3 Things That Show Strength, Not Weakness


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by phalinn

As a student, I had a specific notion of what a principal should be and in my head they were similar to the “Wizard of Oz”; a person that hid behind the curtain but had all of the knowledge in the world.  I would say that when I became a teacher, that notion carried over.  They would always have the answer and be the place where the “buck stops”.  Working closely with my last couple of principals though, I saw something much different that threw me off.  When I became a principal, I understood why.  Being in the middle area of both age and experience on my staff, yet being the “boss”, I knew that there were a lot of people that knew a lot better that I did  in specific areas and I would be foolish to not tap into their knowledge.

Many new to leadership might see that this mindset actually shows weakness but I believe the opposite.  Being “smart” now doesn’t necessarily mean “knowing the answer” as much as it means knowing where to get the answer.  This is not just a “Google” thing, but more of a trait that leaders need to have.  The best leaders tap into the people around them and depend upon their collective intelligence as opposed to the intelligence of one.  Stephen Johnson so eloquently discusses this:

“This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.” 

Johnson’s statement applies to both online and offline interactions.

So with that being said, here are a few things that I believe leaders should be able to say in the work that they do every day:

1.  Great leaders can say “I don’t know”. 

This element of leadership is as important in leading a school as it is for teaching students.  There are so many questions out there that it would be impossible to have all of the answers.  Leaders should be connectors and I know that I am comfortable with the answer, “I don’t know…but I can tell you a great person that could probably help you.”  To me, it is more important that the person gets the best information, not only the information that I know (which can be limited!).  I also see being able to say “I don’t know”, as an opportunity to bridge connections between different staff members.  I want our staff to value the expertise and learning of each other more than anything, and if I am glad to help facilitate these relationships, even if it is at the cost of looking like I do not know something.

It is more important to build relationships for me than it is to know all of the answers.  More need to see the opportunity presented when you are able to say, “I don’t know.”

2.  Great leaders ask for help.  

I have always been known to ask questions. Lots of questions.  My superintendents have always told me that they are always a phone call away and that if I need help, to just call. So I did (and still do).  The way I see it, I would rather do it right the first time and have asked as opposed to having to go back and fix a mess.

The thing is, I do not just ask for help from people that I report to, but to really anybody.  I have people that I go to often for guidance and assistance when I am not sure of something, or I know that they simply have more expertise than I do.  In return, they have also asked help from me.  My suggestion is that you should both be a mentor and have a mentor, but always understand that in either situation you can ask for help.  Risk taking is important, but I also believe in learning from others that have already done the work.

3.  Great leaders say “yes” when they are unsure.

I remember asking to have a blog in my classroom many years ago and I was told “no” because of the uncertainty of what this could bring.  Although I was the tech lead in the school, I was not trusted to try new “tech” things.  It didn’t seem to make much sense.

Dean Shareski shared this post a few months ago and it has clarified this process to me.  In the video, the story is shared that when someone asks to try something that their advisor is unsure of, the first reaction is basically no.  When he asks the next person their thoughts, his response is, “If you are asking me if it’s a good idea, I don’t have very much information, all I know is that one of my star faculty members is in my office and he is really excited, so tell me more.”  This is much different than simply saying “no” and is much more empowering.

What this takes me back to is the notion of the “speed of trust”.  If you are uncomfortable with something, you still have to allow the people that are willing to do the work to go out and try it.  I have seen this lack of trust kill innovation in schools, but I have also seen the opposite reaction promote it with great success.  It is not only saying “yes” when you are unsure, but also asking, “how can I help and support you?”  Saying “no” might come off firm, but it takes more strength to trust someone than it does to have none it all.  I try to embody this so that my educators will have the same mindset when working with their students.

It is strange to me that I sometimes hear that people believe that these three elements show that the leader lacks confidence, when I believe it shows something much different.  If a leader can say “I don’t know”, they are showing that they are comfortable with that, opposed to pretending they know something where they have clue, which has “insecurity” written all over it.  Not only do these factors show “strength” but they promote trust, and that is the foundation of any strong school culture.

11 thoughts on “3 Things That Show Strength, Not Weakness

  1. Mrs. Always Right

    Thank you for your article and I wholeheartedly agree. In the same breadth, I was recently deemed an under-performer for the same.

    Leaders are in fact the people who connect the write people and those who are supporting their people constantly.

  2. Holley Jacobs

    Your post was in my news feed on LinkedIn and I wanted to share it here as well. Thanks for the article. It was refreshing and enlightening to see people in a leadership role and at the same time, do not succumb to huge heads because of it.

    “I could not agree more. For me, this blog post seemed the practical and natural answer to me. Surely, everyone else can see his well-defined point. However, then I recall how I came about knowing for sure he is correct in his statements.
    In my previous profession as a nurse, there are certain traits that are forever embedded into your brain (assuming you take your education seriously).
    1. If you do not DOCUMENT it; then it did not happen.
    2. If you are in a leadership role and allow your pride to stand between you asking someone else’s opinion or saying “I don’t know’ and the patient’s needs…..then you risk contributing to that patient’s death. It may sound morbid but actually is quite the opposite. I knew which nurses were going to be there when I had to perform CPR on a patient and those who would hide because they allowed their pride to get in the way of asking for help.
    Still…..seems so very simple and logical to me”

    Thanks for sharing,

    ~ Holley Jacobs

    1. Lisa

      I agree wholeheartedly Holly. Huge heads and egos tend to obscure a leaders’ ability to remember that they should lead by example.

  3. Leslie Esneault (@leshhs1)

    I could not agree more! Not only is pefectly fine for Principals to ask for help when they don’t know an answer, it is also just fine for a teacher to do the same when asked a question by a student/parent. Students need to know that teachers are always learning too! :)
    Great post as always, George!!!

  4. Kimbery

    Thank you for your post this philosophy also carriers over in manufacturing when working with a group of people with various educations a person has to be able to connect the dots, this comes with searching and asking questions and understanding who can share their knowledge at any given time to resolve issues asthey come up.

  5. Marie-Therese Kilmartin

    very insightful article.. relevant for all principals as they promote a positive enviroment where everyone is always learning!!! including the principal!!!

  6. jcbjr9455

    Incredibly true – for administrators as you note. BUT, may I suggest it is true of learners at ALL levels: educators (with students and themselves), students (with other students and themselves) and lifelong learners (with themselves and other learners). I love your quote: “Being “smart” now doesn’t necessarily mean “knowing the answer” as much as it means knowing where to get the answer.” I’ll add that what “being smart” means to me is knowing how to evaluate information for USEFULNESS and being able to use that information to address a situation when useful. Making mistakes or missteps is not negative as long as one learns from them. What is completely negative is not having the confidence and trust to take risks.

  7. Theresa Meikle

    After many years in education and very few, comparatively, in formal leadership, I find your post refreshing. I have always respected and valued honesty; this post illustrates a willingness to learn, share, grow and facilitate the same for others. To me, these are key principles of leadership.

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