Leadership is Learning:  Being a Learner of People

Leadership is Learning is a mindset that is CRITICAL to adopt for your success and sanity.  In my latest podcast episode, Leading WELL: The Leadership is Learning Mindset, we dig into what this really means for you and what it looks like by applying the Leadership is Learning mindset to three main areas.  This post will focus on one of these three areas:  Being a Learner of People.  

First, why does having a Leadership is Learning mindset even matter? Why is having this mindset an important foundation of effective and balanced school leadership? 

If you see your leadership as being a continuous journey of learning, you not only will enjoy personal benefits for your own growth, but you will see benefits that will trickle to your whole community.  You will be modeling a mindset advantageous for your teachers to practice, and you will be resilient when you experience setbacks or failures.  Also, if your community sees you as believing you don’t have all the answers, they will know that you are open to their ideas. This is especially important if you value creativity and innovation in your school.  

A Learner of People

Being a Learner of People is about learning how to lead your staff in human resource management—like holding people accountable, having difficult conversations, handling conflict, etc.  This area was a huge eye-opener for me. I assumed if I were clear about my personal expectations, collaborated in developing our operating procedures and norms, and then supported people, I wouldn’t have to spend much time on management or supervisory kinds of things.  I quickly realized that I had to spend a lot more time than I anticipated learning how to manage and supervise adults and that NOTHING in college EVER prepared me for that.  I had no choice but to enter this part of my school leadership completely open and willing to learn. 

Here’s an example of how this might play out when holding people accountable:  I had to learn how I would handle situations when people needed to leave school early.  I knew it was important to me that I acted in a way that honors these values: family comes first, people are human, and we all have lives outside of school.  However, we had 300 children to take care of.  I learned as situations arose that I could honor both my values and our responsibilities by adopting a Yes, AND response. YES, I will be understanding and accommodating AND I need you to be responsible.  For example, if someone needed to run a child to the doctor, leave early for some reason, etc. my standard practice was to say, “Yes, and how are you getting your class covered?” or “Yes, and where can we find your plans?” 

This response just kind of happened through trial and error.  I started out by just saying yes, but then trying to take care of the everything myself caused annoyance and undo stress.

By keeping a mindset that you are a learner of people, you can allow these situations to be learning opportunities for you instead of irritations.  Instead of jumping to, “and now I’m going to have to find coverage.  There goes my afternoon,” you approach the situation as a learner.  You ask questions and assume the other person will be a part of the solution.

If you buy into the belief that you are a continual learner of your staff and that you will learn how to handle situations as they arise, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prepare.   Before you even land in a leadership position, you can get clear on your personal philosophy, values, and your boundaries. If you have already been a principal for a while, it’s never too late to go back and reflect.  In fact, you can take the situations that have happened, reflect on those, and think about if the way you handled them reflects your values and boundaries.  If you find that reflecting on the way you handled a situation brings up discomfort and unease, it might be a good one to focus on.   You can think, “Next time, if I were to approach this situation as a learner, what questions could I ask so that I can learn the best action to take?”

One incredible resource for working with staff came from a surprising source: Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. This book introduced me to the powerful concept: everyone is doing the best they can.  If you can take on this perspective, I promise you, you will have more peace in your life.  Let’s just say you have a teacher who once again, is out sick and has not left lesson plans, even though you have made this expectation ABUNDANTLY clear. 

When I was in the principal seat, I did not have this “everyone is doing the best they can” perspective.  I certainly did not think this person was doing the best she could—far from it.  So, my default reactions in the absence of thinking she was doing her best was incredible irritation, blame, hurt, aggravation, anger, etc.  While these feelings can be personally validating, those emotions did NOTHING to help me be a better leader, and coming at her with those emotions did nothing to help her be better at her job. 

If I had assumed that this person was doing the best she could, I would have had a completely different perspective.  Taking on this assumption gets me out of an emotional state and shifts me into “what can we do to make this situation better?”  Instead of shooting off an angry email asking her to meet me in my office to talk about the situation, I might calmly go down to her classroom and address the situation more like this:

Hey, Ms. So and So, we had a tough day yesterday…your teammates and me.  We have the expectation that everyone will have sub plans for the week in the Google Folder, plus a sub folder in the office.  We couldn’t find yours. What happened? 

Do you see how taking on the perspective that she is doing the best she can is helpful for you and her?  As you can see in the scenario, this didn’t erase accountability for her actions, but removed the emotion from the situation. 

Being a learner of people is an area we can get much more in depth with, but for now I want to leave you with a couple of key points:

  1. It’s helpful for your come to a point of acceptance that staff management and supervision is a HUGE part of your job and that seeing yourself as a learner of people can be very supportive to your mental health. If you see yourself as a learner of your staff, you can learn to see each conflict, aggravation, unmet expectation, or let down as an opportunity for you to learn about people and how to help them be the best version of themselves.
  2. Taking on the perspective of “everyone is doing the best they can,” not only will help  you to not get so aggravated and react with anger, but will also help you support the person in resolving the issue and be better.  

Ultimately, having the Leadership is Learning mindset is about taking responsibility for your own growth and development. By paying attention to yourself and what develops into your leadership style, you can lead with authenticity and self-awareness, creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Check out Episode 10, Leading WELL: The Leadership is Learning Mindset of my Imagine.Believe.Achieve Podcast for more on the Leadership is Learning mindset.

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