Becoming a unifying leader requires a deep knowledge of your community and a willingness to be a collaborator. Your success in this endeavor lies, in part, in your ability to listen thoughtfully to your community members in order to learn about their needs and refine the lens through which you view your school.
Most of us go through our lives engaging in conversation with friends, family members, and co-workers believing we possess above-average listening skills. We know not to talk when others are speaking, we repeat back what the speaker has said, and we use facial expressions and verbal sounds to show we’re paying attention.
But being an effective leader is more than that. It requires more than subscribing to a predetermined template of behavior. To unify your community, becoming a good listener will not be enough. To become a leader that people believe in and want to stand behind, you’ll need to become an outstanding listener.
Listen More Than You Talk
Researchers Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman of the leadership development group Zenger Folkman identified four qualities that mark an outstanding listener.
Four Qualities that Mark Outstanding Listeners
- They ask questions that foster discovery and insight
- They build the speaker’s self-esteem
- They provide feedback that results in a shared dialogue
- They make suggestions that help the speaker broaden their argument.
Zenger and Folkman put it plainly: “(A good listener is) someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”
Essentially, an outstanding listener listens actively and with empathy.
Applying empathy to your interactions may help you to become an outstanding listener, too. According to the Greater Goods Science Center at UC Berkeley, “empathy is the ability to detect other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” These researchers contend that empathetic people are typically more generous and concerned with the well-being of others, and that empathetic people tend to have greater personal regard, and are happier and more content with their own lives.
Creating an Inclusive School Climate
Another part of being an ethical leader is ensuring the emotional health and well-being of the people under your roof. In his book Student Voice, Russell Quaglia asserts that “schools are like fingerprints – no two are alike. And so it is with leadership in schools; you must tailor your skills and adapt your knowledge to best meet the needs of your school.”
But how do you determine the needs and wants of your staff? In addition to having an open-door policy, make it a priority to visit teachers and staff members on their turf. Offer to meet in their classrooms or in other common areas and be prepared to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions. When approached authentically, these conversations can help you to understand your staff’s needs, see the school from their perspectives, and learn what is most important to each individual. Handled correctly, these engagements will make your team feel valued and included: two critical elements of motivation and personal fulfillment.
Above all, be authentic. To make a difference in the lives of students, we must be willing to bring our whole selves to our school communities. This means being humble, authentic, and recognizing that we’re all vulnerable human beings. We are imperfect but doing the best we can. Accepting your imperfections with grace, and honoring the strengths of your team members, is part of being an effective leader. It will allow you to facilitate change by utilizing the strengths of the entire community.Authenticity and a respect for the contributions of others are the differentiators that can help your community see you as a strong and approachable leader instead of a rigid or “clueless” boss.
From an evolutionary standpoint, people prioritize warmth over competence because it is crucial to survival. So, instead of speculating about other people’s perspectives, ask for their input. When you regularly engage your staff in purposeful discussions that are relevant to the school’s mission, you are building ownership and deepening trust.
Once you’ve developed stronger bonds with your team, it’s time to help them bond with each other. Leadership is a team sport where each member has an important contribution to make, so developing systems of teaching and learning is not something the principal should approach alone. Insightful principals understand how to engage people in meaningful dialogue that fosters inclusive participation in curricular decisions, activities, functions, and school governance.
Leadership guru John Maxwell asserts, “If it’s lonely at the top, you’re not doing something right.” In most cases, the urgent decisions the principal might make without input are related to safety and privacy. In all other cases, it’s critical for leaders to engage other stakeholders in discussions.
So how can you build a culture of collaborative leadership in your school?
Listening generously and taking information in from all sources is crucial to developing an organic and collaborative leadership framework. Leading together does not mean manipulating people into agreeing with the predetermined goals you may have already identified. Lee Alvoid and Watt Lesley Black Jr. suggest that staff are empowered to make decisions that are responsive to the community’s needs when you have created the conditions that unify stakeholders around a central vision. In other words, collaborative leadership is actualized when the principal and staff coordinate and take action steps toward a shared goal together.
Without the conditions that spark productive discussion and engagement, people may feel silenced or have the impression that the school climate is repressive. When teachers and staff feel muzzled, they may feel less valued and be afraid to speak up. Their participation in school programs may become halfhearted, and the engaging classroom environments they previously provided for students may suffer.
These are the signals to watch out for:
To move our schools forward, leaders must be willing to listen, meet people where they are, and compromise. Watching for impediments to effective conversation, and actively fighting them, enhances your ability to be more compassionate and empathetic toward others. It also helps your staff members buy in to the total school experience and begin to function as an interdependent team.