PMP:124 Six Tips for Investing in Future Leaders

When I was a Language Arts teacher, I would walk my students through a series of practices on identifying their surroundings and writing down the details.

Photo by Diver, Wikipediawan, Creative Commons – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

You could try it right now. Take a moment and pause to consider the following:

What are you seeing? Look up, down, around, and behind you. Are you seeing the glare of sunlight from a nearby window? Or maybe it’s the stained surface of a tabletop. Could it be a yellow painted wall holding a framed photo?

What are hearing? Stop and simply listen. Maybe you hear the buzz of a heating or air system from nearby vents. Or do you recognize the distant hum of passing traffic?

What do you smell? Are you surrounded by the scent of brewed coffee or mix of aromas coming from a busy kitchen? Or maybe you smell the mustiness of old books.

What are you touching? Your body is full of nerves. Can you feel the fabric of the shirt you’re wearing resting on your shoulders? Or how about the press of your shoes against your toes? Are you holding the smooth ridges of a pen in hand?

What are you tasting? Maybe it’s the sweetness of gum or the caramel flavorings of your favorite soda? Or it could be the aftertaste of your most recent snack.

What are sensing emotionally? Are you anxious, excited, worried? Do you have a sense of confidence or angst for the day ahead? Or maybe you’re tired from a short night of sleep, or hungry for your next meal?

It is easy to step into your day with a list of to-do’s and fail to see what is right around you or even what is happening inside your own brain. Sometimes it takes real effort to pause and reflect on your surroundings. But being mindful is important, not just in writing, but in leadership.

Defining Leadership

Leadership is an interesting and popular word. It is used in a lot of inspirational quotes, as titles for books, in website descriptions, and conference themes. But leadership is much more than a word. Leadership is influence. It means helping others to achieve more. It is taking someone from one location to another, or motivating another to do what she otherwise would not accomplish on her own.

There is something else about leadership I’d like you to think about. Leadership is about those whom you are leading. Whether you are leading students, teachers, co-workers, employees or team members, each person you lead is a future leader.

Someday, your influence, motivation, presence or input will no longer be immediately present. When that happens, the question will be: How have you invested in recognizing the leadership potential in those whom you lead so that they can in turn lead in their own areas of influence?

Being a Person of Influence

Think about the people who have been the most meaningful leaders in your life. Maybe it is a parent, a coach, a teacher or another school leader. I bet it is safe to say that he or she paid attention to details you did not see. Maybe that leader had the ability to look at life or scenarios from a perspective that helped you reimagine, redesign, or reprioritize your outcomes.

Influential leaders see or hear what others may be missing. That’s why even professionals at the top of their game, like Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, or the NBA star Kevin Durant, hire others to personally consult or train them.

Whether you are leading children or adults, you are an influencer. And the ability to see what others are missing is an important quality in strong leadership.

6 Ways to Invest in Future Leaders

How can you take an active role in maximizing the leadership growth in those whom you’re leading? Here are six ways to stay mindful of how you are leading future leaders:

1. Don’t make decisions in a vacuum.

The decisions you are making for others are too important to assume you don ‘t need their feedback in the process. Yes, it can be messy and take more time to reach out for shared agreements, but when you reach out to the others for input, you create a culture of collaboration.

For instance, before a scheduled faculty meeting at my school, I would normally consult with a team of teacher leaders. We would meet in a small group the week before so that I could ask them what questions, issues, or concerns needed to be addressed. Together we could brainstorm ideas that gave me a sense of what items were important enough to meet about as a large group. Of course, I had suggestions on items as well that met the strategic goals we had set for the year. But making decisions with the input of others makes for stronger decisions.

The same is true for those on your admin leadership. If you have a team that includes assistant principals, counselors and office staff, input from the perspective of those normally outside of the classroom is just as important as those inside the classroom.

And just as important, you should have scheduled times with student leaders. I would try to meet with a group of student leaders on a weekly basis for their input and feedback.

Yes, it takes more time to gather input from others, but when you do, it increases the possibilities of reaching shared goals. And just as importantly, you are raising future leaders by modeling the contexts of good decision making.

