Why Traditional Leadership Strategies Don’t Work - ASCD
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June 15, 2021

Why Traditional Leadership Strategies Don’t Work

    Leadership
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      For the last 18 months or so, schools have been in survival mode. With the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, shifts from in-person school to remote learning to hybrid models and back again, we’ve had a tough year-and-a-half. 

      And now, as we prepare for the upcoming school year, it may be tough to make plans. There are still so many unknowns, both about how the pandemic will continue to play out and how students have been affected by the interruptions to their learning that many have experienced. As a school administrator, everyone is looking to you for answers when honestly, there is still so much that you need to figure out. Many of us are feeling the pressure to get things “right,” especially since our students and staff have already gone through so much this school year. Plus, with the anticipated return to state testing, we’re feeling the very real pressure to find ways to “get students back on grade level” and mitigate “learning loss” all while trying to address the social-emotional learning issues we’ll inevitably face as we reintegrate staff and students into what many are calling the “new normal.” 

      I hate to tell you this, but if you are relying on traditional leadership strategies, you’re in for an overwhelming year. That’s because as leaders, we are typically taught to handle periods of uncertainty by anticipating challenges, developing contingency plans, and finding the right program or process to solve our most pressing problems. That means that we will spend our summer looking at data; trying to find the right curriculum or intervention program; endlessly rehearsing all the ways that things could go wrong; and investing time, money, and energy trying to mitigate those anticipated challenges before school begins. We will be anxiously trying to prepare for every possible challenge, furiously trying to come up with answers for every potential question or problem that may arise, and hoping no one realizes that we’re really just making things up as we go along. 

      I don’t know about you, but that sounds exhausting to me—and I want you to know that there is a better way. You don’t have to spend your summer in a ball of anxiety or in a whirlwind of furious activity preparing for the fall. You can spend this summer thoughtfully making choices that align with your true purpose and feeling confident that whatever happens in the fall, you’ll be ready.  

      But leadership won’t get you there. 

      In my book, Stop Leading. Start Building! Turn Your School into a Success Story with the People and Resources You Already Have (ASCD, 2021), I talk about a different approach. Instead of investing in leadership strategies that leave you stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, I argue that you should be investing your time practicing something I call “Buildership.” And, although I cannot take you through the entire Buildership model in this post, I do want to highlight three fundamental differences in how leaders and Builders will approach summer planning in the hopes that you can not only see that a better way exists, but that you’ll be inspired to choose it.  

      Difference #1: Leadership tells you to “fake it before you make it.” Buildership helps you be authentically confident from day one. 

      There is no way any of us can truly anticipate what we will face this fall. Sure, we have some ideas, but the reality is that none of us really knows what specific challenges are ahead. Rather than artificially prop up your confidence with plans, contingency plans, and fail-safes for your contingency plans, Builders anchor in their school vision, mission, and core values. These will not change regardless of the circumstances and allow you to handle any new crisis that comes up by simply sifting whatever decisions are demanded of you through your vision, mission, and core values. That way, you can be confident that you’ll always make the right decision. 

      Difference #2: Leadership makes you feel as if you have to have all the right answers. Buildership helps you ask the right questions. 

      Everyone is looking to you for the answers and as a leader, you feel pressure to give them, even if you are unsure yourself what the “right” answers should be. Builders don’t put that kind of pressure on themselves. Instead of trying to come up with all the answers, Builders focus on asking the right questions. Thus, instead of trying to figure out how to cure “learning loss” as many leaders are doing, Builders will ask “What learning is truly important and how do we ensure that all students can access it?” or “What bridges can we build between what students know currently and what they are expected to know by the end of the year?” Or even, “How can we help students quickly acquire the background knowledge and soft skills they need to handle on-grade-level work this fall?” Asking the right questions is much more powerful than frantically and often prematurely looking for answers.  

      Difference #3: Leadership tells you that you need the right program. Buildership tells you that you need the right process. 

      Many leaders are looking for a program they can implement next year to solve the challenges they are facing. Builders know that any program, no matter how good it is, can fail if it isn’t implemented in a way that aligns with a bigger vision, mission, and core values. So Builders ensure that those are in place first. Then and only then do they find a program that serves their bigger school purpose. In many cases, Builders realize that no program can save their school and instead, they work with their staff to develop their own approach to realizing their vision, mission, and core values for their students. Programs often fail you. The right process never does.  

      The choice is yours: You can spend the summer anxiously trying to prepare for every contingency you might face this fall and hoping that you don’t miss anything. Or, you can spend the summer thoughtfully anchoring decisions in your vision, mission, and core values. While you may not have all the answers, if you continue to ask the right questions and trust the process, you can confidently prepare for whatever you might face this fall knowing that you, your students, and your staff are going to be just fine.  

      Editor’s note: Find additional resources for leadership and management in ASCD’s “Preparing for Fall” resource guide.

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