I spend most of my time studying; studying myself, studying other humans. I am intrigued by leadership psychology and the manner in which people lead themselves and organizations. I am not talking about managing, I am talking about leading. Often times I find myself researching concepts that collide but mostly, I am able to derive at divergent interpretations. One concept especially in school leadership that is a simple concept but hard to reveal, is vulnerability. For the past few years, one of the most popular TEDx Talks has been Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability. She created a movement in 2012 that has continued to soar throughout top organizations, companies and school districts alike. This is the piece that pierced my soul like a tattoo:
To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen …”Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen,to say, “I’m just so grateful,because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough” … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
Before that, principals did not really use the term “vulnerability” nor were they taught to work on inserting that into their modus operandi (M-O). My work with school leaders has been to push my clients to a place where they can “be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen”. I do my best to operate from a place of modeling. I cannot expect leaders to grow professionally if I, myself am not growing, too. But I am going to be honest, the reactions at first are dismissive and put my clients in a place of hesitance, even dread. I have been asked the question, “What does VULNERABILITY even look like?” My response has always been something to this effect, Vulnerability is:
- not avoiding negative emotions
- being open to experiences without knowing what the end might look like
- embracing your low-points, connecting socially with anyone, and
- not shaming yourself
School leaders feel like the best M-O is to “suck it up” and put on a game face when faced with emotions in the company of other stakeholders; in public. I have heard that throughout my life and professional career pathway. I have also admired many of my mentors along the way who told me quite the opposite. There were mentors who said, “Be yourself; whatever that looks like”. Which in this day and age, we hashtag that as #YouBeYou. We acknowledge and even give kudos to both men and women who “keep it together”. We have to get over this notion that to be vulnerable means we enter a touchy-feely state, because that is not true. What it really means is that we are sending a signal out to the universe that we have areas of growth and we need help. That is it. Daniel Coyle, author of Culture Code said, “If you never have a vulnerable moment, then people will try to cover up weaknesses, and every little microtask becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.” As a result, you miss opportunities to create trust. No one really does NOT want to create trust intentionally; however, some school leaders do NOT want to talk about their feelings revealing they do not know something, are hurting or in pain. As leaders, we have to show our true colors, not just the bright ones. Doing this goes so much further in the creation of a safe and positive learning climate. The FIVE Dysfunctions of a TEAM, by Patrick Lencioni demonstrates this pyramid of dysfunction. In order to lead to trust, one must be vulnerable. Invulnerability is no longer the Superpower that we once were told. Vulnerability is the new Superpower. Let us take this scenario:
You are a principal and you stand in front of your staff during a staff development on Monday after a long, hard weekend. So far you are the only one on that campus that knows you had to take care of your father after his chemotherapy. Your dad was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Nothing about your life has been easy the past few weeks. You typically can pull yourself together, but you feel like you can cry at the drop of a hat. You have a permanent lump in your throat. This is the week of state-assessment administration and 30% of your staff are new teachers. Also, you have a new testing coordinator and recently had to terminate a staff member due to inappropriate relationships. The cards are visibly stacked against you. Inwardly, you are a mess. What do you do? Do you go on your merry way without sharing this with your staff? Or do you take this great opportunity to share with your staff the news of your father and the burden it has placed on you?
I vote the latter. Again, nothing more than saying your father has cancer and your heart is hurting right now is all you need to share. This is only one example. Do not think this kind of example of the cards being stacked against you is the only time to be vulnerable. This is not true, and you can probably think of many more. Another example of being vulnerable as a school principal is to be honest about where you stand in regard to your level of knowledge. As a principal you may not know enough about the content of a subject or a concept like the grading policy, ESSA, the master schedule, bilingual education, the new accountability system, budget, etc. The worst thing a principal can do is to pretend to be someone other than himself or herself. Teachers can sniff that from a mile away. When your staff knows you are a lifelong learner who is not afraid to get in the trenches to learn, this levels the playing field. Most importantly, it starts to crystalize the trust factor. Trust is the single most important gain for a principal to attain. With this, your culture is bound for success. Then those other “gains” like student achievement takes care of itself. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, opens up new doors, new friendships, and a new you…because vulnerability is the new Superpower.
School Leadership Director