Leading Through the Struggle

We spend a great deal of time as school leaders talking about building culture. We often consider the day-to-day elements of this work: eating lunch with the kids, visiting classrooms, being visible at all kinds of school events, and having meaningful conversations with teachers and students. The work of leading a school and building a culture is much like leading a family, full of joy and, inevitably, pain.

After 17 years as a high school principal, I have been called upon to speak at more than my share of student funerals. A significant number have been the result of automobile mishaps, though some have been the result of students and families enduring long, painful illnesses. The ability to walk beside students and families as they endure, as they struggle, is an essential part of the work of caring for the community we are called to lead.

Often the greatest moment of our own growth as leaders is tied to how we guide our students and teachers through painful times. Our vulnerability as leaders in these moments validates who we are and who we want to be in all the other moments we face as leaders.

I have been blessed to lead two schools that have had more than their share of exceptional successes. Academic growth, the rebirth of strong arts programs, and athletic victories have happened as I have watched and worked with students and communities. With that said, I don’t believe that substantial growth has occurred unless it happened against the backdrop of previous failure and struggle.

The process of personal growth (for ourselves and our students) is not really any different than the process we work through as leaders of schools. It is our ability to take hold of the most difficult moments and use them as cornerstones of development, growth, and learning that makes us leaders. As leaders, we see the transient nature of all things, good and bad, and always walk with our teachers and our students and our communities toward the better tomorrow that we want to construct with them.

As I returned from my latest opportunity to eulogize a student, I had the chance to think about how we go about making something good out of deep sorrow. These four thoughts have consistently spoken to me in these moments:

  1. Always remember that life is more than school, and you are more than a school leader. The greatest challenge I face on a daily basis is keeping things in perspective. Too often I allow anxiety and frustration to take an undue toll on me because I lose perspective. No failure is ever final if we seek to learn from it. No pain is fatal if we seek to make the lives of others better for having known us.
  2. Speak to people about people. Whether you are dealing with a failure or a loss, students, parents, and staff members want to know how you are impacted. We too often undersell our own vulnerability as a leadership quality. People look to their leaders as a reflection of their own struggles, attitudes, joys, and pain; if we place ourselves above their pain or their joy, there is disconnection between us. If we don’t feel the pain of failure or loss or the exhilaration of success in the schools and communities that we lead, we ought not lead them.
  3. Practice servant leadership. When we are working with students, parents, or teachers who are struggling, we need to remember that our leadership in that moment is not about us. It takes practice, intentionality, and mindfulness to be able to set ourselves aside in challenging moments. If we do not make it a practice to put the concerns of others first on a regular basis, we most assuredly will not be able to do so in the best or worst moments we face. The simplest and best way to do this can be summed up in four words: “How can I help?”
  4. Speak to the future. The best of us who lead know to do this innately. My mentors and those who I aspire to emulate have this gift. We spend our lives speaking of the great possibilities of the future to those who are going to build it. Even—or, especially—in the most challenging of times, we must take the opportunity to reframe challenge and pain into the building blocks of future success. It is our ability to do this that gives us our claim as leaders. We must always be the voice of the positive—the voice of the future.

While we are as susceptible as the next person to the sorrows, elations, and distractions of life; as leaders in our schools and communities, we must learn to see life as the constantly changing and moving thing that it is. It is only when we recognize our need to move with it through the challenges, trials, and joys we face that we can lead others through those same things.  And remember, all eyes are on you. Lead like you know where you are going and like you will be happy to get there.

Have you made a commitment to being mindful and intentional as you lead your school through successes and failures? Do you find it difficult to be vulnerable with your students and teachers in the challenging moments you face together?

Duane Kline is in his 33nd year as an educator, and 18th year as a high school principal. He lives in New Liberty, KY, with his chemistry-teaching wife, Anne, and he is the proud dad of his special education daughter, Hannah, and soon-to-be history-teaching son, Aaron. He was blessed to be recognized as the 2016 Kentucky Secondary Principal of the Year.

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