As a young principal, I wish someone had sat me down, unscrewed the top of my hard head, and poured some common sense into my empty skull. I would have been a much better leader if they had. I learned about leading through trial and error with, unfortunately, more error than I would like to admit. I now realize what many of my colleagues and staff could have told me years ago if I had been more inclined to listen – I blew it as often as I got it right. Looking back at those early years, I thank the good Lord in heaven for having a sense of humor and allowing me to continue to learn and grow – heaven knows I didn’t always deserve it. However, leadership is a journey, and learning from your mistakes is as much a part of the journey as getting it right – maybe even more so.
I learned the hard way that leading people is basically the same whether you are motivating a class full of middle school or high school students, coaching an athletic team, or involved in leading an organization with hundreds of employees. Leadership is about being prepared to lead, establishing and building a foundation or platform from which to lead, and sustaining a clear focus on the cornerstones that lead to success. Leadership is about knowing when to build fences and when to tear them down. Leadership is about leading, not controlling, and most of all, it is about understanding THERE IS NOTHING SACRED ABOUT LEADERSHIP. It is a people thing that will and should change to some degree as often as the people may change. However, this takes time to learn, and although I wish I could say otherwise, I was a slow learner.
Being a leader is hard sometimes rewarding work, but more often frustrating and tedious work. It is never ending, and it is all consuming. It is unfortunate, but when you take a leadership role, such as principal, more often than not everything else takes a secondary role in your life. That is why it is so important to have a spouse and family who understand the commitment and sacrifices leadership demands. A supportive spouse and family are a must, especially if they understand the rank order of family and work are more often blurred than concise. Family should always take precedence over work, but there are times when for a leader to function effectively, his job may briefly take priority. The leader, on the other hand, must guard against such moments of necessity becoming the norm; he must always remember relationships are about balance, and he must do whatever it takes to maintain the balance between work and family.
Although I never did it well, I learned balancing relationships is crucial to successful leadership. It is difficult to move an organization forward if relationships are rocky at work or at home. Leadership is the art of moving people toward a common goal, and that cannot be accomplished effectively without strong relationships both at home and on the job. Although there may be nothing sacred about leadership, relationships are the glue that holds everyone and everything together and enables the leader to focus on leading. Relationships are critical and must be nurtured and cared for carefully as well as tenderly.
Relationships can be scary, especially for a first-time leader. Relationships take trust, and at first, trusting anyone other than yourself is hard to do. Therefore, the young inexperienced leader tends to read, research, and pray – pray a lot – for a secret formula or magical spell that makes his job easy. In the beginning, I knew such formulas and magic had to exist. Everywhere I turned, I saw people in leadership roles that carried themselves with such confidence that I knew there was something I was missing. They possessed a confidence to ride tall in the saddle that was magical almost majestic. I wanted what they had! Fortunately, after years of trial and error, I finally discovered that great leadership is the result of an uncompromising work ethic, perseverance, getting up when you are knocked down, and luck as well as maintaining relationships that cushion the falls and brush you off when you climb back to your feet. It wasn’t magical at all!
As my experiences grew, I learned through osmosis and hard-knocks when it was okay to bend and break the rules, when to stand alone, how to pick my battles, and when to challenge and cross over established boundaries. It probably took too long, but I finally learned the secret to leadership lies in the ability of people in leadership roles to do whatever it takes to make positive things happen around them. Leaders make things happen even when it is not popular, and they do not compromise success by taking a wait and see approach; they are proactive. In other words, leaders learn to do two things: they learn to build relationships with others and they learn to build a relationship with themselves. They do that by developing an inner confidence and trust as well as confidence and trust in others. It is that trust that gives a leader the courage and confidence to ride tall in the saddle.
©Jack Linton, October 23, 2016