What’s preventing me from being a great leader?
This is a question I often ask myself. I find that some days the answer comes easier than others. Leadership is a constant work in progress with constant action, inquiry, and reflection. But what I have really discovered is that in order to become better at leadership, you have to set goals and track progress. It’s not much different from an exercise plan.
Humans have been setting goals for thousands of years. And yet, statistically speaking only 9.2% of us will actually achieve our goals. I believe this low success rate is due to poor process and planning.
Pre-Planning Your Goal Setting
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” -Benjamin Franklin
Just like any solid plan, you will need to set aside time for the process of goal setting. I like to find a quiet space where I won’t be interrupted. If you have a favorite place where you do your best work, then definitely use that space. If you can’t find a quiet space at school, then perhaps head off campus to a coffee shop. If your schedule doesn’t allow for that, then I’d suggest doing this on the weekend at a time and place where you can work uninterrupted for at least 45 minutes at a stretch.Before I even begin goal setting, I like to use a three-step process that takes about 45 minutes. This first phase of goal setting lays the foundation for informed and detailed goals that you will definitely want to accomplish. It’s also a great opportunity to simply pause and think. As a leader, I find it’s challenging to do that as frequently as I would like to. The “tyranny of the urgent often gets in my way of reflecting on a daily basis as well as making sure I’m focused on goal attainment. Let’s explore this process in detail.
Reflect on your wins (10 minutes)
As busy leaders, we don’t often focus on what we did well, but rather, we focus on what we didn’t get right. We didn’t implement the new math curriculum with fidelity; we didn’t get staff using the new Chromebooks effectively; we didn’t reduce absenteeism, and so on. That’s because it’s much easier to look for what we didn’t accomplish when we are trying to achieve so much. I don’t believe it’s because we’re pessimistic at heart. Rather, as leaders, we have so many different things on our plates at any given moment that it’s difficult to pause and celebrate what we accomplished.Additionally, we often have our stakeholders telling us everything we’re not doing well. Teachers may be disgruntled about issues ranging from class size, to behavioral issues, to resources. Some of these issues you may have control over, while often it’s the case that we do not. Parents may be upset over a myriad of issues which often make their way to your desk. Your supervisor may not be satisfied with the academic achievement at your site or within your department. It’s a challenge to serve so many stakeholders and it can be rare when they celebrate our wins with us.What I want you to do is flip this concept on its head. First, silence all notifications on the device in front of you (or your phone). You don’t want to be distracted by anything while you’re goal setting. Second, take out a piece of paper, grab your favorite journal, or fire up a Google Doc, then set a 10 minute timer on your phone. Use this period of time brainstorming everything that has gone well since the start of the school year. I encourage you to look for the bright spots no matter how small! Examples could include a new teacher becoming better at classroom management with your guidance, a student coming up and giving you a hug when you conducted a campus tour, or a school board member personally thanking you for your work. You will find it takes a minute or two to get into the rhythm, but then it starts flowing.
Reflect on what didn’t work (10 minutes)
Now that you’ve found all of the bright spots in your work, it’s time for an easier exercise. I want you to set another 10 minute timer and begin writing down all of the things that didn’t work out since the start of the school year. I don’t want you to waste time thinking about the why. Rather, use this cathartic exercise for what it is intended to be—getting it all out. I’ll share one of my own reflections. This past fall, I wasn’t able to accomplish many of my goals that I had set for the remainder of the calendar year because I agreed to go on the road for EdTechTeam in September and October. While I enjoyed working with teachers and students both in the U.S. and internationally, my goals were pushed out to the point where I forgot about them, or they were not a priority as other issues bubbled to top priority. I was frustrated, but I was the only one to blame. Additionally, I felt like I let some of my team members down.
K.I.S.S. (15-25 minutes)
You probably know the acronym above as “Keep it simple stupid!” In this case, the acronym stands for Keep Improve Stop Start. This will take a bit more time than the prior exercises, but I promise it’s worth it. First, I want you to think about everything you are doing that is working. Did the new staff meeting format work out well? Was staff engagement higher? Were the Friday updates you sent to your staff via Flipgrid minimizing the time you spent on trivial things freeing you up for discussions about teaching and learning? Is your staff more comfortable with informal classroom walk throughs now that you’re out from behind your desk and in classrooms? Great! Once you determine if your current habits, processes and mindsets are working you can decide if you want to keep them as continuing goals.Second, I want you to think about what you would improve. Is there something you set out to accomplish that was almost great, but just needs some tweaking or modification? Can you glean anything from the past year’s staff survey? Great ideas can spark at a moment’s notice but you may not have the resources, time or support to enact them as solutions or improvements. Determine what those may be and find ways to implement these new processes or procedures to accomplish your goals. Third, I want you to think about this question: what will you stop doing? What are the things you will stop doing in the coming school year that are counterproductive and hinder goal achievement? Are you staying too late at school and it’s impacting your home life?Are you micro-managing a staff member? Are you feeling overwhelmed?Are you spending time on things that don’t improve the community at your school or district? Are you spending time on activities that don’t empower teachers?Are you not the instructional leader that your staff needs? Are you avoiding prioritizing your day? Are you avoiding difficult decisions?Do you criticize yourself? Are you saying yes to everything? You can do anything you want, but you can’t do it all. I want you to take the time to be vulnerable and honest with yourself. It’s time to take off your armor and have a tough conversation with your own worst critic. What are you doing in your days, weeks, and months that is counterproductive to yourself, your family, and your stakeholders? I know this is a tough exercise, but once you acknowledge what you need to stop doing you can focus on what you can START doing.
Finally, what will you start doing in the new school year?
I want you to think about all of the possibilities for your school, your community, and your life. I want you to think about all of the positive habits that you want to form. Now, I want you to write down as many of those ideas as possible. Here are some of my own:I will start using the digital well-being feature on my phone to limit social media in order to spend more time with my family.I will make a point of checking in on the well being of each and every one of my staff at least once a week.I will seek out a leadership mentoring network.I will commit to reading more books about leadership along with fiction.I will start a leadership podcast.I will lead professional learning opportunities at least once per month. I will blog more. Okay…so I did that….Now what?
First of all, congratulate yourself for taking the first steps in goal achievement. You’re off to a great start! Doesn’t it feel great to stop and reflect on where you’ve been, while also taking the time to think about where you want to go? In our next post in this series, I’ll dive into goal setting and how to set up a structure for goal achievement. I’d like you to brainstorm some goals you want to achieve between now and the end of the next school year. Your goals might be informed by the process you completed today, or you may have additional goals you want to accomplish. The key is to start writing them down! This way you’ll be able to pull together a list that you can work from.
Chris Bell is a former teacher, school leader, and district administrator in K-12 now supporting educators to transform learning experiences for all students! Book hoarder, professional learner, executive officer, and always looking for new and interesting challenges.