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Character Beats Strategy

When I was about 12 years old, I got my first job.  It was a morning paper round.  It required getting up at about 5am six mornings a week and riding the streets delivering newspapers, often in bitter rain and cold, before returning home to get ready for school.  My first weekly pay packet was waiting for me on Saturday morning.  It was a grand total of $8.79 … and I was delighted!

These days, things are different.  While employee motivation was formerly derived from steady, regular reimbursement, today’s employees, even teachers, are motivated by far more.  So what is it that allows you to meet the key leadership mandate of mobilising the people you lead behind a vision for a better school?

The research tells us that today’s teachers, especially those in the Gen Y demographic, are motivated by three key leadership commitments:

  1. Improvement – they like to be part of a school that is going places, moving forward and meeting stated objectives.
  2. Investment – working with leaders who invest time and energy in them, even if this means the school loses them to promotion positions elsewhere.
  3. Culture – being part of a positive, productive team whose behaviours consistently match a strong, collegial and moral cause.

So what are the practical implications of this for school leaders?  Firstly, you’ll notice that none of these three enablers of attraction and retention of quality teachers are about plans – they are about people.  Today’s teachers simply don’t follow strategic objectives, good intentions or mission statements.  They follow leaders … leaders of character.

The former US General Norman Schwarzkopf once said “Leadership is a combination of character and strategy.  If you must be without one, be without the strategy.”  Let’s consider that for a moment.  Here is a leader whose decisions meant that people live or die.  Yet, he still believes that his battle plan is far less important than who he is.  If this principle can apply in war, there might be some credibility for this thinking in our schools.

For us in schools, the commitment can be as simple as switching between HOW and WHAT.  When we focus on HOW, we get the big things on your communities agenda, meaning that we deal with a higher level of problem.  Your values – whether they be community, safety, innovation, academia, friendliness, bravery, honesty or creativity – are crystal clear and regularly communicated.  Teachers, parents and students stop complaining about the little things when they the frames through which these decisions are made.  HOW is about process, not outcome.  HOW is about practice, not intention.  HOW is about big picture, not minutia.  HOW is about culture, not strategy.

Almost all School Leaders were formerly great teachers.  You were likely promoted because you were skilled, passionate and dedicated to your craft.  You were responsible for your own work and it shone in comparison to others.  The great challenge for the contemporary school leader is in shifting from responsibility for your own practice to that of being responsible for the practice of others.

Many School Leaders struggle in this space because they never really understood that being good at their work isn’t enough.  It’s not about you any more.  It’s about your team.  And character is nothing more than a set of relational behaviours repeatedly demonstrated.  So this poses the question, which behaviours are your people noticing about you?