I have lost count of how many coaching conversations have started out like this:
“Hi, how are you doing today?”
“[Sigh,] There’s just so much going on. I still have to talk to the teacher we discussed last week, prep with my chair for the board meeting coming up and find time to deal with the angry parent(s) emailing me about our math program…”
The combination of time pressure and emotional stress can make it hard for school leaders to get through the day. Many heads (and coaches) focus on time management strategies, including prioritization and delegation, to improve their chances of success. Indeed, the multiple demands on a leader’s time necessitate such techniques. At the same time, the focus on improved efficiency often drives heads and principals toward a transactional paradigm of leadership.
Such an approach may help achieve the coveted “zero inbox,” but in the ultimate analysis it will cause us to fall short of our potential. In contrast, if leaders can uncover the system of relationships at the heart of their schools, and if they develop the skills for growing those relationships, they can achieve a qualitative transformation in themselves and in the communities they serve.
The power of a relationship-based approach to leadership has been documented across sectors. In Building Community in Schools, Thomas Sergiovanni has argued that schools must move from seeing themselves as organizations to seeing themselves as communities. The key to such a transformation is moving from transactional interactions based on pragmatic need to community relationships based on shared understanding, common values and connection.
The quality of relationships within an organization has been shown to impact not only values but performance as well. Experts such as Patrick Lencioni and Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have highlighted organizational culture as the single most determinative factor in organizational growth, development and success. Daniel Coyle shows that the essence of culture is “a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal.”
The leaders we encounter tend to share this perspective. As educators, they have long believed in growth. Most started their careers in the classroom, where they placed a strong emphasis on building relationships. Many invest time and energy in team-building sessions, leadership retreats and the like to shape school culture. Yet despite these worthwhile activities, the same leaders often struggle to uncover the relational aspects hidden within their daily interactions. It is precisely this day-to-day application that is most challenging, but can make the greatest impact.
Consider how the following scenarios, pulled anonymously from our coaching practice, illustrate key differences between transactional and relationship-based approaches.
Scenario 1: The Angry Parent
Every school leader remembers that first time when a parent started the conversation yelling at them. Most parents, of course, do not act this way. Most are appreciative and kind. And yet the impact of multiple negative interactions adds up quickly and pushes school leaders to protect themselves by reverting into a transactional rather than a relational approach.
When a parent calls upset about a teacher, the principal’s question will likely be, “Have you spoken with the teacher about this?” Yet this question can be asked in one of two ways. When some principals respond this way, parents understand that what is at issue is the chain of command—and perhaps limiting the number of issues on the principal’s desk as well. Indeed, preserving organizational structure and managing the principal’s workload are valid goals, but they fall short of what can be accomplished in this exchange.
Other principals may also ask if the parent has spoken with the teacher, but it will be clear that they are doing so with relationship-building in mind. If the parent answers no, the principal will ask about the parent’s relationship with the teacher, gently trying to uncover why they have not made a direct approach. The principal also may share with the parent that the teacher enjoys hearing from parents, and that the conversation would contribute to a relationship that would support the child.
By responding with an inquisitive rather than a protective tone, the principal can use this conversation to strengthen their own relationship with the parent. From our experience, most parents will respond in kind. Additionally, by explicitly highlighting the focus on the relationship, the principal will shift the parent away from a focus on this single issue and toward a year(s)-long connection with the teacher. This emphasis, reiterated over time in individual conversations and broad messaging, deeply impacts school culture. Ultimately, it can alter parents’ self-perception as they move from consumer to community member.
This second approach takes a few more minutes of conversation, but this is time well spent. By strengthening parent-teacher relationships and the parent-principal relationship, the leader will reduce the number of direct complaints and, more importantly, enhance school culture in a way that improves educational outcomes and staff/principal morale.
Scenario 2: The Challenging Staff Member
When we begin working with schools, we often find that there is no system in place for teacher supervision and evaluation. When there is a system, it is too often a formality, with boxes being checked but minimal impact on student learning.
