Updated: Jan 26
So much can be said on authenticity in the workplace. Personally, we both rely heavily on the works of Brene Brown (Dare to Lead) & Kim Scott (Radical Candor), and there’s no way we could even begin to say it more in-depth or eloquently as either. I especially enjoyed Kim Scott’s take on being a woman and being authentically direct if you haven’t read it yet. Both have done insane amounts of research and learned from the best of the best in the CEO world.
But do you find most of what is written on authenticity relates to workplaces that are not educational settings? There is just something so very unique about our role as educational leaders--we fill the roles of both servant and influencer, manager and leader. But what makes us truly unique to the role authenticity plays in leadership is the fact that children are a major part of who we serve. We know when working with adults, there are different levels of real that you can present with it being completely appropriate. With children, we have to be more intentional about when and how we showcase our truest feelings. And as one who influences adults who influence children, we often must be the leader our people need us to be in order to maintain our climate. So how do we work through this authenticity puzzle--ensuring we are never being ‘fake’ and staying true to our values while also being what others need us to be to keep the momentum moving forward for kids?
Consider the following 3 lessons in authenticity we’ve learned along the way in our educational leadership journeys.
1. Beware the Simplicity of “Your Own Cup” Analogy
There was a time in my first year as principal that was ROUGH. I am fortunate that I typically have a really solid and stable personal life: great husband, great kids, great family and friends. There was one particular time, though, that my dad’s health was really poor, and we didn’t have a lot of information. I was scared. To add insult to my already injured soul, my own kids got lice three times in a month (how is that even freaking possible?!). I vividly remember a moment when I was on the phone, crying, with a family member over the scare with my dad as my husband tells me my kids have lice for THE THIRD TIME that month. This. Pushed. Me. Over. I start sobbing. I get off the phone and we head to CVS. I’m looking a disheveled mess, eyes puffy and red, body aching and exhausted. Of course, right on cue, I hear the sound of a child in the next aisle over talking to his mom. I knew it right then and there, he was one of mine from school. He rounds the corner and is so stoked to see me. You can imagine how I was feeling in this moment--no ounce of my body had the energy to be the “Ms. Lamb” he knows from school. The one that makes him feel safe, loved and happy. But...that’s my role and that’s my job. Not just when I’m on the ‘clock’ because we all know principals don’t get the luxury of a ‘clock’ to punch in/out.
“Hey, buddy! How are you?! What are you doing here?! I’m so happy to see you!” My cup was empty. My heart was heavy. It was 9:00 at night, and I was just starting a lice treatment on my kids (does anyone feel sorry for me yet?). Showing what was going on inside didn’t serve anyone here, so I became the leader my community needs to be in that moment. We chatted for a while and the next time I saw him at school he was beyond excited to recall that moment we shared together at CVS.
On top of all of this, I had PD at my building the next morning I was in charge of leading. I shared some of this story briefly with my staff. They were so very kind and generous. They appreciated my honesty and ability to share my own struggles with them as they so often do with me. But they also trust in my strength as a leader to know I wouldn’t use that as an excuse to do a crap job at the PD that day or monopolize their time with my own issues when we all have things going on. My building, and the people in it, still needed me to gather my focus and do the job.
#selfcare is getting a lot of recognition right now in the social media sphere, and we’re all for it. But we also know that self care looks different depending on the phase of your life you are in and the circumstances life presents to you. I recently read an Insta post from a single mom friend of mine. Her kiddo struggles behaviorally, and she works tirelessly to find the support he needs. She’s spent. She works full time at her job and like so many single parents, works full time at home, too. She’s the end-all, be-all in her little family. A friend of hers recently told her, “You can’t fill from an empty cup, make sure you are taking care of yourself.” My friend disagreed. Her cup is often empty, but that doesn’t make her obligations disappear. She says, “If we only waited until our cups were full to pour into others, how long would they be waiting?”
2. Be What Your Building Needs, But With Your Own Twist
If you ask any substitute teacher they will tell you that each and every building has its own personality, energy and climate. When people get to visit different buildings, it becomes so much more obvious than when you live in that environment every day. It’s said so often, but so very true, all buildings need different things based on the people and circumstances. At any given time, the leader of a building might need to become: a bleeding heart, a heavy hand, manager of systems, the fun train conductor, a visionary and dreamer, a data interpreter, a bottom-up consensus builder, a top-down decision maker, a shoulder to cry on, a shoulder to stand on, more of the same, something new, a constant cheerleader, or a crazy combination of all of these things.
Some of these roles are not authentic to me depending on external factors or even my mood that day. And honestly, some of these roles aren’t authentic to me at all, ever. Do most principals LIKE hard conversations and being a board policy hammer? #NOPE. That is definitely not why any of us got into education (I hope!). But, are hard conversations and board policy important? #YEP.
Do I get a free pass from being a heavy hand just because it’s not authentic to me? Nope, not even for a second. Not if it’s what my building needs. However, I can hopefully find a way to do it that aligns with my personality and guiding principles. There is a way for me to still maintain the positive relationships I prioritize while being direct. I must find that way in order for my decisions and interactions to feel authentic to my staff as well.
3. Maintain Your Constancy--Especially When It’s Hard
Under the canopies of uncertainty that you walk into each day, you’ve got to have your principles steady as a principal. We know that each and every day, usually by 9:00 AM you will be faced with a multitude of ‘mini-crises’ that find their way into your path. How do you establish yourself as a leader who has predictable responses to staff and students, regardless of the situation? How will you be the constant so staff don’t feel afraid or uncomfortable sharing their opinions or problem solving with you? That level of emotional constancy (having a predictable response regardless of the situation) takes incredible practice, stability and confidence in who you are and the job you are hired to do.
A friend of mine told me about a leader she had who staff NEVER knew if he was going to react with a laugh and ‘that’s no problem’ response or to raise his voice and visibly show his frustration. People began working through their own issues without bringing them to him ever and people began to splinter off into mini-groups with different philosophies as there was no leader setting the tone for the organization. So not only did his inconsistent and inauthentic responses cause distrust in his relationship with individuals, but it also caused the group to splinter and change courses as well.
You are not always going to be at your best. You may be feeling ill, having issues in your personal life, have too much on your plate or feeling under appreciated. But these can never be excuses to waiver on constancy. These are times to fall back on those principles that guide you like dignity, positive energy, resourcefulness, relationships, empathy, etc. etc. This will allow your decisions and your responses to still be a reflection of YOU, even when you’re not at your own best.
What do you think? What lessons in authenticity have you learned along the way?