Learn and Lead
Leadership Skills and Implementation

District-Level Leadership: Modeling Consistent Messaging

By Terry Wilhelm

Past posts on consistent messaging for district leaders have focused on how to improve student learning by ensuring that district-level bureaucratic structures support — and do not impede — the work of teachers and school leaders.

Why district offices can’t see red tape

In his book Masterful Coaching, Robert Hargrove writes, “People are like goldfish in the water. Just as the water is invisible to goldfish, people’s environments are largely invisible to them. They don’t see that given the corporate climate they are in, they have given up and adapted to the absurd.”

Although they may have given up and adapted to it, administrators and support staff at school sites who frequently encounter inconsistent messages or bureaucratic red tape are frustrated by them. However, these problems may be invisible to those swimming in them at the district office — until someone questions a policy or procedure.

When that happens, the district leader’s response is likely to be defensive because the process in question is seen as essential to the office’s ability to be efficient and accountable to specific regulations, laws, safety mandates, and so on. Sometimes the tension between the two positions can seem irreconcilable.

Reconciling site and district issues using ‘Yes, and…’

One assistant superintendent of instruction adopted a “Yes, and . . .” approach to mediating issues between site administrators and district office departments. This kind of modeling supports all involved parties. While “Yes, but . . . ” implies that someone is wrong, “Yes, and . . .” first affirms the person who is objecting or becoming defensive, then serves to keep the conversation open to the possibility of resolution.

If the superintendent’s principals were complaining about a policy involving another department, this diplomacy prevented both sides from shutting down during the course of the conversation and often led to solutions. If the issue involved something or someone in her own department, a “Yes, and…” response was equally effective in diffusing defensive responses from supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates.

Restating the district’s central purpose

She’d then continue with what she called her “broken record technique,” saying something like, “Yes, and remember, our central purpose is to support the sites to improve student learning. Their central purpose is not to support us.” This particular mantra was useful in conversations with her direct reports and individual employees in her department, as well as in department meetings, where she continuously returned to her central message of service.

Transforming a district culture to a service culture most effectively begins at the top, with the district superintendent and executive cabinet. However, modeling can be done from anywhere in a hierarchy. In his concept of 360-degree leadership, author John Maxwell often speaks and writes of the importance of leading up: supporting and modeling problem-solving for supervisors and superiors as well as subordinates.

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