School leaders spend a considerable amount of their time in problem solving mode. There are those problems that leaders create ourselves through their own actions or the change initiatives that they are either leading themselves or requiring of others. Added to this, are those problems that emerge from factors beyond the control of school leaders. All in all, we face a minefield of problems in our schools
One of the biggest challenges leaders face is when problems are pushed in the leader’s direction because no-one else feels, rightly or wrongly, that it is theirs to solve. The term ‘somebody else’s problem’ has been something we have all experienced at some stage.
In some cases, the leader is left on their own to solve the problem, which may explain why school leaders find their respective roles an isolating experience. When leaders are left on their own to solve the problems they are given, it is possible that their solution or method of solving the problem does not satisfy those who are not willing to help and support. In such cases, school leaders need to develop resilience and other strategies to deal with the criticism that may head in their direction.
One such strategy that leaders need to adopt is to be approachable, so that the critics are able to engage in respectful dialogue to better understand the actions that have been taken. This is no easy task.
Firstly, it requires leaders to be open to feedback. Many leaders say they have an ‘open door’ policy but the true test of this is how comfortable colleagues are in coming through the door. This may be a reflection on the leader themselves or it could be reflective of prior experience on the part of teachers in working with other leaders past and present. Feeling safe to express opinion without fear of retribution is crucial. Mind you, there are those who will give leaders blunt and, often cutting feedback, without reservation, which leads to my second point.
Leaders must have an awareness that many critics will seek to be understood before seeking to understand. Critics often have limited perception of the whole picture, some may not wish to see it either and the assuming of best intentions often ignored. In my opinion, this has worsened over time with the introduction of social media and the gratification that comes with being able to air their views more quickly. This is compounded by an increasing expectation in society of there being immediate fixes to problems. Empathetic leadership is required here, the ability to take a deep breath, a step back and bite our tongues, in order to try to understand that why critics are acting in the way they are. The hardest part is that the way some critics act is in no way right and we need to strive to create an environment that encourages respectful and decent behaviour when dealing with prolems.
To get this, we need to work on developing workplace cultures where seeking to understand each other first before we seek to be understood in the norm.
To clarify this further, before we tell someone how their actions made us feel, we need to take the time to ask them why they acted in that particular way in the first place. Doing so opens the door for more productive discussion. Sometimes, as leaders, we know we are going to have meetings where we know a colleague is going to come to us and give us their opinion. On such occasions, we may want to lay the groundwork for them to help them seek to understand in a way that opens respectful dialogue, as always seeking to be understood may close those open doors to which we need feedback.