Aspirational Versus Relational Leadership: The Big Mistake is a Gender Driven One
The first year of my first major leadership position in education was a bit of a disaster.
Taking the position of director of curriculum and faculty, I was working at a school that was just 6 years old and growing at exponential rates. Then, the person who was my direct report, unexpectedly died within three months of me being on the job. I was suddenly in charge of doing the school’s first full accreditation, hiring 20 new faculty members, helping the staff adjust to a new campus with heightened expectations for technology use, and designing and initiating the school‘s first observation and evaluation system with faculty and department chairs. We were a 7-12 and the school grew from 500 students to over 800 in the first three years upon my arrival. I was 33 when I took the job, I had no formal training in systemic leadership, and every conversation I had with staff felt like walking through a minefield.
My only saving grace was my work ethic. I put in 14 hour days and accomplished a lot. But that didn’t necessarily mean I was leading well. My leadership “style” (if you could call it that) was all caught up in the tired practices and tropes of masculine identity. I imagined I was being aspirational, but I was being bombastic and imperatively driven. I was assigning tasks and giving people things to do because that’s what I thought I needed to do. I thought I was providing a vision for instruction and teaching, but what I was creating was a compelling reason not to listen to anything I was saying.
The perfect example was when a science teacher came into my office seeking advice on behavioral issues she was having in class. Before she could even really articulate those issues, I was launching into solutions. After talking at her for 15 minutes, she said, “Well, I’m kind of sorry that I came to you. Nothing you’ve told me is going to help.”
My leadership “style” (if you could call it that) was all caught up in the tired practices and tropes of masculine identity.
I was more than devastated and hurt, I was utterly confused. I had very little understanding of what transpired in our conversation. It took me a long time to unpack my errors and so I did something that was very uncomfortable and personally challenging. I went back to that teacher and asked her what went wrong. I wanted to know what had I said that was so unhelpful. And, when I did, she told me something that gave me a key to unlocking many doors to transformative leadership. “It’s not what you said,” she told me, “It’s that you didn’t take the time to listen.” She closed my office door, and I broke down in tears wondering if this job was really for me.
What I learned was that it had nothing to do with whether I had helpful advice or experience or knowledge that could help this teacher. The issue was that my relational toolkit was lacking. I was aspirational in all the wrong ways. It really didn't matter how accurate my suggestions were. And as my mother used to say, “Being right and $2.75 will get you on the New York City subway.”
Much of this has to do with all of the male dominated messages I received about what real leadership looks like. Strength is in asserting yourself. A question is a request for an answer and clear direction. People want to be told what to do and your position, title, job description gives you the right to tell other people to do just that. It’s part of their job and part of your job. End of story.
As Michael Fullan points out in his analysis of educational leadership, The Principal 2.0: Three keys to maximum impact, the positive effects of transformative or aspirational leadership are almost negligible. In other words, this approach and thinking just do not work. Schools just do not shift in terms of culture or collective practice because of top down, agenda driven leadership.
The issue was that my relational toolkit was lacking. I was aspirational in all the wrong ways. It really didn't matter how accurate my suggestions were. As my mother used to say, “Being right and $2.75 will get you on the New York City subway.”
This encounter with the teacher began a long process of revising a narrative in my mind about what it meant to be a leader and what tools I would need to do this well. It also involved watching other people who I knew were effective leaders and watching what they were doing. Being in education, it also implied that many of those people I would need to learn from identified as women. What I learned from them over time changed not only my leadership style but also how I saw myself as a human being relating to other people.
The next year, oddly enough, another science teacher came to me with almost exactly the same set of issues as that previous one. I saw this as a moment to redeem myself and to work on getting it right. We spent the next 90 minutes discussing her class and the issues she was facing, but during that time I made no statements and gave no advice. I either asked questions or remained silent and listened well. At the end, she told me how much she appreciated the time and space I gave her to talk through what was going on and then she asked if I would come observe her class to give her feedback. I started to well up again, but this time with real joy and relief!
We spent the next 90 minutes discussing her class and the issues she was facing, but during that time I made no statements and gave no advice. I either asked questions or remained silent and listened well.
Years later, I became principal of a K-8 day school and many of these habits of relational leadership had sunk in deeply. I spent a full year getting to know the teachers and staff. Sitting with each one of them, the leadership team, parents and students to talk about what made the school a special place, to hear their ideas, their concerns and their hopes for the future. I also observed without judgment and asked each teacher questions I never would have asked 15 years earlier: What is the most effective way that you can hear feedback? How do you want to be involved in change if we head in that direction? What was the most positive professional development experience you’ve had? I declared to myself to initiate no major changes at the school for the entire first year I was principal. Instead, I tried my best to lay the foundation for leadership with acts of empathy.
Here are some critical pieces I learned that I hope can be helpful to you.
Go slow to go fast. Real change and support takes time and so does building those relationships.
Your job as a leader is not to look impressive but to be effective. Being smart and right aren’t worth very much. (Remember what my mom said!)
You have one mouth and two ears. As a leader, use them in proportion.
Be a leader, not a lead dog. People are not wolf packs. They are social animals that allow themselves to be led.
Ask yourself, “As a leader, am I worthy of imitation?” Would I appreciate how I am treating others and would it inspire me to be my best self?
And finally, you’re not actually making the changes. Your job is to build a family of changemakers, people who support and inspire each other to do incredible work with their students.
All of this relates strongly to gendered understandings of leadership and is not just a personality driven issue. We have long suffered from male leadership that was based on specious principles at best: individual strengths over collaboration, hierarchical over web based, vertical over horizontal models, leader as change agent over leader as change servant. And finally, directives over empathy. Relational models of leadership ARE aspirational, particularly in schools. You just can’t be an effective leader if you can’t take other people's thoughts, ideas, and feelings into consideration.