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- Be seen to work hard, but not too hard.
- Notice the small things that make your people unique.
- Deploy small actions that provide big, memorable impact.
- Know the story for how you lead.
- Assure congruence between the things you say matter
and the things people see you work on.
In recent years, the term legacy has been far more prominent in leadership circles than in the past. That’s a good thing. It signifies that we’ve moved past succession planning being a focus for leaders as they move through their work to roles potentially outside of their current schools. Succession planning in isolation is assumption laden, because it supposes that there is somebody who can be groomed for the role or that any new leader in the role will want to run the same programs and operate along the same procedures using the same templates.
“The goal isn’t to live forever. It is to create something that will.”
– Chuck Palahniuk
Legacy is a far deeper concept, making it more difficult to grasp and to manifest practically. Legacy is more about the personal impact of our work, the influence we have over the traits and attitudes of our staff and the behaviours that others take on beyond our direct daily influence. In essence, legacy is a far more meaningful imperative for school leaders to focus on. A direct focus on legacy is critical, because it is constantly forming, so it is important to be aware of what it is.
What builds legacy? When I reflect on the best school leaders that I’ve worked with and for, five big themes emerge. Exploring our work in relation to each of these themes is useful.
- Work Ethic
All worthwhile work is taxing. And school leadership is worthwhile. We want to work hard at it and be seen to work hard at it. Paradoxically, there are also limits to how hard we should work. Run an engine at 200 kmh constantly and it will quickly blow up. School leaders are the same. So we need to work hard, but there are also times that our people need to see us remove the foot from the accelerator. Think about how hard you want your people to work, and model working only a fraction harder than that to reflect the seriousness with which you regard your role.
- The Personal Touch
The best principal I ever worked for was June Wessels. June worked a full day in the office every Saturday. Sometimes I would sneak in for 2-3 hours of AP work on Saturdays too, because 2-3 hours on a Saturday was the same as 5-6 hours on a school day! As I entered the foyer, June would shout “Hi Adam!” One day I asked June how she knew it was me. After all, I wasn’t the only one who would pop in on the weekend. “I know the sound of your thongs on the floor.” she grinned in reply. It’s odd, but her noticing something so small and unique to me meant a great deal.
Icons are small, unique, repetitious acts that are highly noticeable. As a principal I took the mantra “Every class, every day” meaning I would visit each classroom daily. I made this work by giving myself yard duty before the morning bell and then wandering through each classroom, around 25 of them, before heading back to my office. Some days it took me an hour or two, most days it took 25-30 minutes and occasionally I would chase a PB and could get it done in less than 10 minutes. But it was time well invested. My staff rose to expectations and worked harder and smarter for my investment in being present where the rubber hits the road.
- Metaphors & Mantras
All Australians, reflecting the culture of Aboriginal Australians, are highly motivated by story. We make sense of big concepts through stories and love to search for morals and meanings in them. Today’s successful leaders are mindful to engage our staff with stories and not solely facts, standards and outcomes. Greg Jarvis, another great principal I worked for, would espouse daily that “Constant change is here to stay”. It was Greg’s way of preparing us for new, unexpected tasks or compliances, and minimising our resistance. Mantras are self-fulfilling and your staff certainly notice the words you use regularly. Choose them wisely.
Truly influential leaders do not spend inordinate amounts of time on low value tasks. Leaders who are constantly at their desks cannot expect to be viewed as instructional leaders. Leaders who run every staff meeting cannot be seen as distributive leaders. Leaders who do not craft decent assembly speeches cannot be seen as inspiring leaders. Ensuring that there is congruence between the work that you say is core, the values you espouse and your behaviours on a day-to-day basis is what matters.
With these themes in place, what does your leadership team need to change in order to build a positive legacy?