2. Give others the ability to lead and the freedom to make mistakes.

When you are responsible for a task, it sometimes hard to pass it along to someone else. Sometimes it is hard because teaching takes time. But if you are not learning to delegate, you will eventually drop the ball on some important tasks. The good news is that others on your team may be more talented than you are at the tasks you are doing.

One year an assistant principal on my team asked me if she could manage the task of sending out a weekly “Friday Wrap-Up” email to all of our teachers and staff. This was a great way to summarize positive accomplishments from the previous week and to remind them of important dates or activities in the week ahead. The first few times, she touched base with me for feedback before sending out the messages. But over time, she owned the process. She was not only entrusted to accomplish the task with her own style, but frankly, she did a better job at it than I did.

By delegating tasks, you are not sacrificing control. If done with feedback and direction, you are freeing yourself to do other tasks that better fit your expertise and skill set. Delegation takes more time on the front end to teach and guide practices. But in the long, you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re building leadership in others. You are entrusting others with the ability to lead and influence in their areas of strength and talents.

3. Redirect feedback toward a “what can you do about it” outcome.

I’ve shared ideas before from a method I’ve heard Todd Whitaker and Dave Ramsey refer to as “shifting the monkey.” The idea is that when someone comes to see you with a concern or an idea for new action, listen politely as the “monkey” of an idea jumps around the room and lands on your shoulder. Then take a moment to pick up the proverbial monkey and place it back on that person’s shoulders. Also, don’t allow good ideas to burden those on your team who already have their plates full. Learn to help others carry out the tasks they see as important areas of improvement.

Here’s an example: One day a teacher visited me with an idea for a new assembly to recognize every senior who is accepting a post-secondary scholarship offers. It was a great idea. First, I thanked him for the idea. Then asked him what could he to do help turn this idea into a reality. He brainstormed ideas with me until he had a game plan for scheduling the event, contacting participants, preparing awards, and giving me a time-line for completion. By “shifting the monkey” back to others on your team, you are entrusting them to help navigate the pitfalls, identify game-plans, and execute plans-of-action. In the process, you are also giving them a leadership role in accomplishing an area needing improvement.

Not all ideas need to be turned into actions. But whether you are dealing with negative feedback or simply letting someone vent frustrations, if possible, explore ways he/she can be a part of providing the solution.

4. Confront important realities with confidence and grace.

Recently, I was presenting to a group of education leaders about having difficult conversations when the question was asked about how a leader can keep from upsetting others. The short answer is you cannot lead without upsetting others.

I told the group that it was common in my former secondary administration experience to have at least one student, teacher, parent or co-worker crying in my presence on a daily basis. That’s fourteen years of a lot of tears. One principal in the group expressed surprise, and said, “I can’t imagine that happening. You seem so easy-going.” Here’s the lesson: You can learn to talk honestly to others while treating them with grace and dignity. But how others respond to honest feedback is their choice, not yours.

Holding others accountable is seldom easy. But if you care about others, you will model providing honest feedback with grace and dignity. And in the process, you will cultivate the ability in them to do the same.

If you want a great resource on developing skills in difficult conversations, check out Having Hard Conversations by Jennifer Abrams.

5. Be generous with sharing lessons learned.

When I was fourteen years old, I became my dad’s new assistant during the summers. Before that my older brothers had worked with him, but they had each moved on to their own jobs. My dad spent many weekends in the Kentucky Lake area diving for mussel shells.

One afternoon, I was helping him on the diving boat when a storm surprised us. Within minutes, rain was pouring down, and the sky was filled with lightning and thunder. As the waves increased, my dad fired up the boat motor so we could head for shore. But soon it began to sputter, and Dad said, “We’re running out of gas. Change out the gas tank in back with the spare one that is full.”

I jumped to the back of the boat and stood there thinking. I had never changed out a gas tank before, so I started grabbing at hoses but couldn’t figure out what to do. Soon the boat stopped.

My dad sprang to my side, “What are you doing?” he said.

“I don’t know how to change out a tank,” I said.

“Goodness, gracious!” he shouted and reached down to pinch the connecting gas valves and complete the switch.

Later after we had made shore and the storm subsided, we sat and watched the water lapping against the shore. He turned to me and said, “I didn’t know you couldn’t switch tanks.”

I explained that my big brothers had always done that as well as most other tasks and no one had ever showed me how.

