent job. I’ve heard too many unsuccessful candidates dwell on negative self-talk by over analysing their own skills looking for points of failure rather than using it as an opportunity to sharpen their focus. You know the spiel “I just can’t do interviews”, “I can’t talk in that educational jargon”, “If they could just watch me work”. Whilst merit selection may not be the best system, it is the one within which we operate. You must look for the positives, your CV was strong enough for your referees to be called and your referees were strong enough for you to be invited to interview. It’s a process of which you have successfully covered a majority of the moving parts. Try to think of it not as a deficit but as preparation for the next challenge, for some it will be a short sharp sprint for others it’s a marathon, it can be a difficult task but in the end the reward will be worth it.
Over my 25 years in NSW Public Education I have had the opportunity to work with many high quality educators. For some, the road leading to the next opportunity has been long and sometimes arduous. I have tried to provide some proactive advice to assist in their journey. I believe the following few steps may be useful if you’re always the bridesmaid.
Highlight Your Strengths
Most people don’t like the idea of identifying their strengths and highlighting them. At interview this is exactly what you must do and it can be an incredibly difficult task. Prior to you interview you should take time to prepare examples that show your strengths and demonstrate how they can add value to the organisation you are joining. Doing your homework and identifying your role in an organisation is crucial to a successful interview. The panel wants to know how you are going to use your strengths to enhance their operation.
Get the Question Again
Don’t be afraid to ask for the question to be repeated. Sometimes we stray from the intent of our response and start to provide a series of unrelated examples. If you feel you are off track it can be difficult to realign mid answer. My advice is to stop, admit you have gone off course and ask for the question again. The panel would much prefer to hear an answer that relates to the question than a broad generalised response with no relevance to the question.
Review Your Questions
When leaving an interview it is always good practice to try to write the questions down and consider your responses. In the event that you are unsuccessful you can use these to assist you with preparation for prospective interviews to come. It provides you an opportunity to work on any questions that you may have had difficulty with during the interview. It can also be useful to talk through the questions with your referees as they sometimes can see elements in a question that you may have missed.
Always Seek Feedback
I am surprised at the number of candidates who do not seek feedback. This is the one way you can put your mind at ease with actual answers as to why this job was not for you at this time. As an employer I firmly believe it is our responsibility to give good quality feedback to each candidate to assist them with their profession al growth. Try to find out what the successful candidate did that gave them that edge.
Like most experiences interviewing well requires a certain skillset. As with most skills it requires practice. There are not many of us who are naturally talented at walking into a room full of strangers and performing on cue. Working with a coach or mentor to structure your interview answers and practice potential scenarios will allow you to provide true and accurate responses in the pressure cooker environment of the interview. How many times have you walked out of the room and thought ‘Why didn’t I say this?’ Practice interviews allow you to structure your responses and become adaptable when that curve ball gets thrown in.
Not getting the job doesn’t feel good, but it’s not the end of the world. If you have prepared well and performed your best then maybe the job just wasn’t the right fit for you. You have gotten to this point by working hard in a highly competitive environment. You may feel like it is never going to happen and those inner thoughts and feelings of self-doubt are natural. Recognising that this negative thought process is taking up energy and being proactive in channeling it into a productive plan for your next challenge will serve you well. No matter how many interviews you have, don’t let not being the chosen candidate keep you down. Keep your head up, keep looking for the right opportunities they will come along. Every bridesmaid has their day in the spotlight and when it comes you’ll be ready.
I’m a fraud! This thought hit me hard just recently. I observed some of the quality leaders around me and thought, I don’t measure up. They were so confident, so articulate, infallible to a point. I have good days and bad days sure, but not like these people. They are always on top of their game, never missing a beat, across every aspect of their learning to a degree I could only imagine – or so it would seem.
