Longevity in Leadership

By Rod Berg  |  May 9th

With the ever-changing landscape of education, one may wonder what it takes to remain effective in a leadership position in a school. There are many factors that play into what it takes to remain effective, but today we will explore the importance of consistent feedback for school leaders

Why does a leader require feedback?

Feedback from your staff, board and parents is custom-made professional development for a leader. You can take all sorts of workshops and courses, but the feedback we receive from our community is based on the direct work we are doing in our schools – in real time. It differs from a good convention in that it is ALL customized for you and your growth!

The importance of being proactive

When leaders receive consistent feedback, it keeps you proactive and catches the concerns BEFORE they sneak up on you. It’s a little like getting your car checked out by a mechanic before you go on that 5,000 km trip out west and finding a leak in the radiator or a cracked belt. You want to hear about those things before you are driving up a 10,000-foot mountain in Golden, BC. The more you get in front of and own any concerns in your leadership, the healthier and more aware you will be.

It puts you in the driver's seat of your future.

The more proactive you are about asking for feedback, the better you can deal with the issues that come up proactively and get in front of them. It’s better to be aware of a concern than let it sneak up on you and blindside you. Blindsided feedback is always more painful because we then react. When we react, the community usually does not see our best side.

The dark side of walking blind

Ignoring this part of leadership is like catching a football in the middle of the field, closing your eyes, then running as fast as you can and hoping you don't hit anything. It rarely ends well for the leader. I can't tell you how many times I have been talking with an experienced leader who is going through challenges, and I ask them, “What did your last evaluation say about that?” only to have them answer, "Oh, I never did ask for any feedback in my entire 7 years at this school.” Follow up talks with these leaders are rarely positive. This saddens me, because most of the time these situations could have been avoided with consistent community feedback and input.

It gives you longevity in the school you serve

There is a significant amount of wisdom in being proactive and asking for feedback. The phrase among leaders is, ‘If your school board is asking for feedback on a principal then you missed your chance to be proactive'. Not that it is too late...but they may have heard rumblings and want to confirm what is going on. About 20 years ago a very experienced leader told me, “Only ask for feedback if you want to stay at your school for a while.” I never, ever forget that one. He added sarcastically, “If you are planning on leaving in a year or two...don't bother asking for feedback.”

His point was feedback equals longevity. The amount of feedback we ask for from our community on our leadership adds to our longevity as a leader in an organization. There is an extra urgency when someone is new at a school, and especially if a leader starts new into school leadership. Because, the reality is, we make our most mistakes in our first 5-7 years of leadership. Thus, it’s important to proactively shine the spotlight on those areas, getting in front of them and dealing with them early.

How often is best to ask for feedback?

It is a really good habit to ask for feedback from staff and board (include parents periodically as well) every year for the first three years when a leader starts at a school. There is some wiggle room after that to skip a year but, when starting at a new school (and especially starting new in leadership), you are growing in so many ways. Feedback each year is critical to know how to adjust and respond to the rhythm of a school.

Going back to the football example, it is a lot less painful processing your weaknesses on your terms, versus running blind at full speed and hitting one of the steel poles in the end zone, or worse yet, being painfully sacked by a linebacker who you never saw coming!

The longevity of a leader in a school is extended and deepened with consistent feedback from your community which allows you as leader to hold your professional development proactively in the palms of your hands.

Boards are called to walk this growth journey with the leader and remind him/her if they have missed a year or two. The more consistent feedback your leader receives, the better chance you have of seeing your leader grow and maintain their effectiveness over time, resulting in a healthy school.

As leaders we need to welcome the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit into our communities through feedback. It starts with having the courage to ask the question, “How am I doing as I provide leadership to this organization?”.

Rod Berg is Principal of Timothy Christian School in Barrie, and the Cohort Leader for Toronto North.