Teach & Serve II, No. 36 – Leadering: Magnificent Seven

Teach & Serve II, No. 36 – Leadering:  Magnificent Seven

April 12, 2017

There are the critical steps that individuals take as they become leaders. There are the universal gates through which they pass. These are the shared signposts they navigate.

Over the course of the last seven weeks, Teach & Serve discussed “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across.

Presented here are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering.”

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps is a book by Kelly Williams Brown that was published in 2013 which quickly became something of a hit. The book details steps (468 of them!) a young person takes on the way to becoming and adult and the term “adulting” refers to those steps.

“Hey, you rented your first apartment! You are adulting!” and so forth. The idea of traversing rites of passage on the way from youth to adulthood was nothing new, but Williams Brown plugged into the culture zeitgeist with the “adulting” term. I heard and continue to hear my own children use it among themselves and their friends as they take on more responsibility, endure more adult situations and discover what it means to grow older.

  1. It is a pretty cool concept which got me thinking about the rites of passage people undertake on their journeys to be leaders. This is an excellent time for me to consider this as I am spending the week with a group of committed and talented educators, working with them in a program called Seminars in Ignatian Leadership. The program is designed to challenge participants to see themselves as leaders, to hone their definitions of leadership, to learn tools to utilize in their leadership and to help them become reflective as they take on new roles of leadership. All of this is informed and inspired by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, an excellent leader to emulate.

    What, then, are some steps individuals take as they become leaders? Are their universal gates through which they pass? Are their shared signposts they come across? Just how do leaders go about “leadering?”

    As many books have been written on this topic as have been written about the progress from childhood to adulthood, and I’m not writing a book here, just a blog post (or eight). None of what I discuss here is particularly revolutionary, nor is any of it incredibly original. These points spin out of the research, writings and speeches of people like Parker Palmer, Janet Hagberg, Simon Sinek, DeWitt Jones, Ed Catmull and others. Each has her or his own way to consider leadering activities and there are many ways to consider this topic. However, in my humble opinion, the following “leadering” steps are shared by most of those who become excellent leaders.

    1. Knowing Oneself
    2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
    3. Honing Communication Skills
    4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
    5. Achieving Balance and Blend
    6. Humbling Oneself
    7. Letting Go

    Each of these topics deserves, I think, something of an in-depth explanation and, rather than turning this post into a novella, I’ll take them on individually over the next seven weeks.

    If you are a leader, reflecting on the steps which got you there is a good exercise. If you want to become a leader, considering the leadering activities that will get you there is just as healthy a pursuit.

    Leadering is a pursuit we should celebrate in our schools. Our current leadership (of which many of us are a part) will not be in place forever. Are we looking internally for our next collection of leaders – those people who know our culture and know or systems? Or is it important to look outside our institution for new voices and new perspectives. In either instance, we want to identify leaders who are ready to lead, leaders who have already completed their share of leadering.

    Those leaders who have intentionally gone about leadering may well step into positions more ready to succeed than those who have not leadered.

    Give me leaders who understand leadering.

KNOWING ONESELF: Knowing oneself is the baseline for leadership. If you do not know who you are, your leadership is undermined before it has a chance to begin.

I have watched leaders around me, both the good leaders and the bad ones, and I have tried to figure out what makes good leaders good and bad leaders, well, other than good. One of the qualities that most good leaders I know display is a comfort and confidence with who they are.

Good leaders know themselves. They know what makes themselves tick. They know what they are good at, what they need help with and what they should shy away from. They know where they are comfortable and, perhaps more importantly, they know where they are not.

During the run up to taking on leadership, development of knowledge of oneself is the most important leadering activity there is. Leaders should look for those activities which will enhance their knowledge of themselves. They must look for these activities if they are to reach their potential as leaders.

