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Listening, Leadership, and Change

What trait will serve you the most as a school leader? There is no shortage of lists extolling the most important knowledge, skills, and abilities that school leaders should hold. Twenty years ago SEDL suggested that the following six traits were key for leaders to possess in order to facilitate school change: being visionary, believing that schools are for learning, valuing human resources, communicating and listening effectively, being proactive, and taking risks. Leithwood et al. concluded that three sets of practices comprise the basics of successful leadership: the ability to set direction, develop people, and redesign the organization.  

But which among these is the “gateway” trait? By that I mean, which trait is the one you should lead with? Which trait, if exhibited first, will pave an easier path to other beneficial practices?  I have concluded in the last year that it’s empathy. 

In April of this year I facilitated a workshop at the Iowa 1:1 Institute. The point of the workshop was fairly straightforward. First, I wanted to introduce educators to concept of design thinking, an approach to developing new solutions to challenging issues in education. But more importantly, I wanted them to think differently about how 1:1 initiatives could be improved by introducing a new expert to the conversation: the student. In our workshop the educators were divided into teams of four, each team empathetically interviewing a high school student about his or her needs, feelings, and aspirations, and how the use of laptops might make their lives better. 

That last part may sound a bit daunting: how to make students’ lives better. But making a big difference in a student’s life is not all that difficult. All one needs to do is ask key questions and then start listening. 

After interviews, the teams brainstormed new solutions with the students on how laptops could be integrated to meet student needs. This portion of the workshop yielded scores of ideas. To narrow things down, each team was asked to identify four ideas: The Longshot (but would be awesome if we could do it), The Rational Choice, The Most Likely To Delight, and Team Favorite.

I asked a student at one of the tables what idea would be a longshot to her. I phrased the question as follows: “What’s one thing that you’re certain your school will never, ever, ever do but, if it did, would be utterly amazing for you?” 

Her reply?  “Skype,” she said.  


To her, the idea of allowing the use of Skype in her school was a complete longshot.  It’s not as though she hoped for all online classes using just Facebook. She didn’t want her school to abolish homework.  She wanted something in her school that for many others would fall into the rational choice category. But for her it would be amazing. 

By getting to know students, and understanding the issues of schooling from their perspective, you boost your ability to lead in a human-centered way. You also provide those around you with the improved courage and strength to communicate with you on issues that are important to them.  It’s the gateway trait. Empathetic listening allows leaders to better set direction, puts people at the center of their leadership approach, and allows for redesign of the organization in a way that respects the values, needs, aspirations of those within it. 

Photo credit (CC) Flickr user appoulsen


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