Five Ways to Impact School Culture Regardless of Your Title

Leadership has much more to do with one’s influence than one’s title. Too often we wait for someone with a certain job description to “fix” a seemingly broken culture, and while it is certainly frustrating when the one tasked with leading doesn’t rise to that occasion, we have a moral imperative to step up to the plate to make our schools places where humans grow and thrive because our students and those who work on students’ behalf deserve it.  If we all take responsibility for influencing school culture, how can we best leverage our influence?


  1. Assume best intent.


Probably the most impactful shift we can make is to establish a norm of assuming best intent. Think back to a time when your supervisor assumed the worst about a situation in which you were involved or oversaw.  Maybe he or she assumed you were not working hard enough or did not care enough, but in reality you didn’t have all the necessary information to complete the job effectively or efficiently.

Did his/her assumption of worst intent motivate you? Did it make you want to go above and beyond? Probably not. Oftentimes assuming the worst actually has the opposite effect. While it might intimidate people into compliance, if they’re already doing the best they can with what they know, that won’t make much of a difference. In the end, they’ll just hide their inadequacies from you or avoid taking risks out of fear that they will disappoint again. On the other hand, when people assume the best in others, we’re given the benefit of the doubt, and that trust in us empowers us to take risks, use our creativity, think outside the box, and dive into finding solutions for complex problems.


2. Surround yourself with greatness.


You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. Research has demonstrated time and again that people are generally unaware of the social influences that surround them and how those influences impact their day-to-day thoughts. And, because our thoughts usually manifest our actions, it is safe to say that the thoughts of those with whom we spend our time strongly impact OUR impact..

So, if you’re hanging around the water cooler with that guy who’s constantly complaining about everything and everyone, chances are you are, in turn, going to start feeling more exhausted, more hopeless, and more easily frustrated … by the very same events or situations that you’d otherwise likely tackle with a positive attitude. On the flip side, if you hang out with people who inspire you, challenge your thinking, are solutions oriented, and laugh frequently, your engagement and performance at work will likely improve.


3. Elicit feedback from those you trust.


Self awareness is perhaps the most important leadership strategy one can implement … and it’s possibly the hardest as well. One of the reasons people struggle to identify the areas in which they can/should improve is because our greatest strengths are often also our greatest weaknesses. For example, my strength is that I’m a global thinker and an ideas generator. At face value, these are good things, but, there is a shadow side to every asset.

The shadow side to being a big-picture person is that I get bored by and bogged down with the day-to-day details that bring that big picture to life. The shadow side to ideation is that I am unafraid of change and maybe even sometimes instigate change for change’s sake. This can be off-putting to others–especially the 99% of people for whom change is scary and something to be avoided.

However, with awareness of my shortcomings, I can work on and improve upon my blind spots. This awareness, though, usually needs to be purposefully cultivated. It is not innate. I am lucky to have amazing coworkers who double as best friends. Because we trust each other and are willing to be vulnerable with each other, we often ask for brutally honest feedback from one another–feedback that, in the end, will only serve to make us better, stronger, and intentionally growing.


4. Know your sphere of influence.


Oftentimes we think we need to rise to a traditional position of power to have influence on the vision, the culture, the policies, or the practices. That is far from true. One of the biggest misconceptions about leadership is it must be top down. Ideally, people in positions of power would also be amazing leaders, but even when they are, leadership cannot be unilateral.

“Leading up” and “leading across” are just as important as “leading down.” There is nothing more disheartening than when an amazing classroom leader does not exhibit those same leadership qualities they have with their students when it comes to leading their peers or superiors.

I think people greatly underestimate the power of leading those in their sphere of influence. Frustrated by your boss? Instead of complaining, how could you lead him or her to see things differently. Frustrated by your peers? Rather than complaining about their efforts, have you considered inspiring them (as you would surely do with struggling students)? It’s not condescending; it’s proactive. We can choose to be victims of the system, or we can choose to influence the system. It’s really that simple.


5. Make your WHY transparent.


The hardest thing to overcome when changing a culture is a broken why. An example of a “broken why” in the field of education is someone who wants results on paper at the expense of real results for students, i.e, they’re willing to go to great efforts to increase test scores even if those efforts don’t, in the end, produce more driven, accomplished, engaged students.

The good news is that most people who have daily contact with students have a very intact why. It’s rare that someone who works in schools doesn’t want best for the students he/she serves. Most of the conflict I’ve observed in schools is a result of one person not fully understanding the other person’s intent. Rarely would we argue about policy or practice if we thought the person who was behind that policy or practice truly wanted what was best for students. We get in trouble, though, when we don’t bring that why to the table and surface it for all to see. The most important advice to remember when trying to impact change is to lead with your why. Always.

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