Forget About Speaking Up: Listen Up to Great Leadership
By Brandy Price
Bernard Baruch, who was the confidante of six presidents, noted that “most of the successful people [he had] known [were] the ones who [did] more listening than talking.” With rising malpractice claims troubling the medical industry, multiple studies reinforce Baruch’s message: poor listening skills not only cost relationships but also dollars.
At a school, far more than dollars are on the line. The near adage “it takes a village” reinforces the importance of effective communication. In deconstructing the communication practices of great leaders I have known, I have arrived what I call the “four-part harmony”—or the four best practices that make a difference.
The best way to know what is going on at a school is to truly listen to the people who inhabit it. This means listening without multitasking. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average human attention span is eight seconds (one second fewer than a run-of-the-mill goldfish). In other words, undistracted, focused listening is not going to be easy. Recently, I made it a goal to consciously stop what I was doing and turn around to face the speaker. In addition to receiving compliments on this new practice, I also realize that I have a better grasp of the happenings of the school.
In the movie Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank says, “I see who you are . . . I can see you. And you are not failing.” How would any of us ever know if someone is failing if they are a mystery to us? We must get to know our teammates. We must learn their aspirations, dreams, and fears—the things that move and shake and inspire them.
Recently, a teacher came to me because she had lost a close family member. She only felt safe to do so because of the many conversations that preceded this one. Establishing relationships with teachers is essential. Leave the office door open (allow individuals to sign up for time if things get too busy). Stop by classrooms and mingle with teachers, families, and students before and after school. Pop in the cafeteria at breakfast and lunch. Drop by the copy room and teachers how they are doing.
The life of a school leader is intricate and fast moving, but the time spent building relationships is never wasted.
- Admit Failure (Be Honest)
Early on in his career, Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he lacked an imagination. Now, the Disney empire is worth billions of dollars. And what was good enough for Disney is certainly good enough for the rest of us. This is particularly true because failing is in many ways trying. Recently, I was asked to set a mile time goal. I set 10 minutes as the mark because I did not want to fail and then coasted for two full months before changing my tune. With a more rigorous goal, I had to try—and fail—a lot more before achieving it.
To build a culture based on continuous improvement, I make my goals transparent and am honest when I fail at them. I give my teammates the same right—to stumble as we all strive to get better together.
- Build on Strengths
On the TV show Boy Meets World, Shawn says, “You never gave up on me. Never once. I’m not going to forget you. You’re the best person I know.”
From a practical standpoint, this means emphasizing and reinforcing each individual’s strengths and talents and leveraging them. If we are to transform education, then pockets of excellence must become extraordinary seas of greatness.
Will you ever get the lemon that no amount of inspiration can convert into lemonade? Sure. Ninety-nine percent of the time, however, building on the talents of your school community will lead to more engagement, more inspiration, and more achievement.
Leadership, when done right, is one of the most complex, sophisticated, and beautiful things on the planet; a great leader can elevate and inspire individuals to accomplish phenomenal things. At the forefront of leadership is listening, which, in turn, allows us to understand and appreciate the beat of the all of the drums that come together to give a school its voice—a song well worth hearing.