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3 Leadership Instincts that could Fail You

Many people are reeling right now. And when I say, "reeling" what I really mean is struggling, crying, and trying to persevere through the ever-changing rules of a pandemic. Supporting teachers, students, and our school community has never been more challenging...or important.

During times of uncertainty and crisis, leaders often rely on their instincts. Typically, the traits and tendencies we've been intentional in developing are helpful. However, there are a few leadership instincts that could fail you if you're not careful. Worse yet, the three instincts below could potentially do harm to the people you're wanting to serve.

1. The instinct to motivate, encourage, and project a positive attitude.

When morale is low or people are hurting, our leadership instincts might tell us we need to help. The danger lies in projecting positivity without a meaningful acknowledgment of the pain another person is experiencing. And by "meaningful acknowledgment," I mean meaningful to the other person. (Sometimes this involves listening, but it could also involve intentional actions to try and disrupt the things the other person has identified as threats to their own wellness.)

I am a pretty positive person overall, so this new learning has been difficult for me. I just want to caution leaders who might naturally gravitate to proclaiming, "We got this" or "We're all in it together" without wading into an honest dialogue about the challenges and needs of the people closest to the work. Brenda Alvarez wrote a great piece on this in NEA Today if you're interested in learning more.

2. The instinct to standardize all practices.

The number of decisions school leaders make on any given day is staggering. This can lead to decision fatigue after a long day. (If you've ever struggled to answer a very basic question after work, you know what I mean.) One of the ways our brains cope with all of the complexity we encounter is to create efficiencies and shortcuts (also known as going into autopilot mode). This is usually a good thing...but there's a catch.

Some of the solutions needed during challenging times require more personalization than consistency. More TLC than efficiency. This is an affront to our instinct to be fair, equal, or create solutions that always scale.

For example, our team recently decided all K-5 students would leave their iPads at school once we returned to a face-to-face learning model. After returning to school, it didn't take long for us to receive feedback that some kiddos had come to rely upon their school-issued devices for learning and enrichment at home. Our initial instinct to make a unilateral decision impacted some families drastically different than others.

I suggest trying to build responsiveness or options to personalize practice/decisions into the standardized systems you're creating. Seeking perspective before, during, and after decisions are made is one way to do this, but if you're interested in learning more, I wrote about this extensively in chapter six of my latest book, Reclaiming Our Calling.

3. The instinct to do it alone.

Just when we have a new learning model or decision figured out, it seems like the rules and safety recommendations change. And all of this "pivoting" takes time to think through. Which can feel overwhelming...for everyone. And when the people around us are overwhelmed, we may be tempted to try and create solutions on our own. Partly because we want to try to save others some work, but also because there's simply not enough time to pull people together to talk through every decision in front of us.

Whenever possible, try to tap into the voices and experiences of other stakeholders. Recently, our school was working on a plan to help students who may need to quarantine in the future due to being a close-contact of somebody with COVID-19. I can say without reservation that every single idea presented by teams and teachers was more meaningful than the original ideas I brought into meetings. Suffice it to say, there is no substitute for teacher voice.

If this blog post resonated, you might like my newest book, Reclaiming Our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The book tackles a tension many educators are feeling using a combination of stories and practical strategies. If you’re interested in technology integration, Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students is a best-seller with Corwin Press. Both books are built on the belief that everything we do in education starts with relationships and connectedness.




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