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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisa Gonzales

Four Questions

Looking to build stronger relationships? Better understand staff needs? Whether a new or veteran administrator, leaders need to discern the needs of their staff and then establish and maintain strong relationships. Much of that leading, since we are in a people business, comes from the heart and not the head.

Leading from the heart can be better navigated with four questions that highlight trust and empathy, understanding and compassion. Each of these questions should be viewed from the perspective of our staff and how we reflect on how they respond can strengthen personal reflection:

- Can I help you?

- How can I care for you?

- Can you trust me?

- How can you help me?

Can I help you? As leaders, teams of teachers, classified staff, and fellow administrators rely on us, not to mention parents and students. They need to know that we are here to help and are dependable at times when the going gets rough, and all the time in between. Helping others is at the heart of leadership, and competence, but also reinforces the reason our role as leaders exist: to provide some type of support for others. Regardless of assignment at a school site or district office, our focus needs to be on assisting others.

A leader needs to be able to move an organization to grow, expand, adapt, care, support, and the list goes on. Principal Cyndi Maijala in Portola Valley School District meets with teachers during goal setting meetings and specifically asks how she can help them become more effective. “Seeking their input helps guide my work,” she said. “It begins a conversation that often takes my leadership a different direction, actualizing the support that comes with follow through and assistance.”

How can I care for you? This is the where the rubber meets the road for school leaders. Caring for others is a quality that can’t be taught and is at the heart of leadership. Leaders need to be compassionate, sympathetic, and empathetic. Staff, students, and parents need to know that we care. The leader has to take interest in the work, the people, the mission, and the organization, or move on to another position where the outward sense of compassion can be tempered in a different role.

Even in a large district, leaders can show they care for their staff. Vista Unified Superintendent Devin Vodicka adds that special touch by trying to learn the names of all 2400 employees, getting to know his administrators holistically, encouraging vacation time, and adding wellness initiatives that help balance the lives of staff members. He adds, “caring and compassion must be genuine and I strive for all those I interact with to feel that sense of authenticity I sincerely feel.”

Can you trust me? Alas, the age old question. Trust is an essential leadership skill, and can make or break us. For those leaders who have entered into a new role where trust was lacking, reestablishing it isn’t a quick, simple task. Leaders have to work significantly harder to establish relationships, build new foundations of trust, focus on the needs of students, and work through landmines that come up along the way as a result of the history of the situation at a site or in a district.

Milpitas Unified Superintendent Cheryl Jordan builds trust through frequently touching base with site and district colleagues. “When we allow the communication gap to widen, we fill in our own misconceptions and anxiety. Instead of building trust, we fortify our defenses.” She models management my movement with her team, visiting sites and fostering greater communication and trust.

How can you help me? Whether they say it or not, our staff does want to help and support our work. As a whole, they have a vested interest in our success and that of the district. They may not specifically ask what they can do to support us, but our staff members really do want to know what they can do to provide support and help us assimilate into new roles, or to thrive in new projects and tasks that ultimately benefit students.

Darrien Johnson, Director of Human Resources in the Rescue Union School District, has her staff help her by bringing her in the loop early. She said, “They are ultimately helping me if they share a concern about any matter concerning personnel early on so we can collaboratively intervene, saving us time in the long run.”

Used together, these four questions can begin to make up the foundation of leadership, and of leading from the heart. Positive and inspiring leadership that makes a difference begins with keeping questions like these in the back of our minds when we work, or more explicitly as probing questions when the setting is appropriate. If asked, how do you think your staff might respond to each and your heart as a leader?

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