Leading When Times are Tough

I might be wrong but it seems to me that for educational leaders the very best month of the calendar year is September when a new school year full of promise begins.  This is closely followed by July which provides the only opportunity to recover from the rigors of the school year which has just concluded.  On the other hand, the most challenging month, especially in hard times, may well be March.  This is the time when superintendents must publicly announce the need for program and personnel reductions and when principals must deal with the fallout from such announcements.

Because educational leaders are caring people, these responsibilities are agonizing.  They question themselves and their decisions and they experience personal turmoil. They find themselves dreaming that they were in another line of work.  All of this is reinforced by others who indicate that they know that the leader is on the “hot seat” and say things like, “Boy, I am glad that I’m not you.”


It’s March again and I suspect, based on extensive personal experience, that you may be having some of these feelings.  If so, it’s important to talk to others who are having similar experiences since this is an inexpensive form of therapy and confirms that you are not alone and that all of this turmoil is not of your making.  Having done this, it is then time to recognize that your school community expects you to lead.  And so, since you are probably too busy doing (or reacting) at the moment to engage in much reflection, I thought I would share a few random thoughts on leadership.


Leaders are made in the “crucible” — Research has demonstrated that leadership matters most when and where it is needed most.  Obviously, now is the time for leadership, in every community.  And these times will make you a better leader. As Warren Bennis has said, “Leaders learn by doing, and they learn best by leading in the face of obstacles.  As weather shapes mountains, so problems make leaders.  The more experience and the more tests you survive, the more apt you are to be a good leader.”


Leaders are indispensable — “The chief object of leadership is the creation of a human community held together by the work bond for a common purpose”, said Peter Drucker.  Even though this is extremely challenging, no one absolves leaders of this responsibility just because times are hard.  Indeed, this is when leadership is needed most.


Leaders need to engage in “unlearning” — We live in extraordinary times and face unprecedented challenges.  In such an environment, conventional wisdom doesn’t apply.  If so, says Bennis, we must recognize that, “True learning must often be preceded by unlearning, because we are taught by our parents and teachers and friends how to get along, to measure up to their standards, rather than allowed to be ourselves.”


Leaders must be adaptive — Bennis again:  “The one competence I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders is adaptive capacity.  It is what allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change.”  Today’s leaders “….whose worlds are never still or quite in focus must depend on compasses rather than maps.”  They are “first class noticers” who can identify and seize opportunities.


Leaders listen to their “inner voice” — Emerson called this the “blessed impulse”, the hunch, the vision that shows you in a flash the absolutely right thing to do.  Everyone has these visions; leaders learn to trust them.  As someone once said, “When I have been most effective, I’ve followed that inner voice.”


Leaders build trust — You can’t lead unless others are willing follow and that requires trust.  Leaders who build trust demonstrate constancy.  They stay the course.  They show congruity and walk their talk.  They are reliable and are there when it counts.  Finally, they have integrity, honoring their commitments and promises.


Leaders enjoy the journey — The iconic television producer Norman Lear advised, “The goal isn’t worth arriving at unless you enjoy the journey.  You have to look at success incrementally.  It takes too long to get any major successes. If you can look at life as being successful on a moment to moment basis, one might find that most of it is successful.”


Leaders become themselves — The last word belongs to Warren Bennis.  “The point is not to become a leader.  The point is to become yourself completely—all your skills, gifts and energies.   You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be and enjoy the process of becoming.”


Lead on.

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