Leadership is not about putting on a hat or wearing a mask. Sound leadership is about recognizing a desire in oneself to lead and to serve others. It is also about recognizing from where that desire comes. Does it come – primarily – from an altruistic place or does it come from a selfish one? Does one desire leadership to improve the lives of those with whom one works or does one desire leadership to improve one’s one standing, one’s bank account, one’s prestige.

Leaders come from many places with many motivations. Each of these motivations can produce effective leaders. However, knowing from where one’s leadership stems is critically important.

And to truly know that, one must open oneself up to oneself. It may read silly, but it is not. Leaders expect those they lead to be honest. Real. Authentic. They expect those they lead to trust them. Trust comes from knowledge. Leaders must have a deep knowledge of self – of those lights and shadows we all work through and we all carry with us – to be the most effective leader they can be.

People who do not wish to know themselves this well typically do not make effective leaders or, rather, they are not as effective leaders as they could be. If you do not want to look carefully at who you are, your leadership will always have an inauthentic tone. It will not be all it can be. More importantly, those you lead will sense a lack of something. They will note that you are less genuine that you might be and that will affect your leadership. Perhaps greatly.

Leadering activities that help someone know her or himself better are as important as anything else a leader can do as they mature. They are the most important leadering activities of all.

IDENTIFYING WEAKNESSES BEFORE CELEBRATING STRENGTHS: I have conducted many, many interviews during my years in education. Likely, I have been on the interviewer side of the desk more times than I can remember. As I became more facile with the task, I would enter the interview with a series of questions I knew I wanted to ask. No matter if I was part of an interviewing committee or solo, I would be sure to get certain questions answered.

One of these had to do with the perceived strengths and weaknesses of a candidate.

What I do not clearly remember is in what order I asked about these characteristics. If I had to guess, I suspect I asked first about strengths and then followed up with a query about weaknesses. Why put the candidate on the defensive with a challenging question?

A leadering technique, however, should be knowing one’s weaknesses just as well – better, even – than one’s strengths.

Do not misunderstand. Leaders must know their own strengths and realizing them throughout the leadership journey is a principal part of growing into leadership. But it is also an easy part. We like our strengths. We play to them. We are comfortable operating from our strengths. We have been celebrated for these qualities time and again.

A leadering step is identifying and embracing one’s weaknesses along with relying on one’s strengths. Good leaders comprehend their limitations. They know their difficulties. They recognize their weaknesses.

As we look for leadership positions, as we realize we may be called to them, we should search out opportunities to address our weaknesses. We can look to overcome them. We can look to find ways to lessen them. We can seek help in dealing with them. What we cannot do as leaders is avoid them. They will surface. It is inevitable that they do. Our leadering should involve us naming our weaknesses and working through them. Our leadering should call us to embrace them.

I chose the word “embrace” carefully for surely our weaknesses say as much about us as our strengths.

Often our leadering activities – working in groups, serving on task forces, building teams – provide wonderful opportunities for us to recognize our weaknesses and to strategize ways to compensate for them. These are chances we must take to know ourselves (see last week!) and to know our weaknesses. It is in knowing them that we can minimize them.

We all have weaknesses. What leaders chose to do with them, how they choose to acknowledge and work with them, indicates much about who they are as leaders.

HONING COMMUNICATION SKILLS: It is difficult to overestimate how important communication skills are for a leader. A leader who is an effective communicator has such an advantage over a leader who is an ineffective one. Those leaders who write and speak with purpose and clarity are much more likely to inspire their students and staffs than those who cannot. Deciding whether one is a good or bad communicator should be one of the primary goals of any team interview candidates for leadership positions. Hiring leaders and teachers who are not solid communicators is a recipe for trouble. It is not that these people cannot lead, it is that they will not lead as effectively as those who can communicate well.

Honing communication skills is very much leadering. Those who wish to be leaders can seek out and embrace opportunities to develop this ability. Certainly, there are those who have talent for writing and a predilection for public speaking. There are those who are in their wheelhouse when they are in front of a computer, pecking away at their phone, addressing a crowd. However, everyone who aspires to lead – to administrate or teach – can and should engage in leadering around honing their communication skills.

