Leadership Capacity - Beyond Skills Development to Productive Habits (or “Why good credentials and a Sabbath rest won’t necessarily build capacity”)

By Kevin Huinink  |  June 6th

“Remember back in the days when we just taught?” This question, likely more of an invitation to reminisce, was offered to me not long ago by a fellow Christian school administrator. It was not meant in any way to be diminutive of the role or responsibilities of a teacher, but rather a longing for the simplicity of a defined role around a specific subject in a specific classroom with specific students as assigned. After a few blissful moments where we shared a few memories through rose-coloured glasses, conveniently forgetting about the challenges and complexities that our former teaching roles carried, we snapped back to reality and the business at hand that we needed to discuss. What I wonder now, is whether this conversation occurred at a moment when we questioned our own capacity for leadership.

In both of our cases, as with many school leaders, we had at some point self-assessed or been encouraged to pursue a position in administration based on the belief that we had the capacity and potential to take on the complexities of a leadership role. That assessment had been validated by a board’s decision to hire us to take on the task.

Leadership capacity is an interesting, if not fluid and moving concept. Certainly, our capacity for leadership can be developed, grown, and deepened through the learning and attainment of skills, mentorship, and study. There is no shortage of academic and professional offerings on the market promising to increase your leadership capacity and potential. Bookstores and libraries are stocked with books on the topic of leadership written by the best and the brightest; the proven and successful leaders looking either to advance and invest in you or to profit off of your desire to be as successful as they have been.

Mind Tools online offers a questionnaire to assess your leadership capacity, resulting in an evaluation of your present abilities in the areas of Self-Confidence, Positive Attitude and Outlook, Emotional Intelligence, Providing a Compelling Vision of the Future, Motivating People to Deliver the Vision, Being a Good Role Model, Managing Performance Effectively, Providing Support and Stimulation. The resulting score indicates whether you fall into the category of Excellent, OK, or ‘You need some work’.

Are these categories desirable in a leader? Yes, they are, but you can perhaps sense my cynicism at the simplicity of such a tool. If the leadership balance sheet was simply a matter of stacking up enough abilities, strengths, and credentials, the path to successful leadership would be rather formulaic. Beyond the credentials each of us can acquire and stack up, however, our leadership capacity is also affected by the challenges our positions present, and our own personal capacity to take these challenges on.

This article is being published in June 2022, at the end of a school year that I will hazard a guess has been the most challenging leadership year that any of us has faced. The realities of a mid-to-post-pandemic world have presented trials far beyond the catharsis of the school and community lockdowns of 2020. Despite having a healthy pedigree, many school leaders are also experiencing and living the realities of a world that is attempting to transition back to ‘normal’. This transition period has taken its toll on almost every corner of society, including the social and emotional health of leaders. I’ll posit here that those in Christian school leadership have a deeper challenge as they need to, at least on the surface, communicate confidence and calm so that their community has someone to look to for reassurance that their school is going to be okay.

Closer to the centre of the balance sheet is a look not at WHAT a leader can achieve, but WHO a leader is. Jeff Boss, a former Navy SEAL, writes in Forbes magazine about the characteristics of a good leader, including courage, clarity, and curiosity. These are all excellent characteristics that would serve a Christian school leader well in a time of upheaval and change. Our own Edvance articles have identified courage as necessary. Both Patrick Lencioni and Brené Brown argue for the need for clarity, and if you know me well, you know my own affinity for curiosity as both a creative and a redemptive posture.

In his book A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman says is that the problem in leadership is not a failure of competency, but a failure of identity. Terry Wardle, in a conversation with Carey Niewhof, asserts that “this means that many people and leaders are not stable in their identity, and as a result, they use performance and achievement as a way of advancing themselves. And … no matter how much you move them towards competency, if they don't know who they are and if they're not a differentiated leader, it's going to lead to serious problems.” Perhaps we could label all of this as character.

