School Leaders Cannot Go It Alone

It is a cliche whose time has come and gone. The lone Captain, staring out over the horizon, making all decisions that determine the fate of his or her crew. Their successes, their failures, all weighing on the shoulders of the solitary leader. The pressure of constantly worrying about the welfare of their charges. Sounds great…sign me up.

On second thought, I have a better idea. It’s called collaboration. In this day of complicated school leadership, it is in the best interests of all involved if the decisions are a group effort, not the responsibilities of one single individual. But how can you accomplish this task of shared decision making? I have been in school administration for over 15 years. Here are a few ideas that I have learned (or stolen from colleagues) over the years:

Create a Leadership Team

This is not rocket science, and most of you probably have done this already. But how do you utilize your Leadership Team? Let me put it another way. Is it a group of people that meet occasionally to hear you tell them what the plan is? Or are they a group that actually comes together and DEVELOPS the plan? If it is the former, you are wasting valuable time. A Leadership Team should work together to bring a variety of views, ideas and suggestions to the table for everyone to hear. Done right, the team will discuss, debate and ultimately reach a consensus on how to move forward. With my Team, I bring problems, ask questions and ask them to gather feedback from their departments and teams. Then I listen to their feedback and input. Now, make no mistake, there are situations where I, as the Principal, have to make a call. But no one can come back to me and say that there was no input or discussion. And the best part is that my team sends the message that their was deep discussion and all viewpoints were brought to the table.

Ask for Different Opinions

We all know that our staffs are comprised of a diverse group of individuals. If we are smart, we know that there are certain members of the group that will tell you what you want to hear and certain members that will complain no matter the decision. Both of these groups are valuable for various reasons. But there is also a group in the middle. These members are quiet and do their jobs very well with no (or minimal) complaints. As the leader, you need to be aware of each of these groups. More importantly, you need to know how to utilize each of these groups to make decisions that are well thought out. For me, there are times where I will seek out people that I know will be honest with me. I ask them their opinion of what I am contemplating, and I listen to their responses. I am not saying I always take their advice, but I listen to their reasoning. Different perspectives can reinforce your thoughts, or provide you with more food for thought.

Have a Sounding Board

Every school I have been an administrate at, I have found one person who I could trust to tell me the truth. These people were my “sounding boards”. I knew that they would answer any question I asked honestly and openly. If I had screwed something up, they would tell me. Likewise, they would tell me when I was doing the right thing and need to stick to my decision.

Always Explain Your Reasoning

I tell my Faculty all the time that I have become much more comfortable with the 52 to 40 percent decisions. I don’t see too many situations where there is a huge majority leaning one way or the other. The decisions where there is no clear answer are the most difficult for leaders. But the key is to be able to articulate, honestly and openly, why you chose one avenue over the other. Whether they agree with your decision or not, you must be prepared to explain your rationale. The scone part to this is that you also have to be able to admit when you are strong and take the appropriate steps to correct the situation.

Schedule Regular Meetings with Specific Groups 

In our middle school, we have three teams at each grade level. Each team has six teachers. Twice a year, I schedule a meeting during their team time. The purpose of the meeting is simple. I sit, they talk, I listen and take notes. I answer questions where appropriate and explain things when asked. But the thought that I will just listen is critically important in creating a culture where peoples opinions are valued.

The bottom line is that you, as the captain, need to make sure that you are empowering your crew to help steer the ship. Ahoy, Captain! Full speed ahead!

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About drellena

Principal of Tomahawk Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County, Virginia. President of the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals.
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