When leading means pulling back

I remember a job interview a number of years ago, when I was asked what I considered to be my weaknesses. I had prepared for this question, intent on following the advice that in these situations, you must present your weaknesses so they actually end up sounding like strengths: I am too committed to work, I over-communicate, I over-prepare for interviews and end up making my responses sound like they could come from anyone…things like that.In reality, I actually do believe that my strengths are my weaknesses. As with most things, when there is too much of a good thing, it can become a not-so-good thing.

I have been reminded of this point this week as my colleagues and I linger on strategic planning for next year. This is my fourth year in this position and each year, we adjust our approach to strategic planning so we can continuously improve as a school division. As a result, we have accomplished some amazing things. As always, we begin by looking at Ministry expectations and Board goals and blend these with data we have collected about student performance, teacher perception and family engagement. We then develop strategies to address areas where we need to grow and begin the work of deciding how to communicate these strategies to the field. This is all good work – rewarding, exciting and filled with promise. Yet, this is the point when my strength becomes my weakness if I am not careful (and sometimes I am not).

As I have said in previous posts, I love my job. As a Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, I am right in the middle of all the things I care about – learning, students, teachers, possibility! I am also pretty good at my job – I am creative and communicate well. I work very quickly and enthusiastically and churn out documents, PD plans and supports like there is no tomorrow. I work more hours than required because I find so many pieces of my role fascinating. So, I have ideas – lots of them. But I very easily slip into over- efficiency and I look inward for too long, without pausing to consider the people around me at a deep enough level. I imagine this is true for many passionate people in our world. We work and work and work and, only every so often, we stop to look up. That is when we see others around us looking flustered and irritated and we wonder why.

Last week, our team decided to phone administrators in our school division to do a little “temperature check.” We wanted suggestions for how to improve the way we share next year’s plan at our May administrative council meeting. We sensed administrators were feeling over-whelmed. My Early Learning colleague and I phoned every single principal, and it was the best thing we have done in a long time. It was humbling for us, a welcome chance to talk about leadership for them and very informative to our team as we move forward.

As we were sharing the synthesized version of our calls with the team, it suddenly occurred to me that my own strengths may have become a weakness. My efficiency and creativity had, perhaps, become too much for the people around me. Now, I do not claim responsibility for everything that happens in our division. I am also not claiming that I have grievously injured anyone – I don’t think I have. I am simply owning my own part of a larger leadership challenge – moving too quickly. In fact, it is because I share this same strength/ weakness with the people with whom I work that this has become something worth thinking about. We are all efficient. We are all passionate. We all have great ideas. But, in the end, all those plans often get filtered through one person – the in-school administrator. And it is a delicate balance between providing a vision that is empowering and providing a vision that prevents the vision of others to have a place.

This is a delicate topic, and so I do not make any grand statements about systems and what they should and shouldn’t do. I am also not critical of anyone in my own system – I am so lucky to work with such amazing, diverse and committed individuals. Our team is fantastic, the administrators are so skilled and compassionate. Our teachers work incredibly hard for our equally amazing students. But when I stand back and look at myself (which is all I can really do), I have to remind myself that some of my great ideas may have to sit for a while. I have to remind myself that the great ideas we have already set in motion are still great and deserve time and energy in order to nurture the great-ness. I have to remind myself to slow down. Because the fact of the matter is, that when a person is in a leadership role, the work they do is not about them; the work they do is about the people who surround them. And if we spend too much time checking off our own lists, thinking about our own passions and our need to feel fulfilled, without looking around us, we run the risk of forgetting why we are here in the first place.

There are some non-negotiables for me – students are the centre of my field of vision…always. I will never release this committment to student learning. However, I have to remind myself that there are ways to support all the people working with students everyday and there are ways to leave them feeling a little abandoned. I am committed to support. This week was a good “reset” for me (and for those who are impacted by my work.)

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