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Leadership Lessons from Santa

Screen shot 2012-12-08 at 7.26.30 PMDuring the holiday season I love listening to Christmas music in my car and at home. I sing along – sometimes at the top of my lungs. It always puts me in a festive mood. One song in particular has conjured thoughts to educational leadership.

Many know the story of the young reindeer named Rudolph. He lived in a community made up of many other reindeer – all of whom would laugh and call him names. They never let Rudolph join in any reindeer games. But, Rudolph was fortunate. A strong leader came to his rescue. This jolly individual helped identify Rudolph’s strengths. One strength in particular glowed. Once the others noticed the good in this illuminating trait, they assured him he MATTERED and that he’d go done in history!

Whether we work with children or adults we can all learn from Rudolph’s story and Santa’s strength-based leadership tactics. Rudolph’s life story changed because Santa found a way to turn what others saw as a weakness into a strength.

Perhaps Santa read Tom Rath’s book Strengths-Based Leadership. The key findings from the research done for the book, as noted on the Strength’s website, include:

“The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organization’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organization’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold.” (T. Roth)

  • Santa knew the night was foggy. He needed to invest in Rudolph’s strengths in order for them to accomplish their job. In doing so, Rudolph’s life and even the lives of the other reindeer changed forever. Not only did Rudolph go “down in history” but so did Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.

How will the lives of our students and teachers in our schools change if we invest in their strengths? Roth found that when leaders invested in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged went up eightfold. Student and staff engagement is critical. Two approaches come to mind.

One is to develop the strengths of a building leadership team on a particular approach that will be implemented at the school level in the future. These individuals can become the ambassadors to the approach and later help train their fellow colleagues. We all become more engaged when we see that what we are involved in has been successful. Having a school based leadership team learn and implement an approach prior to the full staff allows the team to have first hand accounts of its success with students and plans for how to overcome pitfalls.

Another way to build upon educators strengths is the #edcamp model sweeping the world. #Edcamps are usually held on a Saturday, but I have also read where school-based professional development in some areas have embraced this form of learning. This model allows all participants to have a voice and learn from each other. I have participated in several EdCamps. It is empowering to watch this strength-based professional learning model unfold.

“The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team. While the best leaders are not well-rounded, the best teams are. Strong, cohesive teams have a representation of strengths in each of these four domains: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking.” (T. Roth)

  • Because of Santa’s actions, the team’s perspective of Rudolph’s bright nose changed and the reindeer became a much stronger, well-rounded team. How do you identify the strengths of those around you? Do you see people or students fitting into the 4 domains that Roth explains – executing, influencing, relationship building or strategic thinking? Can one of these areas actually be someone’s weakness that we guide to a strength? Everyone can be a leader. I’m reminded of a 3rd grader I had the pleasure of working with a few years ago.

This student was considerably below his peers in the area of reading. Behavior issues compounded his struggles. His teacher and I worked together in helping him change his perceptions. One thing we did was to have a talk with the student privately. His behavior was not only getting in the way academically but socially as well. We shared with the student that he possessed leadership characteristics. Leaders can lead or influence negatively or positively. We all agreed (the student included) that his current behaviors were influencing others in a negative way. With a few small changes, we helped guide the student to turn this weakness into a strength. We told the child that he would become the class line leader. This position was meant for those that could be trusted. It was a position that set the example for all that follow throughout their daily travels in the school. If students were guided in a positive way to their destination, it set the tone for the whole classes behavior and the learning that could transpire. For instance, if students were led to an assembly in a quiet and polite manner, those characteristics formed how students sat at the assembly. If students were led to music class by a strong leader, the class would be more engaged in the music class.

Within several weeks negative behavior situations subsided, he became more engaged in the instruction and he began making steady progress. When I visited his intervention session he was excited to share his learning and show me what he did as a good reader! Just the simple smiles we continued to exchange in the halls or classroom setting proved to me this approach helped make a difference in his life. I’m happy to report that his reading reached grade level expectations and his teacher said he became a positive role model for other in the classroom.

“The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs. People follow leaders for very specific reasons. When we asked thousands of followers, they were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.” (T. Roth)

  • Santa embodied the leadership traits of trust, compassion, stability and hope in the Rudolph story above. Both children and Santa’s staff followed him because he understood their needs. Children around the world were counting on his arrival. They trusted he would visit. He wasn’t about to let a foggy night get in his way. He didn’t want to let them down. He showed compassion for Rudolph and gave him stability and hope by helping to turn what others thought was a weakness into a strength.

I am reminded of a book entitled When Life Meets Leadership (B. Wright, E. Smith-Bright, L. Howell, and J. Fujii). I have been fortunate to work with two of the authors personally. The book jacket describes the book as…

“Leading in life and leading in your profession require the same powerful framework, a balance of People, Purpose, Passion and Perseverance. The framework is simple by design, and with deeper understanding, these four central themes can work together to enrich your life and help you embrace your leadership potential. People with Purpose applying Passion to achieve Perseverance will reach their Potential in life.

These four areas people, purpose, passion and perseverance work in tandem with Roth’s characteristics of trust, compassion, stability, and hope. I had the pleasure of having one of the authors of When Life Meets Leadership for a principal. Bill Wright was a principal that understood the needs of his followers. I personally saw how he weaved building trusting relationships with people to provide the hope needed by guiding our school to develop a strong purpose. His passion for education and the needs of the students and staff provided us the stability we needed to move forward. He compassion for doing whatever it takes to achieve that purpose led the way. I learned a great deal from Dr. Wright as a teacher on his staff, through our lasting friendship and in his book. His influence has made a lasting impact on the type of leader I have become. I am honored that he is one of my references as I search for an elementary principal position.

Next time you listen to the story of Rudolph perhaps you will reflect upon your own leadership traits and the characteristics of leader who have influenced you. Providing life changing leadership is possible, especially if we build upon each individuals’ strengths.

1 Comment

  • Fran McVeigh (@franmcveigh) 23 Dec

    Kathy,
    Happy Holidays! Perfect connection to Santa and Rudolf.

    I saw Santa (one of his helpers) at a family dinner today and I noted the different responses to him from the littlest to the oldest in the crowd. A one year old toddler was not impressed with Santa’s fake beard or mustache and she screamed for rescue. Other children crawled up on his lap and whispered their Christmas wishes. Santa questioned whether they “had been good” and many replied, “sometimes,” “most of the time,” and “nuh,huh.”

    The excitement, happiness, and “positivety” in the room encompassed all. How can that spirit be captured in classrooms when students return after the holiday break? How can that spirit be a part of “learning?”

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