How to Build Self-Awareness & Improve Your K12 Leadership
Self-awareness as a school leader is more than just looking in the mirror. It involves understanding how others perceive and experience you as well. It’s a combination of emotional intelligence: how clearly we can name our own values, beliefs, biases, and perspectives plus how much we recognize the ways in which we are received and the kind of leadership others think we are capable of. This combination can help remove barriers and actually help fuel teacher efficacy and student achievement.
Here’s why internal and external input matters
Imagine for a moment: You’re a principal who invests time in talking with all of your teachers. You think that you are building trusting relationships, that your teachers are being open in return. At the same time, you frequently turn to the same two colleagues for input on schoolwide decisions. In meetings, you always ask for their opinion. You are often seen working in each other’s offices and long after the school day is over. The three of you seem inseparable.
Your teachers see this pattern and wonder about the influence of those relationships. They are afraid of disagreeing with your colleagues publicly, or conversely, sharing their thoughts with them for fear it will go straight to you. Some teachers are jealous of your relationship and feel excluded. Others think you are weak because they perceive it to mean that you cannot make a decision on your own. Instead of a culture of trust, in this hypothetical example, the principal is creating a culture of apprehension and doubt.
Self-awareness as a school leader is more than just looking in the mirror. It involves understanding how others perceive and experience you as well.
Every day, in big and small ways, our values and perceptions and biases (we all have them) shape the decisions we make and actions we take as school and district leaders. They inform how you advance a shared vision, how you interact with families, how you hold teachers and staff to high expectations and learning outcomes. This kind of personal leadership, combined with self-awareness, helps leaders to align their words and their actions. And that is one sure way to build trust.
Leadership expert Peter DeWitt argues that self-awareness is especially critical for leaders of schools and school districts. Here’s why: “Because if [leaders] are not self-aware of their values and reactions, it could have a negative reaction on how they lead and overshadow any of the good work they are trying to focus on.”
Consider the following questions:
- How do you demonstrate your belief that all students can achieve at high levels within your school community?
- How do you convey this belief to your students?
- How do your teachers know that you believe in students?
- What happens when your belief is challenged? How do you handle those situations?
If these questions give you pause, or you think you know but wonder how your families or staff might answer these same questions, it’s likely time to brush up on your self-awareness as a school leader. Here are a few strategies and action steps you can take:
In addition to formal annual or semi-annual school or district surveys, leaders can gain insights and feedback via two-question surveys and pulse checks. Setting up a regular feedback cycle communicates to teachers and staff that their voices are sought out and valued. And, you gain valuable insights on your leadership and raise your awareness.
Widen your circle
Intentionally seeking out opportunities to interact with colleagues outside of “your bubble” creates opportunities to stretch and challenge existing beliefs and relationship skills. Engaging in diverse situations or with a broader circle of influence also generates more understanding and perspective from varied stakeholders.
Hone your listening skills
A big part of recognizing how others perceive you as a leader also requires strong listening skills which help to build trust, empathy, and positive relationships. Some key listening skills include attending to body language, providing undivided attention, leaving judgment behind, and much more. The more you can actively listen, the more insights you’ll gain.
Maintain a learning-stance
Setting yourself up as a “lead learner,” like teachers often do in their classrooms, creates greater psychological safety within your school or district. Sharing stories, for example, about times you’ve misstepped and what you’ve learned from it also cultivates a growth mindset as a leader, which is key to self-awareness as well as a thriving school culture.
And do so with a leadership framework or clear set of factors in mind; that way you walk away with clarity around your strengths and weaknesses as well as strategies you can use as a leader. Regularly engaging in self-reflection will uncover new insights about yourself that, when acted upon, will make you a better leader.
The Center for Creative Leadership uses a tool called the Johari Window to help illuminate and build self-awareness in school and district leaders. Each quadrant represents what is known and unknown about you. Interestingly, quadrant one, which encompasses what is known to others but unknown to you, is commonly called a blind spot. Like the leader in the hypothetical example we shared above, a blind spot can propel your self-awareness to new levels.
To be clear, all school and district leaders have blind spots. It’s an inherent part of educational leadership. We’re human, after all. The good news is that when you become aware of your blindspot, you have an incredible opportunity to grow and change as a leader, letting go of old habits and developing new leadership practices.
The good news is that when you become aware of your blindspot, you have an incredible opportunity to grow and change as a leader, letting go of old habits and developing new leadership practices.
And therein lies the hidden power of self-awareness: It is always in your control. As school and district leaders, we cannot control worldwide pandemics. We cannot control staff shortages. But we can choose to build and strengthen our self-awareness. We can choose to hone our personal leadership skills. And in doing so, lead our teams, our schools, our districts toward greater excellence and equity.