Seek out opportunities to address large groups of people. Look to take over the department or school twitter account for a period of time. Develop a professional blog. Develop a personal one for that matter. Apply to be a presenter at a professional development conference. Write and publish articles.


The more one speaks in public, the easier the task becomes and clearer communication follows. The more one writes for precision and purpose, the better the result.

Leaders must be able to effectively and clearly communicate. Teachers, likewise, must be able to convey what they mean in what they write and what they say.

Take advantage of leadering opportunities that will allow you to become an excellent communicator. You will need them when you are in leadership positions.


APPROPRIATELY EXERCISING AUTHORITY: In my reading about leadership, I tend to gravitate towards those writers and researchers who begin with the premise that a leader can operate out of many different places, that a leader can be collaborative, consultative, authoritative and so forth, in any given circumstance. But, those writers who most appeal to me lean towards (or fully embrace) the idea that leading from authority is the mode in which leaders ought to act most infrequently. There are better ways to lead.

I agree with this. However, in every leadership journey, there are times when a leader must act from a position of authority. The leader, without much consultation or collaboration, must decide or act quickly and confidently. The leader must keep a counsel of one – herself – and move forward. If one is a teacher, administrator or leader long enough, the opportunity (perhaps a better word here might be necessity) to act from authority will arise. How leaders handle these necessities illustrates much about how they view leadership overall.

Good teachers, leaders and administrators know how to appropriately exercise authority.

To become facile at using authority, one must practice doing so.

As potential leaders engage in leadering, they must consider when and how to lead from authority. To discern which situations call for authoritative leadership and to be ready to act in that manner, potential leaders can and should reflect on what they see around them.

When taking on positions of leadership and acting in them, teachers and administrators can visualize the ramifications of their decisions before they make them. What are the results of making a particular decision authoritatively versus utilizing another manner of leadership? What are the effects on those being led? This type of analysis can be invaluable in leadering. It can and should yield great insight.

Additionally, there are examples in our professional lives of when those who lead us have acted authoritatively. How did those scenarios play out? What might have happened if the leader had confronted them with a different style of leadership?

An important leadering activity in this area is discussion. When a situation has played out, a potential leader who talks with the players involved, who asks the principal or teacher or administrator why they acted from authority and what the results of that action were can learn much about how he or she will lead.

Leading from authority can get a bad rap and that is because many leaders use this mode as their primary one. When leaders exercise authority inappropriately or too frequently, positive results are rare. This does not mean that leaders should completely resist leading with authority. That, too, would be a problem. Rather, in leadering, potential leaders should note when leading from authority is the exact right way to proceed. Realizing that exercising authority appropriately is good leadership is another important piece of leadering.

ACHIEVING BALANCE AND BLEND:  Of the seven leadering activities I have identified that potential leaders can undertake in their development, achieving balance and blend may be the hardest, especially because something like finding balance takes time, and potential leaders, when they are younger, do not typically have a lot of time to spend on doing much but what they have to do.

I like the concept of balance – the idea that we must find balance in our work and home lives. It is obviously very important to mental and emotional health that balance is struck. If we are all about work, we have pressures weighing on us from home. If we are all about home, our work life suffers. This is not rocket science.

When I heard DeWitt Jones, photographer for National Geographic talk about balance and blend, I was really taken by his words. Balance is good, but it implies a 50/50 ratio. Blend, on the other hand, leaves room for liquidity, room for dynamism, room for flow.

In any case, a leadering activity that will truly assist potential leaders is finding the balance and blend they will need to have in their own leadership life. As they progress toward leadership positions, discovering when enough-is-enough in terms of work, taking time out for recreation and family and fun, setting appropriate boundaries for themselves and in consultation with their employers is leadering at its best. Learning from those experiences will make them stronger leaders when they assume those kinds of positions.

