Developing the Leadership Muscle

We practice leadership every time we meet.

As head of school, I consider my weekly executive team meetings as my classroom. In the time I have with them as a group and in their 1:1s, I see my primary responsibility as developing their leadership capacity. Our muscles atrophy due to neglect, so our “leadership muscles” also require the same attention and intention. I assign the team an article to read every Sunday, two days before our team meeting. The article is drawn from any number of sources. It could be HBR, The New York Times, Fast Company, NAIS, and so on. I don’t limit myself to lessons from just education or nonprofits. We study leadership and leaders of all kinds across all cultures and industries. I’ve even recommended the first episode of season one of “Chef’s Table: France.” Becoming a student of leadership is a non-negotiable for me.

When I talk about my team meetings to others, folks are curious, amazed and wonder if they can do the same thing. They frequently ask how I can afford to spend 45-50 minutes of a two hour meeting just discussing an article. I wonder now, after having led meetings like this for almost five years, how my team and I can afford not to. My team is better because of it, and each individual is a better leader. We use the articles to question each other; question our vision and our processes; we interrogate past events or conversations in our community; who we hire and how we promote; what systems require change; what’s priority; and what is resilience and how do we look for it in others and in our school. We spend more time on culture than strategy, and use those cultural and team norms to then inform, engage and question our strategy. We clarify what is confusing and align our intent and impact at every meeting. We are more efficient and effective because we prioritize the “Who” instead of the “What.” Using those two hours every Tuesday for reflective engagement is essential for our growth as leaders who lead other “Who’s.”

I spend more time with new hires to my executive team during their first few months. We learn one another, each other’s rhythms, personal and professional histories and values, experiences that define who we are as leaders and how we lead, and then align all of that to our own community and relationship. Instead of one weekly 1:1, I schedule two. I also have other informal check-ins during the week. We go on walks around campus and off-campus to get coffee, breakfast or lunch. I make myself available to their questions and needs. Leadership is practice, leadership requires attention and alignment, leadership is relationship, and leadership is continuous learning with a mindset and a work ethic for continuous iteration and improvement. That investment of time in the person and team has usually paid off for me. They become more independent of me as the head of school, yet aligned with my vision and direction. The team begins to anticipate my questions and my responses, what I’d think or advise, and who would we talk to so we can create agreements and manage our risks.

I tell new heads of school at the NAIS Institute for New Heads that they are always accountable and almost never responsible. Members of their community will make hundreds of micro and macro decisions in classrooms, meetings, emails and texts that will either move the school forward and create positive outcomes, or generate a negative reaction. They do not direct the vast majority of those micro and macro decisions, yet they are accountable for every single of them. The investment in the executive team, and the individual and team culture and capacity is almost critical to create the necessary intentionality and discipline. Slowing down every Tuesday when we meet, or spending more time with every new team hire, creates alignment, and alignment creates momentum. We move faster, we speak openly, we engage with vulnerability (the Brené Brown kind), and we don’t get bogged down in unnecessary politics or betrayed by egos. We also laugh with one another, and go out to dinner or drinks after work. Like any relationship, we have our issues too. I wouldn’t want my leaders and team any other way.

Four years ago, I read an article in Business Insider about Satya Nadella, at the time the recently appointed CEO of Microsoft. In just nine months, Satya had aligned the company around a few clear norms and values. I wondered whether my team, exponentially smaller than Satya’s team or company, could articulate my vision or norms. Most of them had worked for me for at least a couple years and had heard me speak at events, write letters to the community and lead team and staff meetings. Could they answer the question with the same clarity that Satya’s team had for the BI journalist? We read the article for the next team meeting and I asked the question. Silence. Some spoke up and gave versions or stories of stuff they had heard me say or write recently. There wasn’t clarity or consistency. I wasn’t surprised. We were learning but without purpose.

At the same meeting, I offered three principles to focus our priorities and execution:

  • Align values and pedagogy;
  • Break down silos;
  • Develop a culture of learning and leadership.

I picked our readings accordingly too, and we used the discussions to interrogate what we meant by silos, what we observed as the difference between our values and pedagogy, what was the culture already and what did we want it to be?

Not too long ago, one of my senior administrators was struggling with the hard lessons of leadership. She wanted to be better at it. Discouraged, she wrote me one evening. I replied:

Consider what you’re doing right now your apprenticeship. And while that includes daily, rigorous practice, it also needs a dose of perspective and inspiration. So study leadership. Become a student of leadership. What leaders, living and dead, do you admire? Read about them, anything they’ve written, that you can get your hands on… As you’re developing a leadership philosophy, you also want to – and will, with intentionality – develop a personal philosophy that demonstrates your values. The answer to why you want to lead has to speak to a better something… What calls you to do this work that will improve lives or outcomes for all of us? … For a great leader, the personal and the professional are intertwined. I won’t stop doing this work or leading people even when I’m no longer the head of The Children’s School (TCS). It’s a calling, it’s a movement and TCS was my platform for seven years.

Leading people is exhausting, frustrating and rewarding. It’s slow, inconsistent, and demanding work. About six months into my tenure at TCS, Neeti asked me if I felt like a head of school. This being my first headship, I had no comparison, but I said yes. I felt responsible, I told her, for the lives and well-being of hundreds of families of the children who attended and the faculty and staff who worked there. The buck really stopped with me. Until then, even as the assistant head of a school in Alexandria, I didn’t own the final decision or its consequences. Now I did, and the impact of my leadership would be deeply felt across all the Who’s. Becoming better at it was not just a necessary lesson anymore; it was a moral one too.


Note: This is another theme I will return to frequently. In future posts, I’ll share my weekly selections too, starting with a list of some recent ones.

2 thoughts on “Developing the Leadership Muscle

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