Empowering Leaders: Just Do It

Guest post by Aimee Rainey, principal, Florence Middle School, Florence, AL, who will present “Empowering Teachers: Developing Talent and Growing Leaders in Your Building” at Ignite ’15.

How do you empower teacher leaders in a school and let go of micromanagement tendencies? Consider one simple phrase: “Just do it!”

This may be an oversimplification, but it can be very powerful when implemented strategically. Empowerment of others produces ownership where micromanagement can harm the organization. It is essential to activate motivation in others. At the heart of motivation lies the desire for freedom to express one’s creative potential.

The Power of Empowerment

In my 11 years as a building administrator, I have found when you empower others, ownership in the project or task becomes evident. This does not mean that the leader allows a free-for-all in the school; quite the contrary. A leader who empowers others relinquishes control, but in a very subtle and fail-safe environment. When employees realize you believe in them and are given the proper professional development to become leaders, great things follow. This is accomplished by focusing on the strengths of your team members.

At Florence Middle School (FMS) we read Tom Rath’s book, Strength Finder 2.0. We operate on the philosophy that everyone has unique talents or strengths that need to be used to create a fulfilling, productive school environment. A micromanager believes he or she has all of the answers. This can lead to a toxic, stifled culture where members will not take risks. In this type of environment, individuals are afraid of the repercussions that may follow if their principal objects to their ideas or suggestions. The principal must realize that he or she is not an island, but rather a leader of leaders.

Start with the End in Mind

After you have recruited the right team members, make sure you have a clear mission. To help teacher leaders succeed, a strong leader must always clearly articulate goals and expectations for the group before the journey begins. If you don’t know where you’re going as a leader, you will never arrive at your destination.

As a national mentor for NASSP and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, I value the guiding principles of effective mentoring. Reflective questioning, I learned, is one great benefit of mentoring. I help support teacher leaders through a reflective process that facilitates personal growth and keeps individuals aligned to the overall mission and vision of our school. At FMS the leadership team is vital to achieving our school’s mission: To empower students to explore, create, challenge, innovate, and lead.

You must lead by example if you want others to follow. Reciprocal trust is vital for a healthy school climate. It is easy for employees to take leadership roles when they trust and respect the leader. Trust is built each day through daily interactions and earned through genuineness and transparency. Encourage conversations that help build confidence, but the uncomfortable, honest conversations many of us dread are the ones that have the greatest potential to build trust and create growth.

Taking Risks

Dr. Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy University said, “A stretched brain never returns to its former shape.” Great leaders need to be willing to stretch themselves and change. Without flexibility, empowerment of others will be hard to achieve.

An innovative leader must be willing to think outside the box and embrace ideas that are different from the status quo. This type of leader supports risk takers and provides confidence and redirection if the intended mission ends in a wreck. A leader who empowers others helps to navigate wrecks, but does not encourage recklessness. All tasks and activities are aligned to the mission.

A collaborative leadership environment must be established where calculated risks are considered. In this environment, failure can provide an opportunity for growth. It is necessary for the principal to consider all ramifications versus the positive impact on all stakeholders involved. At FMS we embrace transformative leadership by empowering teacher leaders. We have created a culture in our school district where innovations are the norm and collaboration is the vehicle for our creative endeavors.

Key Elements of Effective Leaders

Before you can empower others to lead, you must be a leader yourself and develop your own leadership skills. You must be a role model and mentor for those who are following your leadership.

Leaders have a presence, perspective, and positive professional attitude. When empowering others to lead you must be confident enough in your leadership abilities to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than yourself.

The cornerstone of leadership is integrity. Effective leaders demonstrate integrity and display a genuineness of character that allows others to easily trust them. When seeking others to empower with leadership these essential qualities are critical. One teacher leader once told me: “Thank you for allowing me to be a professional.” It was one of the greatest compliments I received. It was also a little shocking, because in my heart, I fully believe we are professionals, and I expect professional behavior and mature decisions from our leadership team members.

Empowering others to lead is an art. You must have the discernment to identify unique potential in others, even when they may not see it themselves.

In many ways, we are like travel agents—helping potential leaders see opportunities for journeys along the way to destinations. Leaders who empower others have a talent for seeing beyond biases and the exterior into the heart of individuals. They give people the freedom to exercise their unique potential within the safe framework of expectations that have been established for the organization. These leaders provide inspiration for innovation without fear of failure. Innovative leaders realize that some of the greatest opportunities for growth come from failure.

In our school district we implemented a 1:1 technology initiative two years ago where students in 5th through 12th grades receive iPads for instruction. We were all a little nervous when the trucks came and carried away our textbooks. However, the excitement was contagious and our nervousness quickly disappeared as the possibilities became reality. Teachers, school administrators, and district leaders resolved implementation problems and created new ways for learning. We now have a virtual high school and students are not limited to the traditional schedule. We are able to create schedules that address each student’s needs.

Effective leaders who empower others give support, direction, and motivation to succeed. They help their organizations realize that failure is expected along the journey of success. Failure is defined by these individuals as refueling stations, not the end point. Empowering teachers takes courage, confidence, and a willingness to be transparent.

As school leaders, we are entrusted with our nation’s most prized task: the education of our children. To be effective, we must keep things simple in a complex and demanding profession. In education, our main focus must be on the children we serve. If we take our eyes off the students, we will miss the goal of our mission every time. So many distractions pop up each day and compete for our attention; we must protect our purpose and constantly keep the children at the forefront of every decision. Decisions are often difficult, complex, and even political. However, I have learned I can sleep well at night knowing I will never make a bad decision, if that decision is in the best interest of the students.

Aimee Rainey is the principal of Florence Middle School, a MetLife/NASSP Breakthrough School. Her leadership has been recognized by Ed Trust, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Alabama Best Practices Center, the Alabama State Department of Education, and the Mobile County School Board. See her at Ignite ’15. Learn more here.

1 Comment

  • Katie Dalrymple says:

    Great Blog Post! It is pleasure to be in the same school system and know that at FCS we are doing what is best for students and teachers.

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