Spark Trader Limited

To provide valuable feedback to school and team leaders, superintendents and principals need to observe their leadership moments.

Spark Trader Limited reports:

In my previous district leadership role as director of education services, I once co-chaired a meeting with a school superintendent that became heated and ended with the superintendent storming out of the room in pain, upset, and crying. The rest of the participants were shocked. I later learned that this was not the first time the leader had abruptly left a team meeting. But this is the first time I’ve seen it, and the first time I’ve seen this director leading the team in over a year.

It made me think that this experience, for both the leader and the team, could have been avoided if I had spent more time observing and supporting the leader. School leaders must lead in complex, stressful environments. As their coaches and supporters, our best understanding of what they need will come from watching their leaders.

As a former superintendent and principal, we don’t really understand their leadership or the culture created under their leadership when we simply support leaders from afar without seeing them in action in the context of their organization (team, department, school, or community). A leader can make a clear statement about fairness for all students, or a specific policy or strategy, but that doesn’t always tell us what we need to know about how leaders lead their people, their teams, and their communities.

Spark Trader Limited
Spark Trader Limited

What school leaders need most is ongoing contextual support. As their watchdogs and supporters, we need access to meetings, collaborative Spaces, one-on-one check-ins, parents’ nights, and many other places where leaders exercise leadership every day. In order for leadership growth and organizational learning to occur, an observational culture needs to focus on observing leadership actions as they occur in real time.

Specifically, I advocate a supervisor observing her management team. An executive team leader observes his department leaders. Observe his coordinator and the department head who leads the staff. The principal overseer of her principal. The principal inspects the vice principal and leads the teachers. Every org chart and structure is different, but the idea is that we focus our efforts on looking at the backgrounds and actions of the leaders we oversee.

When we observe our leaders in action, we have a wealth of information and evidence to discuss with them what we observe. Learn by watching leaders in action, and then gain key insights through sharing and networking. We began to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the overall system to come up with ideas for improvement.

Four things are essential to start building an ingrained and sustainable culture of observing leadership.

1. Start small. We don’t have to wait for big, high-stakes moments to watch our leaders lead. We can start with a smaller space where a team leader only meets with a few team department heads, or even a one-on-one check-in. Whatever the structure, the key is to go out and observe. Starting small also allows us to practice subtle skills like talking about what we see, putting ourselves in the coach’s shoes, and finding our voice as a leader among leaders.

Make it a priority to observe and support the leadership of others. The key to success is time management. Start your weekly and monthly schedule and decide who you need to observe and how to capture and share those experiences. If not, then observation can be a nice perk or add-on when some free time pops up.

3. Create opportunities for leaders to discuss their observations. Ensure that leaders throughout the network or organization have the opportunity to discuss and share lessons learned from observing others. Set aside time for them to meet to discuss their observations, deal with the next steps, and explore opportunities for additional help together. This can be part of a regular management or leadership team meeting, a major meeting, or a new structure dedicated to observing leadership.

4. Build transparency about how and why you support your leader. In a recent article I wrote about returning to class, I noticed how we, as an education system, connect observation with punishment and evaluation. It is difficult for supervisors to “stay in the room” and observe without embarrassment, or for others to think it is for disciplinary purposes. We can solve this problem by sharing with the team why we are here. “I’m supporting X leaders this year, and I’m here to observe, learn and help them become the best leaders they can be.” This acknowledgment is genuine and helps to dispel any misguided fears on behalf of the team.