Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Difficult Conversations The Backbone Of Leadership

I have talked to many leaders of schools over the past 10.5 years as an administrator, both locally and globally.  All the struggles they face with staff come down to one issue.  Here it what they say:  "They (the staff) don't get it, their thinking is off, they don't have the right attitude, or their mindset is not in the right place."  I hear other admins complaints about this all the time.  "If the staff could just change their attitude or feelings about something, things would be so much easier."

I generally agree, it would be easier if everyone was motivated to improve all the time and always make decisions with the student being the center of that decision.  I leave the conversation with these peers with the same question each time.  How do we improve this?  Is it acceptable to define a problem, understand the problem, and then not do anything?  My simple answer is NO, act on your feelings.  It is your job as a leader to act and address these concerns, it is also the only fair thing to do on so many levels.

Not doing something at this moment when your feelings are all telling you to do something is the definition of ineffective leadership.  In these cases the problem is clear, there needs to be an understanding about expectations and attitudes towards some particular outcome or way of thinking.

We are human so we solve problems in a social setting, by talking, listening, and then thinking before we repeat the cycle.  Why do so many leaders not understand this very basic concept?  As a young administrator at 27 years old working in a middle school where I was challenged every day by all sorts of factors, I found it easy to say to myself, "I will talk to that staff member tomorrow".  All the while knowing fully well that after sleeping on it, the emotion would be gone and I would not be able to motivate myself to have that conversation.  So status quo was maintained and negative or ineffective attitudes were not changed and everyone was left without a leader that they needed.  The staff needed more than someone to care for them, appreciate them, and support them, where I was pretty good.  That was not good enough and I fell short.


They also really needed a leader that would address those things with their colleagues that needed to be addressed so that they could work in an environment that was both progressive and moving towards positive change. They needed someone with a backbone at times to know that although difficult conversations were hard, they actually showed a level of support way beyond any thank you note.  These conversations with staff about their "feelings/attitude" on something are powerful not only for the staff member you are talking too, but also all the other staff members that want to have this conversation with this person themselves, but are not in the position to do so.


This might be the single most important leadership skill to possess.  To feel comfortable with the uncomfortable.  Be professional in times of great stress and anguish as you challenge someone else's thoughts about a topic, practice, or mindset.  This is the hardest part of being an administrator for me, but also the most important.  It is now after 10 years the part of my job I enjoy the most!  Don't get confused, I don't invite problems, but when they are present, I do enjoy working through them and finding a common understanding and pathway for improvement.  I have embraced the uncomfortable. I know that because of professional relationships that have been built going from uncomfortable to comfortable through the process of talking, listening, and thinking is possible.  It is not hard, but you have to be motivated to act, that is the key.  Sleep on it if you need to, but commit to acting, and not half way acting.  Go into this exchange knowing full well that your expectations need to be explicit, clear, and from a place of doing what is best for the school.

There have been so many people that have helped me get to this point, and I don't want to call anyone out in this post, but they know who they are.  I thank them dearly for helping me understand that to be an effective leader having difficult conversations when necessary are the backbone of leadership.  Nothing more and nothing less.  From there it is all hard work and commitment to that work.



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