Have you ever been involved in an educational conversation full of jargon when all participants are nodding at the right times and interjecting with highly technical language? Did you feel out of your depth? Have you ever been invited to speak at a professional learning session or had your work singled out for the positive impact it has made? Did you question if you were the right person to be delivering the message? Was your work really of note? Did you question if you were worthy of the praise? Was there a nagging feeling that maybe you don’t deserve to be there? You rationalise by thinking that you’re just lucky, you’ve been in the right place at the right time, you’re not doing anything different when compared to other leaders. You then start to think, what if people start asking questions? What if they dig deeper? Then you have that sinking feeling of self-doubt. You feel like you don’t measure up. Did you feel like a fraud? Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve been held hostage by the Imposter Syndrome.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both American psychologists, named the Imposter Syndrome in the late 1970’s. Their work outlined the psychological fear felt by high achieving individuals who perceived themselves to be intellectual frauds waiting to be found out and exposed. They often questioned their ability to be mixing in the company of their colleagues, feeling like they were somewhat misplaced. In the minds of those who feel it they’re not worthy of the position they had worked so hard to find themselves in. Clance and Imes concluded that people who challenge themselves and place themselves outside their comfort zone are more susceptible. These people are in a state of growth, looking to learn new skills and refine their practice because they have a firm belief that they can always improve. Acknowledging that we are always learning, whilst embracing the growth mindset, can be challenging and potentially leaves us exposed to the Imposter Syndrome.
The sometimes debilitating Imposter Syndrome can strike us all, in fact research suggests that over 70% of people will feel this way at some stage in their career. The feeling that in some way we are undeserving, that our success has come more from luck and being in the right place at the right time, than from anything we have actually achieved is at the core of the Imposter Syndrome. We doubt our ability, question our decision making processes and look for reasons outside our influence for our success. Those who get struck often neglect to look at the fact that they work hard, they do their homework and sometimes they take the calculated risks that others won’t. What we sometimes forget is that we are currently in our positions because someone saw something in us and gave us the opportunity. In times when you doubt yourself, at least have faith in those that saw your potential and gave you the opportunity. Whilst you may believe that you were lucky to be afforded the opportunity, you proactively took it and made it your own. Far too often we undersell our hard work and commitment.
The more I’ve tuned into the Imposter Syndrome the more I’m recognising it in others. It’s allowed me to take stock of those who’ve also talked about feeling this way. From what I can see, in order to feel it you must be making a positive impact. I believe you can take it as a sign that you’re on track. You can fake it for a while but eventually it will catch up with you, smoke and mirrors only lasts so long. From what I’ve observed the real imposters don’t get the syndrome. They seem to be almost oblivious, claiming to be something that they clearly are not. They continue to sell the snake oil, pumping up their own tyres regardless of the lack of progress. They show little ability to reflect on their practice continuing down well-worn neural pathways of self-praise utilising small subsets of data and research to support their work. In comparison those that feel the Imposter Syndrome often feel self-doubt. They question the accuracy of data and research, wanting to make sure that they are hanging their hats on a solid foundation. They trial new initiatives not because they are popular but because they have a belief they can enhance practice. My advice is to embrace the feeling when it comes and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflect on the work and obviously look for continuous improvement, but occasionally acknowledge that you do have some skills that serve you well.
So now that you have recognised that you may have encountered the Imposter Syndrome, I believe the following steps may assist you in using it as a tool.
- Confide in someone you trust and talk it out, not to actively seek a compliment but to get some perspective on your feelings. They can help you take an objective look at what you have achieved and guide you to understand that you’ve actually played a part in your own success.
- Understand that it’s not always about the paper credentials, don’t think you have to be the most highly credentialed person in the room to have expertise. Remember a title does not always give you credibility.
- Listen to the language you use. Sometimes the low modality of our language subconsciously leads us down the path of self-doubt. Phrases like “I’m not sure”, “it could just be me”, “I hope I’m on the right track”, “maybe I’m missing the point” shows you don’t back your own judgement. Believe that you can operate in this space and feel comfortable having an opinion.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. I’m currently involved in a learning community where we are discussing our personal assumptions that limit us. What’s interesting is that there are a great deal of people who share the same insecurities in leadership positions, yet we often hold them up as the perfect being not knowing that their own internal dialogue may be very similar to our own.
- Understand that you are growing and that you can actually change your point of view when new information comes to hand. Having an alternate opinion doesn’t make you a fraud, it makes you human. Realise that you don’t know everything and that anyone who thinks you should has placed a unrealistic expectation on you.
- Occasionally, just take that compliment. It’s good to be humble but sometimes you just have to take the compliment and say thank you.
- Know that perfection is unattainable. Celebrate you successes by reflecting on what you did that worked and refining what didn’t.