So, we have credentials, skills and preparation, identity, and posture. Many of the leaders I know and those reading thus far have both skills/abilities and character to match, and yet leadership capacity has and is being tested to new lengths. I’ve spoken to more Christian school leaders across North America in the past year who question whether they have the capacity to fulfill the leadership tasks they are faced with.

The ability, time, and/or space to absorb and process challenging and even negative experiences or challenges is the final necessary piece to the capacity question. It’s what my colleague and I were discussing during our reflection at the beginning of this article; essentially the realization that in our leadership roles we need to be able to listen, understand, and deal appropriately with challenging people and situations. My own capacity to do so can be affected by how full my ‘stress bucket’ is, which is the sum total of all of the various challenges I am dealing with at the time.

Heading into summer, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves of the need for rest, to unplug from work, and to reset physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Proper access to qualified counselling adds to our capacity to process difficulty as it intersects with our own mental health. Time with God and delving into spiritual self-care where we focus on the saving grace of Christ, and a love of and service to others also provides stamina, rejuvenation, and renewal. And yet…..

Carey Nieuwhof explains that hope in these healthy rhythms to provide the needed capacity for leadership will ultimately not be enough. After some time away (perhaps a short break, a summer rest, or even a sabbatical), leaders often find themselves quickly lacking the capacity to deal with the challenges ahead of them. Let’s fast forward to September of the coming school year (or let’s be honest - the beginning of August is when the work really begins). How quickly will your capacity to lead remain in good shape until you need another break? Nieuwhof asserts that “The problem for most exhausted and depleted leaders isn’t how you spend your time off, it’s how you spend your time on.” Nieuwhof offers some suggestions along with some guided focus and even a free online course designed to prevent burnout and to reschedule your work to be more productive. At a time when we are emerging from crisis and hardship and are likely exhausted and depleted, his own personal experience with burnout has a few gems for us to (re)build and protect our capacity as Christian school leaders:

  1. Grieve. That’s right, mourn the losses and process them. Carey suggests that ministry is a series of ungrieved losses, and so is life. Write them down, acknowledge what didn’t happen that could have or should have, and give them up. This may be a great end-of-the-year activity as a review for your staff or leadership team.
  2. Make some categorical decisions on what to move off of your plate. You can’t do it all. What will you delegate, what will you schedule only to specific times, and what will you eliminate altogether? In so doing, what do you now have the capacity for that is more important than what you’ve moved away? Likewise, is there something post-pandemic that you’ve begun again that should have remained sidelined? Challenge yourself to shake your head at what you’ve resumed and put it away for good.
  3. Set boundaries and get a hobby or schedule time for yourself. Work, thanks to the wonders of technology, will make its way into every corner of your life if you let it, crowding out the things that are most valuable to you like family, health, and your own sanity. I’ll admit that I’m better at saying this than actually doing it. I should have gone for a run this evening instead of reviewing the stack of emails that I would have been able to better and more efficiently process after a good post-run sleep.

As a leadership team at my school, we’ve attempted (we’re in the process of getting there!) to schedule three days a year where we each individually and intentionally do something that benefits us physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. (Perhaps a partial day out hiking, lunch out with our friend or spouse, time in meditation, or doing what we know feeds our soul.) We’ve also intentionally attempted to take on work tasks that bring us joy and that align with our abilities, delegating and trading the tasks that we aren’t great at and that bring us stress to others who can do them much better.

For the record, I certainly do miss the days when I “just taught”, but I don’t regret a move to leadership, especially when I’ve taken the time to ensure that I have the capacity to take on the task (skills, proper posture, and the ability to process and absorb difficult ‘stuff’). When my capacity is there, I, like you, relish the challenge and joy that serving in leadership can bring.

Blessings to you as you finish your school year, take a needed break, and work to actively build your personal and team capacity to serve God with and in your community.

Kevin Huinink is the Lower Grand Cohort Leader for Edvance, and Executive Director at Cairn Christian School, with campuses in Smithville and Stoney Creek, Ontario.