The school year ended a few weeks ago in the state of New York, and students, teachers and leaders are now spending time reflecting on the year that was and relaxing (hopefully) ahead of the year that will be. I am writing this a few days before I will be doing some restful travel, and as I prepare for that transition, I’m also reflecting on some of the big things I’ve learned and thought about this year. Here are four leadership lessons that have prompted growth for me and, I hope, will serve as some valuable wondering points for you.
Culture determines outcomes
It would be an understatement to say that culture rules all that we do. It would also be an understatement to say that our culture has a big impact on our outcomes. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the culture we create in the workplace fully determines the outcomes we achieve (or don’t).
What is possible is tied entirely to what people believe is possible, and the structures we create serve as the pathway from “possible” to “reality.”
Over the past decade, our department has worked hard to create a culture where all members of our team are seen as equals and see themselves as equals. While we will always have work to do in this area, we have made significant progress. In fact, this spring, we reached the milestone of having had each member of the department (roughly 30 people) take part in leading the learning of the entire team during our monthly gatherings. In some cases, members of our team volunteered for these opportunities and took the lead themselves. In others, they were coached and supported through the design and facilitation process. In all cases, we succeeded in creating an environment that says, “Your experience is valuable here, and we all benefit when you share and teach us.”
This achieves a cultural milestone, one where the support for the work of each other is just as strong as the support for the work of ourselves. Because of that, the results we see will be better than if that culture had not been created.
The personal always affects the professional
Throughout this year, there was a significant amount of loss for many of my colleagues and friends. This loss was a little bit different than during the worst parts of the pandemic. There was less severe sickness and death but much more loss related to friendships, jobs and marriages/partnerships.
In many cases, while the specifics are always different, tensions mounted until they could no longer withstand the strain. The weight of the pandemic plus normal life put many of us in positions we simply were not able to handle at the time. While all of us were forced to bend in our personal lives, in some cases we broke.
This year, in particular, taught me an important leadership lesson: The personal and professional really cannot be separated. Yes, we need to give time for both, and the illusion of separation is sometimes aspirational. However, we are emotional creatures, and our personal and professional experiences shape the ways we live in the other realm. A breakup with a spouse is a personal experience. And, for many reasons, it also greatly affects how we go about our work in the professional world.
As I have worked with more colleagues and friends than I would like to count who are going through these struggles, I’ve been reminded that listening is the first step, and understanding is the second. While I may not be in the same situation, I can come to know what my friends and colleagues are going through — and with that understanding can come the respect and response that people need to keep succeeding professionally while sorting through personal challenges.
Be happy for what was; welcome what will be
I am the father of two amazing daughters. They have grown into strong and evolvingly independent young people. At the same time, my evolution in recognizing who they are has been much slower than their individual evolution and in some cases has stalled outright.
A recent conversation with my oldest daughter reminded me that I can no longer look at her as a 10- or 11-year-old. Because she isn’t. Yet, many of my actions and the rules we set in our family still are designed as if no one would age (or gain the experience that comes from aging).
As I stepped back from a really impactful conversation with her, I realized that I can be happy for everything that has come before and also still look forward to what will be. That led me to recognize that many of the situations where I get frustrated (both in a personal setting and a professional one) stem from my operating through an “older” worldview. In many cases, I am simply not applying the current lens to what is happening in the moment. I am trying to hold onto what I know and love without recognizing that I can love what is not yet known, and what could be, in the future.
Nostalgia and uncertainty can both be positively powerful experiences, as long as we recognize them for what they are and use them correctly.
Trust those who came before and build on their successes
When I moved into my current job, I was filling the role of an amazing leader who had held that position for more than 30 years. The shoes were big, the shadow was large and I felt I needed to make a name for myself. Were it not for the pandemic, I might have made a number of bad moves by trying to make adjustments too quickly or without enough thought (even though I knew that listening and learning first always makes the most sense). Yet the pandemic forced my hand and helped me to strengthen our structures and current processes to weather the storm.
It wasn’t until this year (two years later) that I realized that this forced waiting, watching and learning would be the best move for my leadership. By trusting the ways that were before, I am much better able to now build on those successes. After all, three decades of successful leadership shows the value of the structures put in place. While I knew that internally, I felt for many reasons that I needed to make some changes. The thing is, the changes didn’t need to be made then, and in fact, over the last three years, many have been made organically, and at the right time.
In short, we are always better for those who came before, whether through the actions they have taken or the learning it provides us with. In either or both cases, by paying attention to their successes, we can avoid reinventing the wheel and build better opportunities for those we serve.
When you read this, I will have already returned from my start of summer vacation. And I will likely have engaged in even deeper reflection. These four leadership lessons have helped me to look back on 2021-22 with the knowledge that it was a year that made me better. Hoping that the same is true for you.
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.