Leaders Must Earn Their Stripes Every Day
As a former Air Force squadron commander and Vice Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Academy, believe me, I had already been through a lifetime's worth of leadership training when I moved into the civilian sector as a K–12 school superintendent in 2002. Looking back, however, I must admit that the most challenging leadership issues I have ever faced easily occurred in the last decade.
In the military, discipline and the chain of command are understood from day one, period. If there is to be any loosening of the reins, it can only be initiated from the top. By comparison, managing or leading educators—especially when some personnel may be tenured—requires a much more collaborative style. I liked this change, but in the K–12 community it takes 3–4 times as long to reach consensus than the old top-down military style. In the end, collaboration results in a much better path forward and more buy-in from the heart.
Even so, my blended experience has taught me that leadership success in both arenas is largely dependent on the same qualities: engagement, accessibility, empathy, and fairness. To lead, one has to be engaged and available. If a superintendent or principal is rarely in her district or building, or generally behind closed doors, it's tough for team members and parents to engage. Today's parents and school staff members expect to be heard.
But just being available to meet with parents, teachers, and students is not enough. When I was a superintendent, I remember fielding complaints from several parents about a principal whom they claimed was aloof and disinterested in their concerns. Once I determined that there truly was a problem, I met with the principal one-on-one and engaged him in a role-playing exercise. I played the part of an upset parent and coached him to employ the three "Es" of echo, empathize, and eye contact. After I told him my concern, he would then have to look me in the eyes and rephrase what I had just said. At that point, I would then raise the stakes and add emotion to my voice. In response, the principal would have to match my intensity with an even greater level of calm, reassurance, and attention. To defuse the situation and put it back on track to resolution, he would have to verbalize back to me how he understood why I was upset, remind me that I had every right to be, but then reassure me that he truly shared my desire to solve the problem as quickly and as fairly as possible.
Then, of course, the principal had to follow through on his promises.
In my experience, leaders have to be just as accessible and honest with their staff as they are with parents and their students. When I was a squadron commander, I would routinely gather my fighter pilots for a Friday evening happy hour to share stories and experiences from the week, focused primarily on what mistakes or challenges we may have encountered individually, but from which the group could benefit. To get the ball rolling, I would always buy the first round and then reveal how a dumb decision of mine that week had now made me a smarter pilot. It never failed to spark deep and long discussions.
Now, I'm not saying that teachers should carouse together after hours in large groups every week. But a casual staff pizza party every now and then, with a similar story-swapping component, could yield lasting benefits and build trust with your faculty. And believe me, if you don't think teachers would want to admit to any mistakes, then you have never been around a group of pilots. If a collection of egos that great can admit mistakes and learn from each other, then believe me, anyone can.