Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Awkward Beauty of Inverted Leadership

     “Come on Mr. McCord, YOU are the principal!” This statement from an impassioned and frustrated parent still rings in my head, years after it was spoken.  The remark speaks to the belief that we have power to direct changes that many times we do not possess as educational leaders.  Rather than a top-down leadership structure, ours is more diffuse in nature.  Our power is the power to influence.  It is relational in nature.  This also applies to teachers in the leadership of their learners.

In my experience, effective leaders in education embody the role of a servant.  A servant leader doesn’t seek to sit atop of a pyramid of power.  Conversely, a servant leader seeks to be at the bottom of everything.  Balancing our leadership from the bottom can be awkward to say the least.  Sitting at the base of this inverted power structure requires mastery beyond what most executives are required to muster as leaders of their organizations.  We can visualize this type of leadership as an inverted pyramid.

With this in mind, what steps can we take to create balance as we lift others to success? 

1)      Hire for service mindset.  Education is a human business.  It is messy and filled with shades of gray.  Fuzzy boundaries are the norm.  Hiring adults that have a heart for kids and one another is critical.  When we are in service to one another we stay focused on what is really important.  For teachers, it moves us away from a strictly academic focus and toward developing the whole child.  For education leaders, it moves us away from professional development of our staff toward human development.  A sense of connection and relationship is the foundation for everything.
2)      Maintain focus on those you directly support. Balancing from the bottom of an inverted pyramid is precarious to say the least!  The majority of our time and energy needs to be on the close relationship with those that we are serving directly from below.  This is the zone of our greatest influence.  As a teacher, attention to supporting and building capacity in your students should be your goal.  As a principal, my attention needs to be support and capacity building for my teachers.  When I am struggling to get into classrooms to give my teachers the feedback they crave, I have lost focus on where I can make the greatest impact for our students. 
3)      Communicate clearly with those you support and those who support you.  In a highly interconnected pyramid, communicating effectively, above and below is critical. Actively listening is a key for success.  When we focus on understanding others rather than seeking to be understood, clarity ensues.  When communicating, remember to start with your “why” so others can develop an understanding of the direction you intend to go.  Develop consensus and clarity to avoid unbalancing your organizational pyramid. 
4)      Keep your feet a shoulder’s width apart.  One of the mantras that my first football coach repeated constantly was, “Keep your feet a shoulder’s width apart.”  What he knew was that having a broad base increased our balance.  For those of us who seek to lead from the bottom, we must have a clear understanding of our beliefs and values. These provide the broad base from which we make decisions and provide support.   We are in the best position possible when we stand firmly upon our values and embody them. 
5)      Remember who is on top.  Students are at the top. It is imperitive to remember that our decisions should be student-centered, not adult-centered.  At the top of the pyramid are the kids – we are there for them, not the other way around. Our lens should always be, “Is this best for kids?"  Many times this in not what is easiest for adults.
6)      Celebrate gains. Success in schools is all about improvement.  As we lead from the bottom, we need to provide feedback and encouragement for the things that go well.  Too often we withhold our positive feedback for some nebulous point in the future.  Commit to speaking your positive in the moment.
7)      Show struggle and strain . It is acceptable, even preferred, to let people know about your failures and struggles.  This is hard work! When we model authenticity and vulnerability, those that we serve see that we are human.  Knowing this, they are more likely to connect with us.  Showing a façade of perfection only drives others away from us.  Be real and your chances for success increase greatly.
8)      Put your ego aside. This work is not about you.  It is not about me. It is all about the kids.  When issues arise, servant leaders take responsibility, even when we don’t have complete control over all the variables involved.  When things go well, we give the credit away to others. 

Without question it is difficult to make ourselves servants to others who we have authority over. Despite that challenge, this is the job of public educators at every level. If you are a "boss" in an educational setting, you will only get low level compliance that must be constantly policed.  If you are a servant leader, you will inspire others to do great things, even when you aren't looking.  