I spoke to an aspiring leader recently who was doubting their recent promotion. They trotted out the usual “I’m lucky, right place right time” line. My advice to them was simple. You can’t continually be this lucky. Be comfortable with your success and continue to work hard to maintain it. Stop and take note of how far you have come and reflect on the effort it has taken you to get there.
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever been held captive by the Imposter syndrome, try taking this test. Maybe then you can recognise it and acknowledge that you’ve had something to do with your own success. http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf
Self-belief is not arrogance, it’s not blind loyalty to a misguided cause. True self-belief comes from deep honest self-reflection underpinned by a strong moral purpose that your work is making a positive impact. Maybe I’m not a fraud after all.
I’ve just started a course that requires a high level of self-reflection and I’ve got to say it’s scary business. Reflection is something that we as leaders and indeed as educators do on a regular basis. We constantly try to find better ways to engage our audience, to deliver better outcomes for students, to strengthen and broaden opportunities for the communities we serve. Having said that there is a great deal of reflection on the behaviour of others. I’m questioning though, how deeply we reflect on our own behaviour?
As leaders we constantly analyse behaviour to look for answers as to why things did or do not happen. Unfortunately we are not always as good at analysing our own. It’s a brave thing to really reflect on your practice. There is a significant difference between thinking about what you have done and really reflecting on its impact. It’s not about negative self-talk, “I should have done this”, “Why did I do that?”’ “You’ve really messed up this time.” It should be a positive process of analysing your action, your responses and trying to identify your impact. Did your leadership drive the impact you were looking for? Did you, as I am learning at present subconsciously negate the possible outcome you were trying to achieve? It takes a great deal of courage to really drill down. It can be quite confronting at times and can leave you feeling very vulnerable when you see the harsh realities.
An easy way to dip your toe into self-reflection is by reading about leadership so you have an increasing understanding of what makes a good leader, observing others, listening to their stories and reflecting on how you would have responded in the same situations, or how you might approach a new situation. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to identify a better way of doing things almost absolves you of any fault and allows a safe space to start the practice of self-reflection. There may even be some parallels to your own context that might enable you to make some positive change. From here you can began to look inwardly to really examine what it is that could be holding you back. It may be a chance to break out of a routine that may not be as effective or efficient as it first was. I’m not suggesting that we are all flawed, what I do believe however is that everyone not matter who you are has some personal characteristic that can be developed, grown or enhanced.
Reflection is hard. Sometimes we don’t know where to begin, or just don’t want to begin. It can be quite challenging. For many of us seeing an accurate picture of ourselves with deficiencies, faults and areas for improvement can be quite confronting. The egocentric among us will proclaim “it’s them who have the problem, I know what I’m doing”. The altruist will reflect quite harshly on how they have let others down. Getting the balance right may take practice. The point of reflection is to analyse your behaviours, actions and decisions, opening them up to personal scrutiny and facing your own fears about your own professional judgment. Without true deep self-reflection I believe that you may be limiting your potential. Subconsciously you know when your best effort was not put forward and denying this and not reflecting will not make it go away, it will always be there gnawing at you. The difficulty is being 100% truthful with yourself. We have an inbuilt self-protective system that allows us to reason and justify our actions. It’s one thing to recognise our limitations, it’s another to act on improving them.
Self-reflection is possibly the first practice you will discard when things get busy but that is probably the time when it is needed most. Done correctly it can help you make accurate decisions in stressful and busy times. It is actually a really helpful tool to keep you centred, remembering the why it is that you do something. Allowing yourself quarantined time to think about your work, maybe the car trip, maybe a sneaky cup of coffee on the way to or from work can provide great opportunities for this. The point being that if you don’t dedicate time for reflection, the full agenda takes over and you move on to your next task. It’s not just the thinking about your actions that’s important here. Making plans of action, developing pathways, exploring other alternatives and testing out theories are all part of the reflective process.
Next time you go for a walk leave the phone at home and use the time to truly reflect on your leadership, you might be amazed at the answers. Try answering the following questions:
- Are you making a positive impact? How do you know?
- Would your staff choose to work at a school you lead?
- Do staff choose to follow your direction? Do they do this because they want to or because they are directed to?
- How do you feel about coming to school? Are you happy?
There is a great poem on self-reflection by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr titled “The Man In The Glass”, I highly recommend it.