N is for Nine Tips for New School Leaders (an open letter of sorts...)
You did it! You’re an AP! A Dean! A Department Chair! A Director of Athletics! A Principal! A Division Head! A Head of School! A Superintendent!
And, my condolences.
Why the sympathy? Well, because school leadership is hard, and it’s hard on school leaders. And leading well while also honoring your well-being is even harder.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Quite the opposite, actually. Because here’s the good news: with the right wellness practices, approaches, and mindset in place, leading schools well while also honoring your well-being need not be as rare as a copy machine that never breaks down.
Below is what I wish I had learned and embraced a long time ago–nine tips to help you lead well without losing your way.
You got this, and if I can be helpful to you as you endeavor to do some of the most important work on the planet, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
A is for Appreciation
When it comes to leading well, there is nothing more important than appreciation. Nothing. Get appreciation right, and the rest of the mess and majesty of school life will fall into place.
How to get an A in appreciation?
First, give gallons of it. Lee Cockerell, former Disney VP and author of Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney, was notorious for sending out to his frontline cast members an average of 700 personalized notes of appreciation every month. That’s 175 per week!
Second, make it personal. Sorry, mass email praise doesn’t cut it, and can actually prove counterproductive as you run the risk of sounding disingenuous.
Last, make it specific. As Robert Evans, author of Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader, teaches, “the way to make sure that recognition is effective is to make sure it is authentic, which requires that it be specific.”
So, if you want your school to be a place where your team loves to come to work and does so with positivity and a great sense of purpose, then embrace your role as Chief Appreciation Officer. Start by writing one (just one!) personalized and specific note of appreciation every day.
B is for Buddy Bench
Some elementary schools offer an inspiring question to their students: What if no one played alone?
Schools of this mindset often set aside a “Buddy Bench” where kids can sit as a subtle signal to others that they currently don’t have someone to play with but would very much like to if any other classmates would be kind enough to include them. When one student chooses to walk over to the Buddy Bench and invite another to join in on the fun, it is a beautiful, heartwarming thing to see.
What if we did the same as school leaders?
What if no one led alone?
School leaders are notorious for camouflaging and downplaying their struggles–the stress, the exhaustion, the isolation. It’s a lonely job, and we make it more difficult by choosing to lead alone. The weight is just too much for one person to carry.
We are not wired to shoulder life solo, so build yourself a Buddy Bench.
An intentional community of colleagues helps leaders both lighten burdens and share best practices. Through mentorship, affinity groups, and committed cohorts, leaders can lean on one another for support when times are tough and learn from one another so successes can be swapped and scaled.
In community, hurts are halved and joys are doubled. So seek to make the effort to begin to cultivate authentic connections with other leadership colleagues. Reach out to at least one resonant spirit and ask them to meet with you regularly. And when you do spend time together, seek to share a burden and offer up a best practice. You will find this time life-giving and truly beneficial to your leadership.
Please don’t try to lead alone! It is a near-certain path to burnout.
Build yourself a Buddy Bench instead!
C is for Culture
“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”
–Former IBM CEO, Lou Gerstner
Culture is the secret sauce of educational excellence; it is what separates average schools from amazing schools.
Different schools will define an ideal culture in various ways, citing descriptors like curiosity or innovation. Regardless of your vision, nothing culturally positive can emerge without two critical cornerstones of a healthy school firmly in place: consistency and care. Think of the opposite of consistency and care and your soul should shudder–capricious and cruel. Yuck.
Machiavelli wondered if it was better to be feared or loved. Another way of approaching the question is from the people’s perspective: Would you rather serve a cruel or kind king? There may be merits to both poles, but know this: The worst leader of all is an unpredictable one, a capricious one. So no matter what you are trying to build on behalf of your school, consistency is crucial.
So too is care.
Care takes kindness to another level. Much like compassion is empathy in action, care is a proactive approach to kindness. Culturally it means we aren’t just nice, but we actively seek out ways to support one another, accept one another, and love one another. It’s hard to imagine a school not characterized conspicuously by care. Although rare, sadly, they do exist. Do all you can to make sure your school isn’t one of them. Not on your watch.
Butter and sugar prove the foundation for every donut, no matter the flavor. If the base isn’t good, there’s nothing you can do that will improve it. Similarly, consistency and care are the foundation for any compelling school culture. Without them no culture is worth its weight in calories. So cultivate a culture of consistency and care, and then watch your school double down on its donut deliciousness.
D is for Dancing Guy
Google “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy” and prepare to be amused and enlightened. Once done laughing and learning (and forwarding to your friends), go and get your groove on, leading as a first follower rather than from the front by fiat.
Whenever possible, seek to lead as a first or second follower. By doing so, your school will progress in more creative ways than you ever could have imagined. Best yet, innovation won’t involve the risk of relational strain nor feel forced from the powers on high. Instead, progress will be as joyful as jammin’ out at a Phish show.
With Dancing Guy top of mind, the next time a student, teacher, staff member, or parent begins to voice a new idea, notice your reaction. Does their idea make your foot start to tap a little bit to the beat? If so, get up and start groovin' alongside them. And when you feel the urge to start dancing to the beat of your own drummer, pause. Look around. If few others are feelin’ it, best to stay seated and wait for the next song.
E is for Email
Like it or not, the school leader’s power of the pen is a virtual one: email.
When it comes to the necessary evil of email, most teachers and parents want the least amount of information necessary. When is “May the 4th Be With You Day”? Others desire dissertation-length communiques complete with every last detail pertaining to the topic. Why is Luke’s lightsaber okay on campus but not Han Solo’s blaster?
