I learned one of my first real lessons about leadership in college.  And I learned it the hard way.

Nerd alert.

I was the business manager for my a cappella group, The Other Guys.  We were known across the country for our unique style, our tight harmonies, and our comical schtick. In fact, the year before I joined the group, they placed third in the world at the International Championship for Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA).  As a result, I was humbled and honored not only to be in the group, but to be the group’s manager.  Likewise, I immediately became worried that I’d mess something up, and so, in an effort to make sure none of that happened, I became a control freak.

Little did I know that, in the process of trying to control everything, I would, in effect, screw more up than if I had just let go a little bit in the first place.  But it was a good lesson to learn.  It prepared me for what was out there in the real world, and it’s truly become my anchor learning experience for how to (and how to not) be a leader.

Sure, through my anxious and controlling management style, we accomplished a lot, and we managed to do so efficiently, but what I didn’t realize was that, in the process, I was siphoning myself off, alienating myself from the group.  I was constantly stressed and carrying the weight of my own anxiety and negativity.

When I look back now, I’ve realized that my so-called efficiency as a manager actually made me more inefficient.  What I neglected to do was slow down, invest time in the relationships with my group members, and enjoy the ride.  Instead, I was a task master and I was impatient, leaving little to no room for failure.

Luckily since then, albeit with many bumps in the road, I’ve learned a few things about what it means to be a leader, especially in a school.

Lead by showing, not telling.  It’s all too easy to sit in your leadership chair and tell everyone what the best solutions are.  But more often than not, that’s not what people want.  Instead, other educators need leaders who model best practices for collaboration and who inspire through subtlety.

Put relationships first.  This is one that’s always been hard for me, as my example above proves, and it’s even been tough for me in recent years.  It’s not because I have bad intentions; instead, it’s because I have the best intentions–intentions of doing things to the best of my ability.  But the place where I went wrong was assuming that the best of my ability was synonymous with doing things “right,” the telltale mistake of a leadership rookie.  Alas, truth is subjective and the “right” way to do things carries, quite possibly, even more subjectivity.  The best way to be productive and efficient is to build trust and independence in your teammates, and you can only do that through building relationships.

Regulate your emotions, but don’t suffocate them. I’ve always been the kind of person who wears his heart on his sleeve.  When I’m upset, it’s generally obvious.  Truth be told, I like that about myself, even though it’s something I’ve tried to change on many occasions.  What I’ve learned is that our emotions make us who we are, and more so, they show that we care.  Having said that, learning to regulate emotions and communicate them in a mature way helps to build that aforementioned trust and create a culture of authentic feedback on your team.

Don’t become a leader only for you.  Too many school leaders want to become one to build their own legacy.  While it’s good to want to make an impact, it’s not helpful if your first priority in making an impact is opportunistic.  It’s easy to smell opportunism from a mile away.  Likewise, authentic leadership and a genuine interest in helping others reach their full potential is easy to spot, too.  Personally, I’d rather be the latter.

Take time to stop and listen to the music.  If I could go back six years, back to the time when I was given my first real leadership opportunity, I think what I would do most differently is slow down.  I was so concerned with myself, so fixated on what others would think if I failed, when all along, no one was expecting me to be perfect.  What they were expecting was support and friendship.  I wish I would have stopped, listened, and led from the behind more.  Because the music we made as a team–with each of us leading and supporting one another–was more beautiful than the music I could have ever made by myself.


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