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School Leadership

How to Lead With Positivity

When administrators maintain a sense of optimism, their teams act with more confidence and collaborate more effectively.

December 8, 2020
Teachers at a meeting
Allison Shelley / American Education

In today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing educational atmosphere, leaders and districts need to create positive work environments. Although this is challenging for every leader, it’s critical to navigate these uncharted waters with care. Positive leadership is not a topic of conversation just because of Covid-19, but the drastic shifts we’re all facing due to the pandemic are reminders of just how important positive leadership strategies are.

As a leader, you directly influence the behaviors of others. Parker Palmer, an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change, said, “Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart, such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and positivity.” When coupled with schools’ current needs to face change and new possibilities, being a positive educational leader is even more paramount. During my research at Boston College, I looked at positive leadership and its impact on school culture. I learned that positive leadership makes a difference in productivity, satisfaction, and happiness at work. Leading with positivity also helps to build trust among colleagues, and it becomes safer to open up to change.

Positive leadership supports the idea that focusing on staff’s growth potential and shifting from the distractions of constraints and toxic culture empowers people to do and be their best. It looks simple, but it’s easier said than done. Positive leadership requires embracing positive possibilities and dealing with the criticism that goes along with it. It requires leaders to look for potential—even in situations or in people in which or in whom you cannot find anything to celebrate. Being a positive leader does not require an increase in budget or a change in school plans. Instead, it takes the courage to cultivate a team’s well-being.

Strategies to Help You Become a Positive Leader

Attitude is contagious: Positive teams are productive teams. Confident and supportive cultures are more collaborative and creative and ultimately attract hardworking, talented people. When you lead with a positive attitude in a supportive climate, people will go above and beyond what’s necessary. When people feel appreciated, they become more confident and produce their best work.

Positivity creates resilience: This year has been riddled with shifts and obstacles. When leaders have an optimistic perspective, educators feel a glimmer of hope and show their grit. The better your attitude, the quicker we can rebound from challenges. When people see your resilience, they feel braver and hardier themselves.

Optimism improves problem-solving: Optimism allows you to see beyond the problem and recognize potential solutions. Hopeful people are less likely to wallow in frustration and discouragement.

Unity creates connected teams: Positive leaders unite instead of divide. Unity can be the difference between a great team and an average team. It starts at the top. As a positive leader, you must be a unifier and connector who fosters relationships between others.

Positive leaders celebrate small wins: It’s important to celebrate the small achievements. We often commemorate holidays, birthdays, or major career advancements, but what about the regular everyday accomplishments? Finally grading a stack of papers that have been sitting in your bag for a week, planning an excellent hybrid lesson, sending a parent email you’ve been dreading—all of these things are accomplishments and deserve to be celebrated too. Positive leaders need to recognize these wins. In today’s environment, we’re always going fast and looking forward, so that we tend to ignore these things. Small wins are opportunities to reflect on how much we’ve done, which gives us the strength to stay inspired.

Be the reason someone smiles: Highlight the positives you see in the school. Enthusiasm is contagious. Be the leader who spots great things and gives compliments. When you do, others will follow your lead. Maybe leave a note on a teacher’s desk or in the staff room highlighting an act of kindness or a great teaching strategy.

Positive leaders are confident and courageous: Confidence is assurance in one’s skills and abilities and the strength of an idea or initiative to make schools better. When leaders possess confidence, they inspire others to tap into their unique gifts and abilities. When leaders thrive, they convince others that they, too, can thrive.

Positive leadership requires the courage to be confident. It takes courage to introduce a new way of being or doing. In our new normal of hybrid or remote learning, leaders must have the courage to do what is right for teachers and students, not just what is easy. Courage is required when assessing what is and what is not working in a school.

Positive leaders know that positive energy unlocks human potential and, therefore, engagement at work. Positive leaders challenge their educators in their areas of expertise. They do not merely fill gaps revealed by a competency model. Positive leaders find a way to maximize educators’ strengths. Unfortunately, leadership cannot be fixed just by applying a new technique. No program, policy, or project will do the trick. Instead, leaders need new lenses with which to look at leadership—and rewire it. Great leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Your attitude is your superpower. We have the power to be positive every day!

During these challenging times in education, positive leaders need to focus on the individuals, not just the job.

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