Sir Isaac Newton is credited with the quote, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  I challenge you to not simply stand on the shoulders of other’s at the top of a perceived pyramid of power.  Instead, let your legacy be that of a servant leader, standing steadfast at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of support.  In doing so, you will become a “giant” whose shoulders others have stood upon. In this possibility lies the beauty of inverted leadership. 

Special thanks to Dee @DeniseToler for creating the sketchnote!


  1. Mark,

    Great post. As a teacher, I appreciate this willingness to try and fail. And, implicit in that willingness, is a willingness to allow the teachers you support do the same.

    What you describe is a PARADIGM shift, not an improvement or an incremental change. When we are the servant--as opposed to the boss--we no longer rely on carrots and sticks. Students and teachers are used to that kind of treatment, so the shift may at first seem like a dereliction of duty, a failure to force the issue. Thus, reactions like the parents at the beginning of your post will be common.

    Some of the awkwardness can be likened to a kind of "rehab": we are weening ourselves of that top-down mentality, which, after long reliance, has become the expectation--not just for us--but for students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

    The only way through is to have a "strong enough why" and to continually return to and reiterate that why. I don't think it's exaggerating to say this is largely uncharted territory we're exploring. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  2. Arthur,

    I really appreciate your feedback. It is a paradigm shift indeed! My strong belief is that the shift from carrots and sticks, to voice and choice has the potential to engage us at a level never before known. The question is, do we have the courage and the professional will to work through the discomfort to a better place? I am feeling brave, how about you?

  3. Leading by supporting & empowering is good management for schools (and in businesses too).

    With #5, it seems especially important to remember that this applies to decisions about curriculum & 'standards' as well. It's almost impossible to do what's best for all the children unless teachers can teach them as individuals, each with their own strengths & goals.

    1. Great point Peter! I think your recognition of the importance of playing to student's strengths is so critical. Full recognition of learner variability as it relates to readiness and choice can lead us down the path to treating them as individuals. I appreciate your contribution here!

  4. "Hire for Talent" has long been an HR slogan. Thank you Mark for clarifying the talents that matter most in the education world. All the teaching talent in the world can still be detriment to a school if it comes in an abrasive, selfish package. Hiring for a servant heart/mindset comes first if you want a school that will truly place the students at the top of the pyramid.

    1. Hey Jerry! When we hire folks that see their interactions with students as relational in nature rather than tranactional, we are on the right path. Thanks for weighing in!

  5. There is a familiar saying that students do not care what you know until they know you care... the same is true for all situations whether it be work, dating, family, etc. Interesting that the diagram of inverted leadership is a heart. True servant leadership is leading with your brain and your hear working together to inspire others to find their own purpose and life.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in! I love the connection you make with the brain and the heart working in service of others finding their purpose.

  7. This is an absolutely refreshing post, particularly coming from an administrative perspective. I have been teaching in the field of education for over 16 years. In my experience, education is at its best when this Paradigm shift is utilized. Far too often public educators get away from the “role” of servitude and become aloof and detached from the sole purpose of why they chose this profession. You reference this in the 5th and 8th steps to create balance while lifting others to success. This paradigm demonstrates that no one gets anywhere in life without the help and support of others.

    In many instances, leaders have adopted the “boss” attitude that you describe. Just as Arthur states, many districts are moving away from that “top-down” mentality. “If you are a "boss" in an educational setting, you will only get low level compliance that must be constantly policed. If you are a servant leader, you will inspire others to do great things, even when you aren't looking.” AWESOME statement that sums it all up! We, educators, are here to inspire others (colleagues, administrators, paraprofessionals, administrative staff, custodial staff, and anyone we encounter) to do great things. The concept is simple and very similar to the well-known African proverb that states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” If we are in the business of serving, educating, and empowering our students, it can only successfully be done by serving, educating, and empowering one another.

    1. Hey CD! Thanks for sharing your insights. I am sure from your outlook that the students in your "village" are thriving! I believe that the most effective educators lead in 360 degrees. Through their service, they lead themselves with integrity and influence others at all levels.

  8. I haven’t any word to appreciate this post.....Really i am impressed from this post....the person who create this post it was a great human..thanks for shared this with us.
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    1. Poulous,
      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and share your positive thoughts!