Administration & Leadership

When Administrators Lead From the Middle

Bringing a collaborative mindset to the work of leading a school has benefits for teachers and students—and administrators as well.

June 2, 2023
Courtney Hale / iStock

When we drive, we pay close attention to ensure that we don’t drift out of our lane. We use our driving skills to avoid “the drift.” This works well when things are smooth. It gets more challenging when real life gets in the way. The onslaught of ongoing traffic, construction, our children arguing in the backseat, the ping of our phones as a text comes in from a parent—all impact our attention. In times of stress, we sometimes drift.

We drift in leadership, too. We wake up ready to take on the world, and we then find that the world is quite demanding on our time and thoughts. With a lack of time and numerous responsibilities, we begin to feel pressure, and this pressure can move us into an either/or framing of problems and solutions. During times of pressure, we tend to think of problems and solutions as transactions, “I do” or “you do.”

I do: We become overwhelmed and solve the problem ourselves or tell others what to do to solve the problem. We give people solutions to problems they don’t have. When we lecture people, we are giving them solutions and diminishing empathy and empowerment.

You do: We justify empowering others to solve the problems, and when it doesn’t work out, we shift back to “I do.” We hold our breath that it will all work out, but with limited time and high stress, we become frustrated if it doesn’t produce the desired outcome and highly relieved if it does, thinking it was by luck and chance or a superhero teacher who saved the day.

Successful leadership is centered in the world of understanding and embracing paradoxes. The leadership drift is when we forgo the understanding, appreciation, and respect for the deeper truths and different perspectives that exist within seemingly contradictory ideas or practices that we observe in our context. Practices that are in fact deeply related, such as…

  • Stability and change
  • Tradition and innovation
  • Individual and collective
  • Short-term and long-term

Leaders who lead from the middle default to “we do” in times of rest and times of stress.

We do: Working collectively with others to understand our motives, check our assumptions, and solve problems. Often this includes using powerful collaborative agreements, structured protocols, and meeting structures that are conducive to problem-solving.

The core question is how do leaders identify ways to prevent their own drift in moments of stress? What can we do to lead in the middle?

2 Steps to Leading from the Middle

Step 1. You are not the problem or the solution: You are a part of both. As soon as you begin to believe you understand the problem and the solution, you have drifted away from the middle. One core lesson I learned as a school administrator was to never give people a solution to a problem they don’t have.

Your two most powerful strategies are listening and questioning. Use them to seek understanding of motives and problems as well as to explore next steps. Use advocacy when you need to nudge and clarify boundaries of your work.

One way that helps with this work is to use powerful agreements when communicating. Communication norms are different from typical behavioral norms because they are centered on how we talk to one another. In addition, these norms keep you in the middle of leading rather than drifting into the extremes of knowing the answer or expecting others to figure it out without your involvement.

Setting the following communication norms may help improve the quality of your conversations with staff:

State views, and ask genuine questions. Speak with conviction of ideas and genuinely listen to others. In one first-grade classroom, the students changed the agreement to “Speak like you are right, and listen like you are wrong.”

Use specific examples, and agree on what important words mean. Ensure that everyone understands what people mean when they are using language. Often, people are confused by particular acronyms in one discipline or an adage or metaphor that may be relevant in one context but unclear in another. Taking time to ensure that everyone understands and agrees on important words is helpful for dialogue, discussion, debate, and decision-making.

Explain reasoning and intent. Help peers to understand the rationale for an action or a comment being made. People are curious to know what someone’s motives may be and how they may connect or not connect.

Step 2. Embrace diversity of solutions and common commitment to outcomes: Coherence is not the same as consistency. Consistency is ensuring that everyone is doing something the same way. Ensuring fidelity to a practice would be consistency. For example, imagine that a teacher team decides to engage in transfer practices the same way (e.g., use analogies to recognize patterns across contexts) and then will apply core academic knowledge across multiple contexts.

Coherence, on the other hand, is ensuring that everyone is going after the same outcome, but the way in which those outcomes are met may vary. Ensuring integrity to an outcome is coherence. For instance, instead of a team focusing on using the exact same strategy for transfer, they decide to all focus on transfer strategies but provide flexibility in which strategy people decide to use.

While the team is going after the same outcome, they have flexibility in the approach that everyone takes. Coherence is critical for ensuring experimentation and embracing contextual nuances of teaching. Allowing for professionals to make calculated decisions on deliberate practices and deviations is key to teacher efficacy and to student learning.

You can learn more about leading from the middle in the book I coauthored with Cale Birk, Navigating Leadership Drift: Observable Impact on Rigorous Learning.

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