School & District Management Opinion

No Leader Is Always Right. Is That OK?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 05, 2017 5 min read
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As this Labor Day passes, educational leaders must remember that part of their work is to teach about leadership by being a living example in the community. Living that work is what produces results for children now. It also inspires all of us, improves our future, and develops the nation. That is why the leader’s work is so valuable and why leadership wisdom matters.

As schools begin in earnest, some are reminded of the things about their school leader(s) that are frustrating or even destructive. There are those among us who have chosen to leave for another school or district to avoid the consequences of working for a weak or duplicitous leader. Others, for a variety of reasons, remain, feeling trapped and cynical. They end up, intentionally or not, contributing to the lack of a positive environment for students. This doesn’t just happen in schools. It happens in all organizations.

Respecting the Leader and Respecting the Office

We are living through a national conundrum, not just about policy but about the values of a nation. Of course, the national leader is at the center of the dilemma but it has been brewing for long before him. And, those of us who are observers of societies and organizations know the pendulum may swing before it comes back to rest. Separating respect for an office and respect for the occupant of it is difficult. Here’s the contrast at a real basic level. One of us was standing in line at a sporting event recently when the national anthem began to play. Men removed their hats, some placed hands over their hearts, most were silent. The people behind us were not. When they asked what was happening and were told it was the national anthem, they responded by agreeing to continue talking saying they didn’t want to offer respect to the man in the office. For whatever it was worth, we offered a different opinion about respect for the nation but Americans can choose a response and, for that, we are especially grateful.

John McCain, war hero, senator, and now cancer patient, is speaking out about his observations in this regard as it plays out now in Washington. He wrote in the LATimes.com:

“Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct,” McCain wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

“We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people,” McCain went on.

Relationship Building, Equity, and Trust

At the school level, we expect students to understand this concept and show respect for the adults who are their teachers and leaders. We expect that even when it hasn’t been earned or even, if in our hearts, we know it isn’t deserved. That old adage of “Respect your elders” still permeates our thinking.

Faculty rooms and parking lots host Monday morning quarterbacking, where the actions and decisions of the leaders are critiqued. Leaders know this. They also know, hopefully, the culture of the school and the district they lead. They will know whether the power of culture and history is to complain about the leader and ready themselves for the turnover, disruption and the next person who believes they can change things or whether these are voices of sincerity, expressing valuable concern and good will rather than self-interest. This is among the first assessments a new leader must make and will make as much difference for students, we contend, as an understanding of test data. Without finding the latter group, the constant attention to relationship building, equity, and trust will diminish into disrespect behind closed doors.

Some leaders welcome those who have the courage to come with perception and feedback that can help inform the leader to better meet the needs of the organization. Others do not. Whether a student in a classroom or a teacher in a building or an administrator in a district, or a guardian of a child, those who are the recipients of decisions and actions have something to say. When and how and what is said is important.

Trust and leadership matter whether in business or education. Here, from Emil Sadloch at Rutgers Business School:

Leadership is first about integrity and honesty. It is important that the team leader model trusting behaviors that establish credibility and trust. Open communication, authentic concern for each person, fairness, respect, and inclusion go a long way in building trust, particularly for diverse individuals. Effective team leadership uses trust as a lever to lead teams to high performance.

Leadership Sincerity

Knowing this does not make it happen. Too many leaders see themselves as trustworthy and wonder why others don’t trust them. There are two groups of people we will lead. There are those who easily extend trust to a person in leadership and there are others who hold back and watch to see if the leader earns it. Because a leader has not walked in everyone’s shoes, it is not fair to question those who are more hesitant. It is also not wise to do so as that sentiment seeps out into words and actions that will reinforce everything the leader hopes to dispel. It takes focusing on one’s own integrity and honesty, modeling trusting behaviors, maintaining open communication with all and showing authentic concern for each person, regardless of where they are on the trust spectrum. We have few models of how to lead with respect for dissenting opinions these days. We have even fewer models of those who can listen well enough to hear what they, themselves, have overlooked. And, we have fewer, yet, who can say “I am sorry” or “I was wrong” or “Thank you for making me reconsider”. There is a place for all these words in leading where human beings lead. Wisdom does just happen. It is the result of a well-worn path with smooth patches and washouts. Leaders learn in both places and are made by the journey. Overtime, that’s what teachers and students and parents trust. It isn’t leadership perfection. It is leadership sincerity and knowledge demonstrated in words and actions, the strength to be right and to in process, also.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Ivelin Radkov courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.