March 8, 2017
How often do we sit comfortably from our perch, with 20/20 hindsight at our disposal, and question decisions made by leaders? The questions we ask, while often valid, typically include some level of indignation —
“Why would he do this?”
“Who knew this was coming?”
“What was she thinking?”
I, like many others, have been guilty of this line of questioning. However, the question we rarely ask, but is just as important, is, “How can I better understand the context or basis for this decision?” In essence, as the observer or stakeholder, am I willing to go to the source of the decision — the leader — to investigate further? Do I reach out to seek understanding, to express how the message was received or to assist in influencing the next decision with a new perspective?
In schools, principals are often both the victims and perpetrators of second-guessing. As leaders of their schools, they are tasked with making dozens of crucial decisions each day and examine dozens of decisions made by their staff. Because these decisions can impact student achievement, the scrutiny is high, and rightfully so. This often leads to passive armchair analysis, and sometimes aggressive public scrutiny, instead of constructive feedback toward the shared goal.
Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive and Harvard Business School lecturer who founded The Center for Applied Ethics, challenges us in his book, Servant Leadership, to move beyond second-guessing and the wisdom of hindsight. He suggests we replace this with a robust “movement” toward serving others. When we look through the lens of service, we see beyond our own wants and needs to the common goals of the community. We appreciate the context of the issues and the assorted ways to solve problems and promote common goals. By advising the leader, offering honest feedback and painting a picture of what the impact of a possible decision is or could be, stakeholders help ensure the leader is well-informed and well-equipped to make the most appropriate and beneficial decisions.
This is not a one-way dialogue. Leaders must create and cultivate an environment of openness and trust; identify, attract and support stakeholders when they offer constructive feedback; and be clear about the purpose and outcomes in describing decisions. The leader’s willingness to listen without judgment, to seek clarity without defensiveness, and to convey consideration without condescendence will contribute significantly to the level of openness and trust within the environment. Decisions made in such an environment are more likely to result in acceptance and less likely to be questioned and rejected.
There are certainly parallels to Greenleaf’s concept of the servant leader in the relationship that exists between schools and their communities. Principals and parents often find themselves in either productive or polarizing relationships, based on the effectiveness of communication. I have seen one school come together in the wake of a serious incident while another school has cultivated conflict for the same incident. The only difference between the schools: communication.
Two-way communication is critical and must be paved with something stronger than just good intentions. It is trust that cements these relationships. Trust is built through two simple actions that must be owned by the principal and the school community:
- The principal communicates and solicits support for an open and trusting learning environment for all students, parents and staff.
- Students, parents and staff seek to understand decisions through clarifying questions before delivering criticism.
When leaders and stakeholders commit to working together, they can successfully navigate complex issues of the day.
—James P. Koutsos, President of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals
This article originally appeared on Medium.