When I leave my current school to move to Florida, I will also be leaving my leadership role and starting over at a new school. This is both a great disappointment and a little bit of a relief, as one might imagine. As I look back on that time, I realize that I have come a long way as a leader, and I’m still pretty new at it.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past two years:
1. Have a “Red Team.”
In a journalism environment (and I think in the CIA too?), a red team is the group of people you call on to check your facts. The people who intentionally poke holes in your idea / story / theory / whatever. Oftentimes it seemed like I had a GREAT idea, only to look dumb later when something I didn’t foresee went wrong. If you just ask people what they think of your idea, they are likely to say that they like it because they don’t want you to be disappointed. If you ask them to purposefully point out anything that could go wrong, you’re more likely to get a true picture of the idea’s faults. Once you’ve established your red team and they understand their role, you’ll always have that “devil’s advocate” function at play in your decision making.
2. Don’t act surprised.
Occasionally, someone lets slip a privileged piece of information in front of me, and when that happens, I never act surprised. I just nod and act like I knew it all along, and usually the person then tells me a little more. Most of the time it’s not something that affects me, and I don’t tell anyone else anyway, but it still has the benefit of people thinking you are very “in the know”, whether you actually are or not. If you act surprised, the person realizes you weren’t supposed to know and clams up and it gets all awkward.
3. There’s no crying in leadership.
I know some of you are going to disagree with me on this, and that is okay. But here’s the thing: when you cry, you look weak. Especially if you’re female. Sorry. Sorry! I didn’t make the rules! But once people see you cry, they are afraid to tell you things because … well, you might cry. If you do have to cry (and we all do), take a little drive in your car and get some Starbucks. For example.
4. Learn how to apologize.
Sometimes you will be wrong, and if you try to hide your errors, you will just look like an idiot. In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch says that a good apology has three parts: say you’re sorry, say that it was your fault, and say what you will do to make it right or do better the next time. Even when I don’t think I’m totally at fault, I try to use this method to apologize, and in thinking through the parts, I often find that I was at fault, at least in part. When others are ready to attack you, sincerely apologizing can be very disarming.
5. Learn how to say thank you.
Saying ‘thank you’ is always appreciated (and usually expected). But a really good thank you can go a long way. A really good thank you takes time. Write it out in a card or email, and be as specific as possible. Instead of “thank you for helping with the test today!”, say exactly what was helpful: “Thank you for helping proctor the test! I knew that you would show up on time, and I could tell that you read the instructions, which meant I didn’t have to worry about going over them again. You are always really sweet to the kids. I appreciate the time you took to help out today!” A thank you counts way more when you take the time to say it individually and in detail.
6. Proofread your emails.
Does a typo in your email mean you’re dumb? Of course not. BUT, if you have a typo in your email, people will still think you’re dumb. Again, I didn’t make the rules, but that’s one of ’em. The same way you check your reflection in the mirror after eating broccoli, you should check your email to make sure there are no glaring errors. It takes longer, but if you don’t do it, those errors away at others’ perceptions of you. (Especially if you’re an English teacher…)
7. Face people and look at them when they are talking to you.
Duh, right? Except it’s so tempting to be stapling papers, or glancing at your computer, or walking around to clean up a bit. I used to think, “What’s the big deal? I can listen and multitask!’ And I can! However, me listening to the person is only half of the equation. The person also has to feel listened to, and that’s hard when it looks like I’m not listening. I try to make a point of moving away from my desk, sitting down facing the person, and looking at the person talking.
8. Do what you say you will do.
Choose a few things that are non-negotiables for you from the very beginning, the things you’d like to be remembered for. When I started, I thought about both good leaders and poor leaders I had had. My non-negotiables are “do what’s best for kids” (since I’m a teacher), “be transparent and listen”, and “don’t ask people to do something you wouldn’t / haven’t done.” I have them in the form of quotes all over my walls, and I think about them whenever I make a decision. I also try to talk about them when I can, so that people understand why I’m making a decision or acting in a certain way. There’s a lot of gray area in leadership, and when you have a few maxims you can cling to, it’s easier to find your footing and maintain your integrity.
9. Drink the Kool-Aid.
I never thought I would say this, but alas, it’s true. When you take on a leadership role, your social circle will be different. It is, sadly, unavoidable. I will never forget the first faculty meeting after I became department chair. I set my keys down to save my place at the “cool table”, told my friends where I was sitting, and got in the food line, which is my general M.O. at faculty meetings. When I came back, my friends were all sitting at a different table, and two administrators were sitting at my table instead. I had “crossed over,” whether I wanted to or not. Even if others refuse to be on board with the direction of your organization, you had better get on board and act like it, even if people see you differently. You’re not going to get anywhere if people think you don’t care. (And if the direction of your organization does not jive with your beliefs, you should probably find a new organization.)
10. Make decisions ssslllooowwwlllyyyy.
Even when I think I know what my decision will be, I try to sleep on it and run it by my red team anyway. If it needs a quick response, I try to say something like “I saw your email, and I want to think about it a little more. I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” It probably frustrates others a little when it takes me awhile, but I am much more confident in my decisions when the time comes.
So there ya have it: my sage advice! I readily admit that I still have a lot to learn, but I hope these ten tips help others taking on a leadership role. If you have other ideas to add, feel free to share in the comments! :)
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