So, over the next days and weeks together, my dad slowed down when we were working together. He showed me how to maintenance a motor, fix a flat tire, change the truck’s oil, and record business expenses. He modeled the work for me. Later when I was in college, I bought my own diving rig to use in the summers to earn extra money. My dad’s leadership had prepared me to do work by sharing the “how-to’s” with me along the way.

As you lead others, take time to slow down and help them understand your practices. Several months ago, I walked a turnaround high school with Principal Mike Crase, at East Central High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here’s what I saw. Mike modeled for his fellow admins and teachers: sharing with others through explaining a process and touching base with students for feedback.

What others ways can you share leadership lessons? If you’re a gifted writer, consider sharing an article or blog post with others in your professional organizations. Present a best practice at an upcoming conference or workshop. Yes, it takes time to teach others. But when you do, you are equipping them for the work ahead.

6. Don’t forget to invest in your own children as future leaders too.

If you’re a parent, let me suggest some practices to keep in mind for the most important future leaders in your life. One of the greatest joys I had in school leadership was having my own children at my high school. Our morning commutes were sometimes sleepy and quiet. At other times, we would listen to leadership podcast episodes or audio books that could spark important conversations about their own personal growth. Our late-night events also provided me time for one-on-one meals or talks on the drive home.

Now that I’m no longer leading their schools, I still enjoy being with my own children, but I have to stay intentional in the ways we engage. The same lessons we apply in school leadership apply in leading our own children. As my children have grown older, scheduling time together has become harder to do because of their various schedules. But creating touchpoints for your children are important if you want to influence their future leadership.

Here’s one suggestion: Whenever possible, eat meals together. Anne Fishel, in her blog, summaries a number of research sources showing the benefits of family meals for children. Did you know that children who regularly enjoy family meals have increased vocabularies, eat more balanced diets, generally perform better in school, and show fewer signs of anxiety and depression? (See Anne’s post here)

In addition to mealtimes, here are some other practices we’ve had as a family that may inspire ideas for yours:
Reading together or watching movies together: I don’t do this as much now that they’re older, but for years, we had book time. When they were little it was story books. As they grew older, we read entire novels or series together. Living adventures together gives you more time together and a lot to talk about. Now that our children are older, we do this a lot more with movie times together.
Half-birthday dates and special occasions: At our home, every kid gets a half-birthday date each year. They decide what they want to do, and we can spend an entire afternoon or evening just being together with mom or dad.
Special milestones: In addition, at various ages, we also give each child an out-of-town weekend away. And for certain milestones, we treat them fancy date nights. Be creative, have fun.

Each of these times can be focus on the kinds of life lessons you want them to learn and understand as they were developing as children, teens, and young adults. You can talk about everything from goals setting to understanding sex. Although you can never guarantee the outcomes, the time invested with your own children is worth the effort as you build future leaders at your school.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Jen Schwanke is the author of the book, You’re The Principal, Now What? As a practicing principal, she once sat on an interview committee that presented the following scenario to candidates:

You are standing in the main office holding a stack of forms that need to be signed when a teacher comes in and says she wants to talk about an idea for her afternoon class. The phone rings, and your secretary tell you it’s the superintendent—he wants to talk to you right away. At the exact same time, a student walks in and heads toward the clinic; he is crying and red-faced. What do you do?’

She concludes: “Candidates that chose any option other helping the child were not considered” (Schwanke, page 46).

Her point was that leadership is and must always be about students. I agree. But I have to be honest. In my leadership, sometimes I have failed to be mindful of those around me, including students. My bet is that you have not led perfectly either.

If you are like me, sometimes you need a reminder to stop and pay close attention to the future leaders around you every day—whether that includes students, fellow teachers, or even family members. As you lead them, remember to include them in decision-making, to give them the ability to lead and make mistakes, to help them see how to become a part of the solutions, to hold them accountable with confidence and grace, and to generously model for them. As you do, you’ll find yourself not just leading, but investing in future leaders.

Now It’s Your Turn

This week will you take time to closely observer your surroundings? Think about someone in your school or on your team who could benefit from positive feedback or modeling. How can you include others in the decision-making happening this week? What part can students play in providing leadership for their own school?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker