Words Matter

I have started and stopped this week’s blog post a hundred times. I want to continue to write about school leadership and improvement. I want to help others stay focused and encouraged through these challenging leadership times. I want to say the right things. I know that words matter. What we say to others, how we say it and when we say it has impact. In our personal lives for sure. And, when we are given the honor and responsibility to lead others, words critically matter.

This week, I had planned to write about setting intentions. You know, reflecting on your goals and what you want to focus your time on in this new year. The book that I coauthored in 2018 is called “Leading with Intention” for a reason; knowing what your intentions are and how important it is to stay focused on the right work is a significant part of successful leadership. If you follow this blog, you are acutely aware that my writing often centers around this theme. I can’t help myself.

This week, however, we are taking a slight detour. Let’s call it a “teachable moment”. You know, when you are in the classroom and a student asks a question or something happens when you just have to pause and use the opportunity for teaching and learning. On Wednesday, January 5, watching the news in Washington unfold, I felt so many “leadership” teachable moments. And, in my own Canadian province of New Brunswick, I watched and listened as government and health leaders made quick decisions and provide consistent and clear messages about behavior expectations to contain the spread of COVID-19 here. This week’s experiences definitely reminded me that “words matter”.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. Do your remember a time in your life when someone’s words significantly impacted your life? Perhaps caused you to truly change your actions? Set you on a career path? Created a “teachable moment” for you that has had major impact? I can and often talk about a one of these times in particular. It doesn’t matter that 40 years have now passed, I will always remember what was said to me. It was a student by the name of Edward and he changed the course of my life forever.

I had another one about ten years ago. I was sitting in a restaurant having lunch when the waitress asked me if I remembered her. Apparently she was the student that I had found under my desk when I returned to my office as as a young school administrator. She had a tendency to misbehave and found herself in the office many times as a young kindergarten student! Once she told me that, I did indeed remember her. And, twenty years later, she reminded me that “words matter” by reciting exactly what I said to her when I found her under my desk. Apparently, I told her- “I like you but I am not liking what you are doing right now.” She said that she now says that to her young toddler all the time. I have no recollection of saying it but she remembers. As a school leader I did that without truly knowing the life long impact I could have. It is a bit scary to think what other impact, good and bad, my words have had throughout my life.

Once we are in positions of authority- of responsibility for the lives of others, we become role models. As a leader, whether we think about the “modeling” we do everyday with our actions and words, it happens. And, when we lead, others follow. They wait to see the direction that we will set, the culture that we will create, the expectations (high or low) that we will have for their own behaviors. With our positions of leadership comes positional power. It doesn’t matter if we personally accept this responsibility and respect our own position for what it is, the power comes with it regardless. Others accept it. And follow our lead. Good or bad.

As a consultant, I mostly work with school and district leaders. My goal is to help them be stronger, courageous and more effective leaders. Without great leadership, it is impossible to have great school systems. Their actions matter. Their words matter. I learned many of my lessons in life the hard way. I wish I had treaded more carefully as a leader. I wish I had always, every second, thought about how my words would matter. In a perfect world, leaders are perfect. That is not realistic but it is very realistic to understand the impact that we have. It is important to speak with intention. We can intentionally influence others negatively or positively. We can set direction in the right way or wrong way. And, we have to understand that we always are having impact.

We saw great examples of how words matter this past week. Good and bad. We witnessed how others follow leaders. We have teachable moments that we can grow from as leaders. Edward and my waitress are my reminders of my own impact and have helped me grow as a leader. I know that my words matter. What I write here matters. How I coach others matters. How I personally build relationships matter. I have to continue to accept that responsibility. How can you use life’s teachable moments to build your own leadership skills? What will you do to acknowledge your personal impact on others?

6 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Karen, you have the gift of positive impact. When I entered administration, you guided me and encouraged me with your words more than you may ever know. I remember how you phoned me – when I was a VP – to ‘just check in’ during a really challenging and difficult time. You said, ‘Together, we’ve got this.’ Later, when I became a principal, you introduced me to this world of powerful, supportive, positive, and brilliant female principals who continue to walk the walk with me each day – and talk the talk. Words do matter. Thank you for always reminding us of the impact our leadership has on those around us and of the gift we are given each day to use the ‘platform of the principalship’ to highlight teachable moments. Take care and Happy 2021.

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