Lessons in Leadership: Be Strong and Vulnerable at the Same Time
Over the last 40 years, I have been working directly with instructional leaders -- principals, instructional coaches, and the central office personnel who supervise principals -- on their roles in improving classroom teaching and learning. This has brought me into over 6,000 classrooms K-12 in about 1000 schools from Alaska to Maine. When I form continuing relationships with districts, I get to know the leaders there pretty well. Looking back over all this experience, there is one lesson about leadership that has emerged above all the others: the greatest leaders are vulnerable and strong at the same time. And they use those qualities to mobilize irresistible collective action.
Vulnerable does not mean weak; and strong does not mean loud or even charismatic. As Jim Collins found in Good to Great, leaders of many different personality types can be extraordinary. You can’t tell in the first meeting, or by the feel of the handshake, or the level of knowledge they display in their talk, who will turn out to be one of these great educational leaders. You can only tell when you see them in action in a variety of settings.
“Vulnerable” means they don’t pretend to know all the answers. They are open about what they don’t know and clear that they need to mobilize collective action because they can’t do it alone. They are willing to be seen as learners; in fact, they plunge in with faculty members in learning new strategies and programs. They try out with students whatever they expect the faculty to try. They share both successes and struggles openly with other staff members. Their learning stance and vulnerability make it safe for others to risk, learn, and struggle. They admit their mistakes, and they acknowledge when they are not sure what to do. But they do know which goals need to be met, and they are up-front and persistent about working on these most important goals no matter what. That is the “strong” part.
“Strong” means the leaders have core values and goals that drive all their behavior. They are public and persistent about these goals. Quietly or loudly, and usually with compelling data, they continually put the work in front of staff members and raise a sense of urgency.
Sue Szachowicz was such a leader. When Brockton High School went from dismal student test scores and graduation rates to national awards and a front-page story in the New York Times, analysts gave all kinds of reasons. This was a school, after all, of 4,300 students that didn’t break itself up according to the “small high school movement.” It was 77% students of color and 81% FARMS. The city of Brockton is as urban as you can find with all the problems of poverty and crime that urban America has. So why the great results?
Analysts said: “They focused so intently on data.” “They adopted a laser like focus faculty-wide on literacy skills, no matter what academic discipline you taught.” “They practiced distributed leadership with intense teacher participation.” “They did professional development from within.”
These statements are true; but they are not the basic reason for their success. Other turn-around stories have quite different lists. Their success was due to a particular kind of leadership. Sue was vulnerable and strong at the same time, she elevated others who were the same, and together they mobilized irresistible collective action.
They started small. At a faculty meeting of 300 staff members twelve years ago when the faculty was first presented with systematic data about how poorly their students were doing, a teacher said: “But what about the students’ right to fail?” Sue, who was the associate principal and not presenting at the time, rose and took the mike. “You know, I just have to respond to that. NO THEY DON’T. They have no such right. I was a social studies teacher and I never saw that in any constitution I know of. They do not have a right to fail!”
In subsequent days, she single-handedly embarked on a campaign to focus on one very accessible and public aspect of low-performance – students tuning out with their heads down in class. “We weren’t very sophisticated at the time” she says, but it was the start of everything. When you listen to her tell the story, look for evidence of “vulnerable and strong at the same time.” (Read the Brockton High Turnaround Story)
Anyone reading more detailed accounts of the Phoenix-like rise of the Brockton High School and hearing about the literacy initiative and the “Restructuring Team” of eventually 25 teachers who met on Saturdays and made decisions for the whole school every year should look between the lines for leadership moves that came from being “vulnerable and strong at the same time.”
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