Aprayune: Four ‘Seasonal Keys’ in Adaptive Leadership

Aprayune is the cruelest month! If Oliver Stone was ever going to direct a High School conspiracy movie, this would be it: 3 months (April, May, June) when everyone’s looking around asking questions about timetable, course loads, staffing, learning resources, room allocation . . . and trusting no one. Conversations, concerns and assumptions all based on the never-ending uncertainty of Ministry funding, District Initiatives and School Plans.  In dealing with these issues, ones which can quickly lead to wholesale staff discord, modeling and providing for my staff examples of positive modes of engagement can make a difference.

A few months ago, I read a great HBR article by Michael Useem, “Four Lessons in Adaptive Leadership,” which, in reflecting upon it now in the Spring, provides me with some guidance around school leadership vis a vis positive engagement. A professor of management and the Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia, Useem turns to the armed services as a means of providing four strong leadership traits during uncertain times.  His premise:

The armed services have been in the business of leadership development much longer than the corporate world has. Today’s military leaders need tools and techniques to face a fast-changing and unpredictable type of enemy—so the armed services train their officers in ways that build a culture of readiness and commitment.

Like military and business leaders, school leaders need to foster an adaptive culture to survive and succeed, given that we consistently face the Aprayune disquiet.  Useem draws upon four keys for our prospective success:

1.Meet the Troops

Creating a personal link is crucial to leading people in challenging times.

Whether meeting a few troops in a small venue or thousands in an airport hangar, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff always strives to make the events as personal as possible. An individual handshake, a brief look in the eyes: Those small actions make an indelible impression, serving to focus attention and ensure retention of the mission and message that a leader seeks to convey.

It is establishing and maintaining the “personal links” with your staff that are so critical in the last three months of school.  Like most administrators, I walk the halls everyday and engage students who, milling about by their lockers 10 minutes into class, try to convince me that we should offer “Hallway Appreciation 101.”   However, I also make a point of walking by every classroom during Friday’s last block to thank each one of my staff for a “great week” and I wish them the best for the upcoming weekend.” It doesn’t seem like much but it’s just one more strand of silk in our web of connection.

2. Make decisions

Making good and timely calls is the crux of leadership.

The ability to make fast and effective decisions that draw quickly upon the insights of all those on the front lines is among the defining qualities of combat-ready leadership. It is encoded in a Marine dictum: When you’re 70% ready and have 70% consensus, act. Don’t shoot from the hip, but also don’t wait for perfection. Of course, the 70% is not a strict metric but, rather, a metaphor for the need to balance deliberation and action.

Staff Committee, Finance Committee, Department Heads’ Meetings: the forum may change but the skill to act decisively and fairly remains constant.  With staff overwhelmed and ‘edgy’ this time of year, the “good and timely” behind the Principal’s decisions will in essence set the tone within the building. However, without Meeting the Troops, any effectiveness in terms of ‘buy in’ around the leader’s decisions may be tenuous at best.

3. Mission first

Focus on common purpose and eschew personal gain.

Mission must come first, self-interest last. Creating company value, not the pursuit of private value, should drive leadership actions.

Why exactly are you implementing those new initiatives in your school?                       What is the point of staffing these new electives and unsettling the historically appreciated way of doing business? What drives your timetable: student or staff interests?

The mission in our schools is quite simple: to build continuous learning within a caring and inclusive community.  New initiatives, new electives: it’s not about CV building nor is it about personal gain.  A focus on your School Plan – defined and developed, collaboratively, by all staff: this is our common purpose and our shared vehicle, nothing more and nothing less.

4. Convey strategic intent.

Make the objectives clear, but give people the freedom to execute on them in their own way.

At Wharton, we have turned to the armed services to learn leadership precepts like these. Personally observing microcosms in which we can appreciate the precepts in action enables us to carry them with us for application when we face our own times of great ambiguity, urgency, and stress.

This is the greatest of the lessons (perhaps the master key). Stay away from micro-managing your school staff.  Respect autonomy and rather than supervise, turn your leadership into an appreciative inquiry and access your staff’s freedom and creativity as a learning opportunity for your own leadership development.

There are a lot of keys to leadership; however, the astute leader knows which ones to use when trying to unlock the doors of Aprayune.  Take a look at you own key chain. If you’ve spent the last 7 months opening all of the doors, do you really need that many keys right now?

One Comment
  1. Hi Gino
    You are right, this time of year always has a unique energy. It always appears to be a stew of possibility, creative ideas, discontent, and uncertainty, spiced with fatigue that was not cured by spring vacation.
    I admire the energy you are creating with your staff and making sure not to micro manage during this period. I would like to offer an approach by Dave Hardy, a former administrator at the school and district level. Dave was so detached from controlling or holding on to staff. I can recall him encouraging a long serving and very effective vice principal to venture towards other job opportunities and perhaps even pursue a career path which would fuel him towards being the best version of himself. My first thought was “how could he encourage this brilliant man and educator to move on?” Well the answer was that he truly wanted his vice principal to be fulfilled and happy. Confidence, humility, and detachment in leadership.

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