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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

One to Grow On / Communication That Powers Leadership

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Stick around long enough and you find that, over the years, you've had lots of bosses or "superordinates." If you're fortunate, you'll have had a few real leaders among that batch. At least, that's been the case for me.
I've had a couple of bosses who quite literally hid from controversy, one whose hallmark was grumbling and blaming, one whose driving purpose appeared to be status, a few who belonged in the Micromanagement Hall of Fame, and some who specialized in one-upmanship—trying to prove they knew more than the next guy. Some members of this tribe were annoying, some were restraining, and some felt superfluous. I learned something from each of these people—but not much about leadership.
I've also had the great fortune of working for real leaders. People in this tribe nearly always made me feel as though I worked with them rather than for them, or more precisely, that we worked together for something bigger than any of us. I found them energizing, thought-provoking, and nurturing. I've learned from each of these people as well. They provided an apprenticeship in what it means to lead.

How Leaders Empower Teachers

Some portion of leadership is silent. As we watch people in leadership positions, we see that they live out (or don't) what they ask of colleagues: hard work, principled convictions, trustworthiness, courage, and so on. Such modeling is revealing, potent, and instructive.
But verbal communications are also central to real leadership. As I think back on the communication patterns of the effective leaders I've worked with, I see seven shared characteristics in how they interacted with me and with my peers.
  • They spoke and acted from deep conviction. They saw our common work as a mission to extend young people's prospects. They were well informed about this mission, and their depth of understanding stretched my understanding of my work as well. Their passion, knowledge, and personal commitment made us feel that our work was more than "a job."
  • They always remembered the humanity of the people with whom they spoke. I had the sense that these educators valued people more than directives or mandates. Their communications consistently demonstrated that they cared about the wholeness of coworkers' lives. They took time to know us as people who lived beyond the classroom as well as in it, celebrating, laughing, and sharing sorrows with us. In that way, they made us feel whole.
  • They listened more than they talked and asked more than they told. These leaders used silence for mutual reflection. They made disagreement feel safe and fruitful—both their disagreements with us and ours with them. They gave us voice.
  • Their communications and actions cultivated trust. My colleagues and I rarely felt let down by what the real leaders we worked with said, asked, or did.
  • What—and how—they communicated helped others develop a sense of agency and competence. More often than not, these leaders seemed to ask, "How can I help you do the things you're inspired to do?" or "How can I help you do your best work?"
  • They asked a great deal from fellow educators—but always provided support so people could reach those high expectations.
  • They remembered to express gratitude. They knew they were not "lone rangers of change" and took care to acknowledge the large and small contributions of their partners in change.

How Teachers Enact Leadership

My past life as an English teacher is still alive and well for me, and I have a bit of Pollyanna in me, too. So I believe in the power of words to dignify people and ideas. I'm keenly aware of the power of words to degrade as well. I know I've been happiest with my work in the classroom when what I said to my students, and how I said it, served to encourage them. I've been most disappointed when my mouth engaged before my brain did in ways that made any student feel disrespected. Even when a leader is delivering a corrective message, the message needs to dignify those who hear it.
What a leader believes is important. I like to think of the classroom as a microcosm of a world that raises all its citizens' prospects. In my experience, what the teacher believes, and how he or she communicates those beliefs, sets the parameters for everything that happens in that microcosm—and shapes the aspirations of everyone involved.
I believe unequivocally that the mission of teaching is one of the most compelling in the world. I believe that as my understanding of that mission deepens, I can lead students to join me in the opportunities it provides us. And I believe teaching is about people first, and then ideas—and somewhere way, way down the line is a mandated test.
I don't think I entered teaching holding these beliefs. I suspect I learned them from leaders who communicated and modeled them for me. I can think of no more appropriate tribute to what those leaders taught me than to attempt to enact the same lessons in the daily practice of teaching.
In the end, I suppose, we're all apprentices in our work. We are fortunate when we have moments to learn from master craftspeople.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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