When I was conducting interviews for the high school at which I worked, I would ask candidates how they would say “no” to me when I asked them to do too much. It was a difficult question, I bet, and many likely thought it was a trick question. I do not, frankly, remember, in all the interviews I did, anyone knocking that question out of the park, but I asked it for a reason. I wanted candidates to know that it is okay to say “that’s too much, I have a life” beyond the job.

Leaders who exemplify balance and blend in their own lives illustrate to those they lead that having balance and blend is not only okay, it is desirable. It is critical.

Find the balance. Find the blend. Use your leadering to help you do so.

HUMBLING ONESELF: The entire world argues against this one. The trappings. The offices. The desks. The stipends and releases from other responsibilities. The desire to be called “boss.” The feeling one gets when told: “Yes, it’s you. YOU are the woman. YOU are the man. YOU are the leader.”


The perks of leadership are as enticing as they are numerous. Being in charge. Being in the know. Being top dog. When we are surrounded by these kinds of things, it can be very difficult to remain humble.

Look, society assumes (this has actually been proven in studies) that the quarterback of a football team is the most beautiful player on the team. The most handsome. Beyond everything else the leader of the football receives, he also is the best looking? Are you kidding me?  But we believe this. On some level (at least the football level) we believe that are leaders are not only deserving of trappings, they are better looking than we are, too!

Therefore, in the leadering that leads up to actual leadership, potential leaders must engage in things at which they are not accomplished. They must try this at which they will fail. They must find those areas of their lives in which they are interested and need to grow. Leadering in this area means striving. It means reaching. It means missing the mark and refocusing. It means being told you are not good enough and you have to improve.

No one deserves leadership. It is not some God-given right. Leadership is a privilege. It is a responsibility. It is to be entered into humbly or not at all.

I learned this in many, many hard ways. I learned to grow into the role. I developed an awareness that humility was one of the key traits of effective leadership.

It took time.

One cannot fake humbleness. Those we lead see through false humility like looking through a window pane.

When leadering, those who wish to come into these sorts of roles should identify a mentor, someone who knows more, who has a deeper connection to humility and who can challenge. The best mentors show us who they are rather than tell us. They compel us to be better as we watch them and learn from their examples. When we apprentice at the feet of powerful mentors, we learn, very quickly, that the best mentors did not strive to become mentors at all.

They just tried to lead well.

Without exception, the best and most inspiring leaders find strength in their own humility. They humble themselves to the role.

Our leadering activities must teach us to do so as well.

The genuinely humble leader is a leader more readily followed.

LETTING GO:  I have saved the best for last… and it is, perhaps, the most obvious of all the activities I’ve written about in these last seven weeks of “Leadering” topics. Maybe not the most obvious, but certainly the progression of these activities has led to this:

Let. It. Go.

Leaders navigate waters both smooth and choppy. They encounter colleagues, students and parents at both their best and their worst. They inspire positive experiences. They are held responsible for negative ones.

Leaders have histories.

Leaders create histories.

Leaders leave histories behind them in their wake.

And leaders are human. There are moments in their histories of which they are very proud. There are moments in their histories of which they are not. There are students and colleagues they truly enjoy. There are students and colleagues they would like to never consider again. There are signposts they can point to which are very positive and there are those that are starkly negative.

They have met people and done things.

They’ve left footprints.

And the best leaders let all of that go. Leaders who are successful understand that, while they have a track record, they do not have to be defined by it. Nor do they allow themselves to be.

They do not live in their successes and they do not dwell in their failures. They do not revisit the past unless it is helpful for them to do so. They neither hold grudges nor are they swayed by their own press.

They live in the present. They work in the now. They plan for the future.

None of this can happen effectively without letting go.

Those who wish to be leaders will do well to practice letting go. A true leadering activity is allowing the past to stay in the past. Another is forgiving and actually trying to forget. A third is not prejudging a situation or a person based solely on past contacts and histories.

Leaders who find ways to let go of the past, to understand that conflict and praise are both fleeting, to look forward and not backward are leaders who inspire.

They are leaders I yearn to follow.