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.