When Leaders Go First

I’ve been working with two, small groups of teachers. We meet monthly for around 90 minutes in a virtual meeting about teacher leadership skills. Given the state of the world, we’ve never met in-person. We’ve been meeting since August and after our October meeting, I started to realize that our sense of connection and our energy was lagging. At first, I thought it was because we had not met in-person.

I felt like I was doing the right things. Connecting at the start of the meeting, interactive and relevant content, breakout rooms…

Why were these meetings so stiff? Why did these meeting make me sweat? Why wasn’t I excited to come to these meetings?

Then, I realized. It was me.

I was stiff. I wasn’t being natural and deeply honest. In an effort to bring my professional, shiny self to this space, in an effort to be impressive and respectable, I had become less human and less relatable. As a result, all of us and the space we shared had become, well, a bit rigid and stuffy.

Put quite simply, I need to get over myself and risk looking like the less than perfect person I truly am.

So, at our November meeting, I asked if instead of a professional check-in if we could just be people. And talk openly about how hard things are right now.

And we did. We talked openly about our unique struggles and circumstances and ways of coping. It was beautiful and therapeutic. Afterward, we were primed and ready to be connected in our work. Before ending our meeting, people asked for more of this kind of authenticity and connection. People quite simply asked for space for our humanity.

So, during our December meeting, I shared The Blob Tree which I learned about from my friend, Allison Curran. The Blob Tree is a picture of many different blob people who are in different positions on the tree and expressing different emotions that are up for interpretation. I shared that I was #14 at the moment. The one falling from the tree. I admitted that I wasn’t totally sure that I was OK. I shared that I was specifically struggling with feelings of isolation and as a result, I was overthinking my interactions with others. I was spiraling through worries about what I did, didn’t, could have said, how I said it. It was consuming parts of my thought life in an unproductive manner.

This opened up conversation about how a few others had been feeling the same. It also gave them the opportunity encourage me, and they did with specific, positive feedback during the meeting and in follow-up emails. Something that I had never expected nor asked for but soon realized I really needed.

Consequently, in a cohort about leadership, being open about my struggle had given participants the opportunity to demonstrate leadership.

I worry that if we don’t share struggles as leaders, we make leadership something that only perfect people do. And there are no perfect people. Leadership looks intimidating, scary, and impossible without leaders who lead from their messy humanity. Leadership looks scary without leaders who say, “You know what, I don’t know exactly how to do this, but I care deeply, and I’m going to try, fail, learn, and try again.”

People are always watching what we do and what we say as leaders. We have a choice. We can allow that truth to put us behind a “mask” where we hide our true selves, our struggles, our deficits and therefore our learning. Or we can see it as an opportunity to model what’s possible. We can model listening, apologizing, grace, forgiveness, not knowing, a desire to learn.

We should all be competent. Kids need us to be competent. Teachers need us to be competent. Schools need us to be competent. However, my definition of competence is expanding. It’s expanding to include meaningful self-awareness and truth-telling.

May we be so bravely and freely ourselves that others feel comfortable doing the same.

Often, leaders should go last, but when it comes to vulnerability, great leaders go first.

3 thoughts on “When Leaders Go First

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  1. I enjoyed the piece Meghan. We are influenced by the hero leader and they symbolically go first. Freud’s work on leadership in the context of the hero leader (Great Man theory) is strangely relevant these days when great leaders are in short supply and multiple forces propel us to seek heroes.

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