Moreover, we noticed a pattern that repeated itself across many schools. During leadership meetings, certain staff names kept coming up. These might be the names of teachers, finance staff, junior or senior school leaders. In every case, the pattern was the same. The same name kept coming up—and of course that individual was not in the room. Frustrations were noted, complaints shared, and the sense of hopelessness was palpable.
This is not to say that the group never took action. In some cases, the individual was shifted to another position, in others they were let go. However, what did not happen in the vast majority of cases was a direct and transparent conversation. Yes, there were reprimands, but a reprimand is different from a conversation.
The kind of conversation we are referring to is what Kegan and Lahey term “deconstructive feedback.” It is a conversation that the leader enters not from a position of all-knowing authority but from one of curiosity and inquiry. The leader believes there is a problem but understands that they do not have the sole perspective on this problem. Moreover, the leader understands that in order to facilitate professional growth, both the problem and the solution must be co-modeled rather than handed down from on high.
The challenge with such a conversation, of course, is that it generates a deep sense of vulnerability in the leader. Leaders, even in 2023, feel that we need to know more, be more, see more and do more to justify our position. Acknowledging that we may not fully understand the problem, and that we in fact need the struggling staff member to help us comprehend it, can seem like an admission of failure.
Seeing relationships at the center of our leadership practice turns this perception on its head. If the school leader is the “chief relationship officer,” then they must seek out opportunities to show vulnerability. As Coyle powerfully demonstrates, authentic relationships cannot be formed without the leader initiating a “vulnerability loop.”
Seen in this light, deconstructive feedback conversations move us toward two crucial goals. First, approaching the conversation from a stance of vulnerability, the leader opens the door to strengthening relationships. Second, the leader enables the staff member to confront their own vulnerability—a vital step in any meaningful growth process.
Scenario 3: The Head, the Board and the Leadership Team
Given the turnover in professional leadership, and the planned rotation of board chairs, heads and chairs find themselves adapting to a new partner more often than not. The first weeks and months of each of these new pairings are a crucial time for relationship building. Yet if school leaders are reluctant to show vulnerability to their staff members, they are all the more reluctant to do so with their board chair—and the chair, for their part, may not be jumping into an open relationship, either.
As a result, we typically see these relationships begin, and continue, as a game of competing agendas. The head and chair understand that they must cooperate, but they see this cooperation as a means to the end of accomplishing their own predetermined goals. In the best case, this approach leads to an ongoing dynamic of give-and-take, with each individual compromising in some areas to achieve their goals in others. Leaders involved in these dynamics often convince themselves that they are “partnering” while in truth they are engaged in an ongoing negotiation process.
Contrast this approach with the vulnerability loop described above. If head and chair are to build a relationship, each needs to enter the partnership with tentative ideas rather than fully formed goals. The beginning of their work together, and its continuation over the years, can then be marked by a humble attempt to co-define the problems and allow the solutions to emerge from the joint thinking of the relationship.
Sound pollyannaish? Perhaps, but we have seen countless heads and chairs who take this approach succeed in building true relationships, particularly when they do so from the beginning of their work together.
A version of this scenario applies to the professional leadership team. Often each member of the team comes to the work with their own agenda—not a personal agenda, but one that represents their division or department. The lower school principal watches out for their students’ needs, finance keeps an eye on the budget, and so on. While it is true that each leader bears responsibility for their division, once they enter the framework of the leadership team they are in a new web of relationship. Teams that can engage in true co-leadership, rather than serving as a committee of individual leaders, will achieve qualitatively different results (Lencioni, 2012).
These scenarios reveal principles of relationship-based leadership that can be applied across our interactions with parents, staff, lay leadership and community stakeholders.
- Lean in to a relational rather than transactional approach to our interactions wherever possible.
- Talk to—not about—others in the school community.
- Muster the courage to show vulnerability in our conversations.
- Maintain the humility to co-model both the problem and the solution with others.
With the demands these roles place on our time and our emotions, this approach can be difficult to maintain. However, the investment is well worth it. By applying these principles to every aspect of school life, we can ultimately build the resilient relationships that unlock a qualitatively healthier, happier and more successful world of school leadership.