How to honor both extremes of the email length preference spectrum? Send two-for-one emails. Start each email with something in the spirit of “What You Need to Know Now,” a paragraph whose length trends toward Twitter. Then, follow that pithy paragraph with a “Want to Know More?” section that rivals the U.S. Tax Code in its comprehensiveness.
Oh, and embrace the magic of the “delay send” feature. Why? First, it slows down the flow of email correspondence in healthy ways for all. Second, it helps shield you from the negative consequences associated with hastily crafted or emotionally-laden emails. When it comes to the delay send, I can’t think of a negative. It’s literally all upside. So go ahead and set up delay send as a default. Start with a one hour delay and see what happens. If the sky doesn’t fall, extend it to two. If gravity is not reversed in some dystopian way, heck, live a little and go for three. I triple dog, delay-send dare you.
F is for Faculty Meetings
Just like every other mortal who calls Mother Earth home, teachers tend to detest meetings. And for good reason, as many of them are vomitous wastes of time that suck the life from one’s soul. So, stand out and create teacher meetings that don’t stink.
Showcase your own awesomeness by designing a compelling way to spend your time together. Some simple-to-implement ideas include: starting with a hook, employing a workshop model, honoring a “tips and tricks” time, designing mini-PDs with your own faculty as expert presenters, and carving out time after the meeting for any and all “kitchen sink questions”. (Want to know more? Reach on out, as I’m happy to explore easy-to-implement, high-quality meeting options with you.)
Whatever your favorite go-to best practices, make your team meetings a top priority by investing your best effort into making them amazing. Plan your meetings strategically so that you model best instructional practices and ensure that your teachers are given value, not just information. And if you don’t believe you have a rockstar meeting planned, do everyone a favor and cancel.
Name it as a “gift of time given in gratitude for all you do” and then witness the staff parking lot empty in seconds.
Because sometimes the best meeting is no meeting!
K is for Know Thyself
Heed Socrates’ advice to “Know thyself”. It is as simple and as challenging as that. Why? Because here is a timeless leadership truth: You cannot lead others well until you can lead yourself well. And you cannot lead yourself well until you know yourself well.
How to go about this self-exploration process? Start by exploring your core wiring via various personality assessments available online. Try these three free tried-and-true options:
Myers Briggs: https://www.16personalities.com/
Want to take your personal growth to even higher levels? Follow a growing positive trend in the corporate world by partnering with a credentialed counselor or certified leadership coach. Pro tip: the best time to start working with a counselor or coach is when all is well in your world. That way, when the valleys come (and they do come for everyone at some point), you will already have a trained thought partner established and poised to help you move forward in favorable ways.
The best way to become a better leader is to become a better person. The first step of your personal growth journey is gaining a good, baseline understanding of the good, the bad, and the ugly that is the miracle called you. The more you know, the more you grow. And the more you improve and evolve as a person, so too will you as a leader. As you do, so will your school.
S is for Students
Kids are why you got into this work and they are what will keep you thriving in the work. They are also the reason the sacrifices you make in leadership are worth it. The reality though is that, from a wellness standpoint, most school leaders don’t spend enough time with students. Why? Understandably because they are too busy dealing with adult drama!
The trick is finding ways to benefit from student sunshine while also providing value to the school and all without adding another thing to your already insanely overflowing to-do list. Easier said than done, of course, but there are some magical leadership hacks that can help immensely. (I’m happy to hop on a call to explore a few that might work for you. Just reach on out.)
Finding ways to get more student time on your calendar will prove crucial for your well-being and will also help you be more present among your teachers and staff too. This is a huge double win because absent leaders aren’t leaders at all—just a bunch of blah souls in beige suits with barely any impact like the principal in The Breakfast Club.
Adult vitamin D will be as rare as a day with 100% attendance, so get out of your office and soak up some student sunshine!
Y is for You’re Really Not That Funny
Because of power dynamics inherent with your new role, here’s a tough truth pill to swallow: You are really not as funny, or any other flavor of amazing, as your team will lead you to believe!
Function in the awareness that your team is regularly filtering their feedback to you, including courtesy laughs. This isn’t your fault, just part and parcel of power dynamics.
But don’t let that dissuade you from leveraging laughter to build a better school. As the leader, your job isn’t to get the room laughing but rather to get the room living and leading with levity as they share ideas stress-free on behalf of students. So seek to laugh heartily at others’ jokes, but fight the temptation to be the funny boss. Because far more important than being the funny boss is being the boss who finds things funny.
School life provides plenty of material to either take way too seriously or to laugh about. Error on the side of laughter.
BONUS TIP: S is for Shhhhhhhh…
During my two decades serving schools, I said way too much and listened way too little. Please learn from my mistakes, especially in your first year of leadership.
Listen. Be curious. Truly, try to speak as little as possible. Why? Because you’re new! So what? Well, being new means you have no clue about the context of literally anything going on in your school. As a result, there are potential put-your-foot-in-your-mouth pitfalls awaiting you everytime you open your mouth and offer your opinion. So speak at your own risk, and remember that there is a risk every time you do.
What type of talk is always safe and delivers a huge return on investment? Open-ended questions with very short preambles. Open-ended to ensure you don’t limit responses. Sensitive to preambles since they can easily become unconsciously camouflaged opinion proffering. (Curious about how to ask compelling questions? Reach on out. I’d be happy to explore further with you, as it is a crucial skill for effective leaders.)
“But I have experience and expertise that will aid my school immensely.” Yes you do, 100%. It is what got you the job or promotion. Again, congratulations! But keep all of that hard-earned awesomeness to yourself for now. This first year, focus on leading with curiosity and care by asking great questions and crafting a ton of notes of appreciation. By doing so you will gather information and invest in relationships so that down the road, you will be beautifully equipped to work alongside your team to do life-changing work on behalf of children.