In an era when leader and teacher turnover has been increasing since the start of the pandemic, the importance of effective leadership has never been more evident. Many district and school leaders have been inundated with compounding responsibilities that have made it ever more challenging to best serve their schools. By anticipating and planning for common pitfalls in leadership, administrators will be empowered to overcome challenges and cultivate innovative solutions.
I have observed, coached, and guided hundreds of education leaders to improve their leadership skills to better support their schools for years, and the facts are resoundingly clear: Leadership pitfalls are not mere stumbling blocks but dangers that can derail teams from creating stability and long-term success for their school communities.
Here are eight traps school and district leaders must avoid that, if not navigated skillfully, can jeopardize their goals.
- Don’t lead without a blueprint. A common leadership pitfall is telling your team what to do but not how to do it. Not establishing concrete, detailed, actionable steps often results in outcomes that miss the mark. Ensure that you’ve set up the “how” so that your team meets your vision for execution.
- Don’t take on too much at once. If you have more than three big priorities, you have too many, and they will likely pull you and your team in multiple directions. At best, this can lead to mediocre results and, at worst, a complete derailment of your school’s or district’s goals. Resist the allure of constant diversion. Concentrate on the highest leverage strategies (again, three, but no more) and ensure everything is connected to these priorities. Doing so will help you stay focused instead of getting distracted by the latest initiatives.
- Don’t try to be a superhero. Do you try to take on everything or are you empowering others? Trying to do it all in lieu of delegating and trusting others to do the work leads to lackluster results and eventual burnout. Instead, ask for feedback from your team, build the capacity of others, identify the best individuals for each task, and have faith in your team. It’s imperative to take advantage of the talent on your team and to also be vigilant of staff members who are interested in joining the team.
- Don’t neglect developing your leaders. Brief check-in meetings with members of your team are simply not enough. You must actively develop and coach your leadership team, emerging leaders, and direct reports to achieve success in your schools. Intentionally develop their skill set by regularly analyzing and referencing artifacts, conducting observations of their work, and reviewing data related to their performance. Everyone is different, so regularly ask members of your team for feedback on how to best develop their skills. Leverage your teams’ gifts and talents by providing time for collaboration and peer feedback.
Don’t forgo creating a healthy school culture. Almost all school and district leaders—whether they are superintendents, principals, or assistant principals—have goals and priority areas, but your strategic approach won’t matter much if it doesn’t exist within a strong organizational culture. Planning around your school/district community’s values, beliefs, and behaviors is paramount. Make sure to display symbolic leadership, which models the behavior and expectations you wish to see in others, to create the foundation for a strong, healthy culture.
New administrators can start by making a list of the core values and aligned behaviors you want to see in your community, then brainstorm one to two ways you will make these values come to life with input from your team. Revisit these values and behaviors often and create plans and rituals to celebrate those who demonstrate your community’s values.
- Don’t forget to manage your calendar. Are you managing your time, or is time managing you? The latter is a recipe for failure. Use effective time management and an accurate and strategic calendar to cancel out the noise and focus on what’s important throughout the day.
- Pro tip #1: Set calendar expectations for you and your team and schedule periodic calendar reviews to ensure success.
- Pro tip #2: Ensure alignment between how you spend your time and your priorities and monitor progress toward your goals by regularly reviewing data on where and how to spend your time.
- Don’t forget to clock out. Lacking self-care and working around the clock creates an illusion of success. It also creates burnout, mental and physical health issues, and sets a bad example for your team. The success you achieve from this approach is temporary, limited, and unsustainable. Instead, focus and limit your priorities and create boundaries for yourself and your team.
- Don’t use hope as a strategy. The notion that “inputs” equal “outcomes” is an illusion. Just because you lead professional development on academic monitoring doesn’t mean it is happening consistently and effectively in all classrooms or schools. Instead of leveraging hope as a strategy, inspect what you expect. Support your team with effective implementation, leveraging observation and real-time feedback to ensure success.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the latest technologies or initiatives while also handling day-to-day workloads and major crises. Keeping with the fundamentals of effective leadership is critical. But doing so requires discipline and steady focus alongside innovative approaches.
Now more than ever, school and district leaders must proactively address the aforementioned traps and lead with foresight, resilience, and strategic vision to help build a stronger, healthier school community and district that your staff and students will thrive in.