Leading with ABC

(Guest Blogger: Mark Hale, November 2021)

“Why go forth boldly when you can be driven by fear.” Cathy

As a very young head of school this quote from the Cathy comic strip made quite an impression on me, and over the course of my career I have often asked myself if I was leading boldly or from fear. As time passed, I became a more knowledgeable and skillful leader, leading less frequently from fear and more frequently from a calmer more connected place – sometimes boldly, but more often, thoughtfully. I also came to understand that school leaders aren’t the only ones who sometimes lead from fear. Teachers are quite frequently driven by the desire to please parents, administrators, and students and can get caught in this conundrum as well.

Being clear about what drives and motivates us is an important attribute of leadership and a key to leading from boldness. And, helping others to learn what motivates their decisions and helping them to grow are important elements of the mentoring that good leaders must do in schools. Self-determination theory can be a helpful cornerstone upon which to build your leadership and in finding ways to support the growth and development of both yourself and the promising talent in your faculty and administration.

Self-determination theory grew from the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who introduced the theory in their 1985 book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior. The theory posits that people are naturally inclined to improve themselves and their situations and gain greater mastery in overcoming challenges. It also focuses on developing each individual’s internal or intrinsic sources of motivation, such as a need to gain knowledge or independence rather than extrinsic motivators such as fear. Deci and Ryan found that people who felt competent (had developed mastery and confidence in doing their work), autonomous (in control of their own behaviors and goals), and had a sense of relationship or connectedness (a sense of belonging or attachment) excelled in their lives and their work. 

A more frequent examination of what intrinsic factors motivate us and understanding the external factors that sometimes drive us can help us to control our behaviors, set goals, and make more effective decisions. Greater competence leads to greater confidence and can be gained through reading, attending conferences and workshops, and working with a leadership coach. Making decisions that are best for our school communities is enhanced when we make strong connections with faculty, parents, board members and the larger communities in which we work.

Looking critically at the role that competence, autonomy, and connectedness, play in our daily work leading our communities will help us to strengthen both our own leadership skills and those of the people with whom we work.

In an effort to foster feelings of competence, autonomy, and connectedness for employees at Greensboro Day School, we began a leadership training program. Believing that everyone in our organization had the ability to lead at some level, we began with ten teachers and staff who were interested in strengthening their skills in order to become effective in their work. The program provided both training and real-life opportunities to put their skills to work in ways that would further the mission of the school. Meeting monthly over the course of a year and more frequently in smaller groups, participants gained a greater connection with their colleagues along with a deeper understanding of the complexities of leadership. The results were very positive and led to greater employee connection to the school and greater satisfaction in their work.

As funny as it may sound, sometimes, even a comic strip can lead us to think more deeply about what motivates us in our work and in leading others.

Mark Hale worked as a professional actor before returning to school and beginning his teaching career at the Bush School in Seattle. His first position as Head of School was at the Peninsula Heritage School in Rolling Hills, CA. He subsequently led schools in New Mexico and again in California before culminating his career in North Carolina with 13 years as Head of Greensboro Day School. Mark has served on the regional and national boards of SAIS, NCAIS, the Weatherspoon Museum, and numerous schools, as well as the Greensboro Science Center, and the National Coalition for Community and Justice. He is the recipient of the Change Agent Award from the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce for his work in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He currently works as a leadership coach and consultant with leaders across the nation.