Relationships: The Key to Resilient Leadership
As a young turnaround principal in East Palo Alto, California, I struggled with nerves. In my first two years, I woke up every morning with butterflies in my stomach, nervous about the challenges that I would encounter that day: another deadline missed to the state by the previous administrator, miscommunication with a family member or teacher, my students coming to school tired because the newest gang war was keeping them awake, and so on. The list felt never-ending and my nerves often got the best of me in those early years.
During those times, I would come home and pour my heart out to my husband, frustrated that I wasn’t enough for the students, families, and educators I served. He reminded me that no one had more love or belief in the students at my school than I did, and I needed to rely on that belief and the relationships I was building. Over time, I became more resilient – gaining confidence in the 682 decisions I made in a day. I figured out which resources supported my teachers, our families, and most importantly, our students. I slowly realized that I did have what it takes to turn around the school but that is wasn’t something I would do alone, it was a shared responsibility among all of the stakeholders. My barometer always remained those butterflies in my stomach. When I no longer woke up with them, it meant it was time for me to move to another historically marginalized school and lead the turnaround there. What I learned in those early years, which later paid off, was that relationships were everything, goals kept the team moving in the same direction and focused, habits kept me sane, and my calendar allowed me to reflect and build confidence in the unending number of responsibilities expected of a principal.
The Golden Rule (of everything): Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
Relationships are the cornerstone of who we are as human beings – professionally and personally. As a school leader, I knew that the powerful relationships I formed with key stakeholders and school community members were the key to my teachers’ and students’ success and achievement. To handle the multiple priorities and challenges that an educator has to deal with on a daily basis, leaders must intentionally create strong relationships with their teams – internally and externally.
Below I describe some practices to support your well-being and solidify relationships and your resilience as a leader.
Black and White Goals
As a leader, keeping your focus can be challenging. The difference between leaders and those who are resilient is their focus on what matters. A resilient leader can handle change because they have a well-defined vision and goals. Challenge yourself to create two-to-three black and white (measurable) goals each month to six weeks that are aligned to your organization’s mission and vision (Klei Borrero, 2016). I suggest one goal that focuses on each of these areas:
- Your instructional leadership
Instructional leadership is key to moving any school. What is the goal that you need to focus on to build rigor in your building?
Example: Spend 90 minutes each day completing classroom walkthroughs giving feedback that includes both an affirmation and an area of growth (Sprankles, 2018) to each teacher in the building. At CT3, we call this AIC feedback: Affirm, Impact, Continue/Challenge.
- One leadership quality your team notes as an opportunity for you
Leadership is about meeting the needs of others, not them meeting your needs. What is something your team is craving from you? Focus on this. It will build credibility, respect, and relationships with your stakeholders.
Example: At the end of each leadership team meeting, ask for AIC feedback on your facilitation and meeting the objectives agreed upon before the meeting. Asking staff for feedback at the end of each staff meeting models a culture of coaching where feedback can and should be given at all levels (Sprankles, 2018).
- One leadership goal that focuses on your relationships
As stated in the golden rule, relationships support your work as a leader and bring opportunities to your team. Be intentional about your relationship building. Similar to working out at the gym, if you don’t make time and set goals around your relationships, you likely won’t get around to cultivating them (Klei Borrero, 2018).
Example: Each week, invite one staff member to have lunch with you in their space or in your office. Learn more about who they are as an individual. No talking about school allowed.
Just as we should humanize our students, we need to humanize our team. Know what their goals are, what is important to them, their children’s names, if they have ailing parents. Checking in with your team builds authentic relationships with the people whom you spend most of your waking hours!
Leadership can be a euphemism for a long list of responsibilities to stakeholders. How do you deal with this long list? Over the last decade, I’ve coached principals to create habits that give themselves and their team structure and stability. As a school principal, I implemented a 15-minute morning huddle with our teacher leaders, the literacy specialist, and our office manager. Each morning we gathered, always standing in the main doorway of the school about an hour before the students arrived. I began the daily huddle with an affirmation, noted the important objectives and events for the day, took time to acknowledge and build relationships with the team or an individual member, and asked for any feedback I needed to support the broader team over the course of the day. This habit kept each of us clear in communication, normed in our collective responsibility, and reminded us of our shared purpose.
Habits are important, as they will support you in meeting your commitments to yourself, your personal relationships, and your team. How do you do this? “Don’t prioritize your schedule but schedule your priorities” (Treadwell, 2018). As all great teachers do, backward map your priorities and commitments and then calendar everything. As a resilient leader, you have to define your commitments to yourself, your family, and your team.
If I set a goal to work out three times a week, I calendar it. Four date nights a month with my husband, I calendar it. I want to honor my commitments to support and coach my leadership team, I calendar weekly check-ins. Once a commitment or deliverable is calendared, I then stick to the commitment so I don’t miss deliverables or expectations in my personal or professional life. For calendaring to work, I realize I have to set limits and realistic expectations for myself and ask others for help if I find I have overextended myself. When folks can count on you, you grow your relationships exponentially – professionally and personally.
As a young principal, I thought I had to know it all when indeed I did not. As I matured in my leadership, I learned that folks felt valued and appreciated when I shared the spotlight and the role of being a leader. When our school was recognized and honored for our accomplishments in closing the achievement gap, I sent our instructional coach and literacy specialist to receive the honor; after all, they were the folks leading the charge with our team each day to ensure every one of our scholars were meeting or exceeding growth in reading. My job as a leader was not to necessarily know how to close the gap, rather it was to state the goal, determine who was best to lead the effort, clear the path to accomplish the goal, and then celebrate the milestones and accomplishments. Sharing also supports your relationship building. When you entrust folks with priorities, spend time coaching them, and celebrate their successes, professional relationships thrive. For resilient leaders, sharing responsibility and the spotlight is key to staying sane.
Resilient leaders aren’t born, they are made. Through strong relationships, supportive structures, and celebrating others, your ability to grow and change with the needs of your community will become easier – and the goals you have for your students will be well within reach.
Klei Borrero, K., Ed.D. (2016, July 25). Leaders…Create a Revolution [Web log post]. Retrieved March 01, 2019, from https://www.ct3education.com/2016/07/25/leaders-create-revolution/.
Klei Borrero, K., Ed.D. (2018). Every Student, Every Day: A No-Nonsense Nurturer® Approach to Reaching All Learners. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Sprankles, W. T., III. (2018, March). How leadership creates a crucial culture of coaching. Leadership, 47(4), 34-35. Retrieved March 1, 2019, from https://view.joomag.com/leadership-magazine-march-april-2018-v47-no-4/0749224001519327339/p34?short.
Treadwell, J., Ph.D. (2018, March 22). Improving Teacher Experience. ASCD Express, 13, 14. Retrieved March 1, 2019, from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol13/1314-treadwell.aspx.
By Kristyn Klei Borrero, Ed.D.
CEO and Co-Founder of CT3