“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.