Why Go it Alone?

How hard is it to share tasks and decisions when you know that you are ultimately the person responsible? What does it take to “share” leadership?  In both my work and personal life, I have struggled with this; wanting to do more than I should, be in control more often than I ought to be and really needing to learn how to share the load.

I know school and district leaders struggle with this daily.  I work with leaders who have a hard time finding a way to empower others, accept that they do not have to have all of the answers and that a collaborative leadership style will be more effective than if they go it alone.  Sometimes the struggle is so real for them that they just can not get there and they really do try to do it all.  As honorable as this leadership style can be, it isn’t what I encourage when I am working on site as a school improvement coach. Part of my task is to ensure that school leaders understand how to establish and work with a leadership team. We often refer to this as a guiding coalition.

In this week’s blog, I want to introduce you to a school administrative team who, in my opinion, have become “experts” in creating, implementing and authentically using a shared leadership model.  Our road trip this week takes us to Morrilton, Arkansas, home of beautiful Petit Jean State Park and my friends at the Morrilton Intermediate School. I want to introduce you to Sarah Stobaugh, first-year principal and Anna Henderson first-year assistant principal. IMG_2286They are joined by Janet Carner who is the Instructional Facilitator at the school. (Ms. Janet missed the photo opp.).  These three women are rocking my world as their coach.

With each of my visits this school year, I have watched them learn and grow together as leaders, first “sharing” leadership with each other and then expanding their need for a school wide leadership team.  As we continued to work together, they deepened their understanding of what they needed from others in a leadership role.  The existing leadership team was provided with the description of the role and responsibilities that Sarah and her administrative team wanted and the teachers could decide to stay on the the team or go. As Anna said, “Early in the school year we laid out our expectations for the Guiding Coalition and asked them to truly consider the commitment and if they were willing to dedicate the extra time and energy toward doing what’s best for our school. The week we waited to hear back from them all was pretty nerve-racking. Fortunately, they all chose to come back. Having the personal investment and ownership from them has been a huge game changer. We are meeting weekly as a leadership team and have become ultra focused on the right work for our kids. We are changing the way we think about everything— always asking ourselves, “what’s best for kids?”.

If you are a principal reading this and you are still struggling with the purpose and benefit of an authentic shared leadership model for your school, consider what Principal Sarah has said about her experience this year:

    “If I didn’t believe in shared leadership and building capacity in others in order to affect change before, this year has proven its importance and made a believer out of me.  We did not gain the momentum we have now until we focused on our leadership team. The first step we took was to define the role and make sure we were all in agreement as to what a leader is.  I believe some thought their role was to be “just a messenger” and not a change agent.  Once we define what type of leader it would take to get into the work, they all had to agree to be a part of it. We gave them some time to commit, and they did. To me, this was important because now the team operates on the idea that they all chose to be here rather than they were appointed.  That changes our approach to the work.  We don’t have to lead the work alone; we support the leadership team as they lead the work.  We also recognized the importance of professional development with this group.  We spend every other week in a book looking at what it takes to lead using Leading With Intention, and then the other weeks are spent “in the work.”  This approach allows us to continue to build capacity in our team while also moving forward with what needs to be done.  For example, we read about “Keeping the Student First” before we started working on the master schedule.  The conversation about the master schedule was centered around what is best for students.  This conversation may not have happened had we not discussed the importance of making decisions based on what it best for kids. This type of work is so crucial because admin CANNOT do this work alone.  I have confidence now that if I am not “keeping a thumb” on my collaborative teams that the good work is still happening because they now have greater ownership of the process.  The felt need has been created by the leaders, and that is the only way we can be successful.”

I am so proud of Sarah. As a brand new principal, she could have decided to leave things as they were and not really dug in to understand just what a leadership team could do to move the collaborative work forward in the school.  As Janet said to me, “The teachers are really understanding our purpose and each of them takes their new learning back to their own collaborative teams. As a school we are becoming more evidence based as the leadership team practices using data before they expect others to do it with them at their grade and content level teams.”

As two of the teachers on the leadership team said to me this week, “We are learning from each other. We are are not asking people to change everything that they do, we are just asking each other to do better.” Tony, I could not have said it better myself!  And, Jessica reminded me that “the school has always had fabulous data to work with…the difference is that, as a leadership team, they now know what to do with it!”  On this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I raise a glass of good cheer to the great amazing leaders, at all levels, at MMS! They are not leaving anything to the “luck” of the Irish; they are not just hoping for four -leaf clovers to bring them the results that they want…they are doing the work. Learning by doing at its finest!  So proud!!


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