Don’t let your teaching strengths become leadership liabilities


leadership signThis week, I had some wonderful conversations with colleagues about leadership, and the skills needed to be successful in it.  Whether you’re a formal leader in charge of a school or a division, or a teacher leader working with colleagues to deepen practice, each of us needs to work on a set of attributes which will allow our leadership to have a positive effect.

One thing I’ve come to understand recently, as I reflect back on this year, is that the skills and strategies that made me an effective teacher can actually be liabilities as an administrator.  To really embrace your principal role, you need to let go of your greatest assets as an educator and work on a new skill set.  As with all change, it’s frightening to face.  Nothing new is ever as good as the old thing was, or so it seems at first.

So why is that true? It’s pretty counter-intuitive to think effective teachers can’t just step into formal leadership roles and continue what they were doing.  There are at least 4  teaching skills you need to let go of to become an effective leader (please add others in the comments section below):

1. Problem Solving;  Effective classroom teachers solve problems quickly, effectively and often by themselves.  At the end of a difficult day, you diagnose a problem (they were too chatty today, not much got done), devise a solution (separate that group of friends who initiated the chatting and got everyone off task) and implement it (move the desks around and build lessons which reduce the chance of chatter).  When the students arrive the next day, desks are rearranged and the class is structured differently in response to the teacher’s diagnosis. Problem solved, at least until the next one comes along.

Formal leaders can solve a few problems this way, but if it is your primary approach you will develop a reputation, and people will step back and let you do the work.  Teachers who step into leadership roles therefore have to let go of this skill and embrace a new one.  Which is a challenge, as it’s part of their nature to solve problems in this way.  But, should they continue doing it, they’ll find themselves alone doing all the heavy pulling after too long.

2. Questions, not Answers; Effective leaders understand what Liz Wiseman has said so well; A leaders greatest value comes not from having the answers, but from having the right questions.  Again, this is a skill that must be honed, and which requires a letting go.  Think of it; our teacher leaders are the ones who speak up at staff meetings, they have thoughtful solutions to problems, they can connect the dots creatively and facilitate new learnings for everyone.  That’s their strength.  But when they transition into formal leadership roles, it becomes a liability.  Followers aren’t interested in listening to your brilliant solutions, to you answering your own questions.  They want to find their own.  If you share your answer to a problem, it disempowers your staff and they don’t feel there’s a place for them in the process.  So again, you need to let go of your strength, the thing which got you where you are.

3. Co-creation; Teaching often happens in silos. There aren’t many opportunities for adults to work in teams to build understanding.  (Thankfully this is improving.  The movement toward PLCs and collaborative structures is a very positive development in our profession).   Therefore, teachers don’t always learn the value of co-created understandings, and how to facilitate this process.  They may have been a participant in a process whereby a group did this, but that’s a far cry from actually leading it and stepping back so others can do it.  Again, I’d argue it’s against the nature of a teacher to do this, as what made us effective in the silo won’t help here.

4. Develop Common Knowledge;  At our last BCPVPA Pro-D session, Gaila Erickson shared her view of how change is created.  From her perspective, there are 6 steps:

1. Identify the problem or challenge

2. Develop common knowledge or understanding

3. Set goals

4. Work together

5. Early Rewards

6. Re-assess

She had us pay particular attention to step 2, which is often skipped but very important to ensure buy-in.  Everyone needs to have the chance to share their ideas, prior knowledge, stories, and reflections about the problem.  If they can’t be part of the contextualizing and find a place for themselves in the issue, they won’t become engaged with finding solutions and working toward them.  Working with our staffs, again this is something which doesn’t always come natural to leaders who’ve worked up from the teaching ranks.  Collective wisdom isn’t needed to run a silo.

I’ll leave off this post with a quote from Seth Godin, whose book Tribes was the inspiration for some of these ideas when I read it some months ago. From his perspective, great leaders create movements by empowering the tribe to communicate.  When you move to formal leadership, that’s your new job, and you can’t forget it.

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About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
This entry was posted in Administration, community, Education, Leadership and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Don’t let your teaching strengths become leadership liabilities

  1. Great thoughts, Ron! I am moving to a new school after being a principal for three years. I recognized myself throughout your post. I am determined to learn from my experiences and keep on improving my ability to build leadership in others rather than taking it.

    • Ron Sherman says:

      Thanks for your reply. It is all about learning, and we are all learners. Take the lesson and move on, commit to being better. That’s all we can ask for. All the best.

  2. eadurkin says:

    Hi Ron

    This was a great post for me to read. I am currently head of the Mathematics department at an international school in Kobe, Japan. Starting in August, though, I am going to be the Associate Principal for grades 6-12. Your thoughts here really hit home for me, so thanks.

    Liz Durkin

  3. gsmcmahon says:

    Thanks for the great post. I have been thinking a lot about what makes an effective leader as well as the difference between school leader and administrator. This post has given me some more to reflect on.

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