In a previous district leadership position as superintendent of educational services, I once co-facilitated a meeting with a school director that became intense, ending with the director storming out of the room in anguish, upset and crying. The remaining participants sat in shock. Later I learned that this was not the first time this leader had abruptly departed a team meeting. But it was my first time seeing it—and the first time in more than a year that I observed this director lead the team.
This moment led me to think that had I made more time to observe and support this leader, such an experience, for both leader and team, could have been prevented. School leaders must lead in complex, stressful spaces. In our role as their coaches and supporters, our best learning of what they need will come from us observing leaders within them.
Speaking as a former superintendent and principal, when we only support leaders from afar and don’t see their actions within the context of their organization (team, department, school, or community), we do not authentically understand their leadership abilities or the culture being created under their leadership. A leader can make well-articulated statements about equity for all students, or a specific policy or strategy, but that doesn’t always tell us what we need to know about how that leader leads their people, their team, and their community.
What school leaders need most is ongoing contextualized support. As their supervisors and supporters, we need to visit meetings, collaboration spaces, one-on-one check-ins, parent nights, and the many other spaces where leaders put their leadership skills to work every day. For leadership growth and organizational learning to happen, the culture of observation needs to focus on observing leadership actions happening in real time.
Specifically, I am advocating for a superintendent observing her executive team. An executive team leader observing his department leaders. A department leader observing his coordinators and lead staff. A principal supervisor observing her principals. A principal observing his vice principal and lead teachers. Each organizational chart and structure is different, but the idea is that we focus our energy on observing the leaders we supervise in context and in action.
When we observe our leaders in action, we have abundantly more information and evidence to engage with them in conversation about what we observed. Learning from observing the leaders in action and then sharing and networking those learnings leads to key insights. We start to learn where the strengths and weaknesses are across the system and can bring forth ideas for improvement.
Four things are essential to begin to build an ingrained and sustainable culture of observing leaders lead.
1. Start small. We don’t have to wait for the big, high-stakes moment to observe our leaders lead. We can start with a smaller space, in a space where a team leader is meeting with just a few team department leaders or even a one-to-one check-in. Whatever the structure, the key is getting out and observing. Starting small also allows us to practice the tricky skills of talking about what we see, getting ourselves into a coaching stance, and finding our voice as a leader of leaders.
2. Make observing and supporting others’ leadership a priority. The key to success here is time management. Start your weekly and monthly calendar planning by determining who you need to observe and how those learnings will be captured and shared. If not, observations become a nice extra or a throw-in when some free time serendipitously becomes available.
3. Create opportunities for leaders to discuss their observations. Ensure that leaders throughout a network or across an organization have opportunities to discuss and share the learnings gleaned from observing others. Set aside time for them to meet and talk about what was observed, process the next steps, and together explore opportunities for additional help. This could be part of a regular management or leadership team meeting, a principal meeting, or a new structure dedicated to leadership observation.
4. Create transparency about how and why you are supporting leaders. In an article I recently wrote on getting back into the classrooms, I noted how, as an educational system, we have come to associate observation with punishment and evaluation. It is hard for a supervisor to just “be in the room” observing without a sense of awkwardness or perception by others that the observation is for disciplinary purposes. We can counteract this by simply sharing with the team why we are here. “I support x leader this year, and I am here to observe, learn, and help them develop into the best leader they can be.” This kind of acknowledgment is authentic and helps take down any misguided fears on behalf of the team.
In another busy school year, we must be available to check out our leaders in action. There is no better way to be proactive and prevent the next emergency from occurring. There is no better way to build relational trust. Experiencing inspiring and talented leadership in action is heartening and sustains our belief that change and continuous improvement are possible for our systems. As we engage in this process more consistently, we will continue to build leadership capital and capacity across our organization. Let’s find the time to put our emails aside and get out into the field so we can learn and grow together for the benefit of our students.