I didn’t know I signed up for that – The complexity of Leadership

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: January 10th 2021


For many people who find themselves moving into varying positions of leadership and influence, the journey is often riddled with many fulfilling opportunities to bring about change, to work with colleagues and to share and celebrate positive change. Leadership is fun, inspiring, engaging and you see the fruits of your hard work. However, not all leadership adventures are a pleasure. If you continue the journey and move to positions of more influence, you’ll find yourself having to make decisions that you never would want to make. How do you handle these situations when you are the point, the lead, in initiatives, decisions, or circumstances where you know what you are doing is going to hurt people? This blog offers some thoughts and things to consider.

In the early days of your journey, leading with colleagues can be fun and rewarding. Making a difference, not having to deal much with conflict, knowing that your leadership is certainly doing no harm and is just making life a better place. Leadership endeavors are fun, practical, and you get to choose the initiatives and the tasks that are of most interest to you.

As you move “up” things become more complex. You have to start making some tough decisions, to navigate some turbulent waters and you may be pulled in many different ways. Leadership is still rewarding and fun and you feel that you’re making a difference for so many. Most people are on your side and in your court and they understand the decisions you need to make.

Life goes on, you again ascend. The buck stops here and life begins to get much more complex and yet still is incredibly rewarding. With increased complexity comes increased tension as not all decisions please all people and larger decisions have a broader impact. Reducing budgets, trimming resources, potentially eliminating programs or courses, suspending students, these are difficult decisions and can generate significant push back. Each of these decisions must also be treated with care and thoughtful and inclusive processes. People’s careers, students’ education, and the public’s faith in the education system are at play. Your decisions not only impact you and those closely around you, these decisions and processes begin to be communicate what the organization or system believes and represents both internally and externally.

In the school system, I think about those at the top of the local power hierarchy – our elected school trustees. In their world, trying to navigate the complexity of finite budgets, changing mandates, government and local politics and the incredibly challenging task of representing your constituents who can be enormously diverse in their own views. In addition to this basic complexity, if you are fortunate enough to represent your public, the election that got you there likely only had participation in the range of 30-50%. So you are entrusted to make decisions for 100% of students and staff when potentially 30% of people voted and only a portion of those actually voted for you. To add to the complexity, you are also but one of several members of the Board and your individual vote is but one of the group. The power rests not with individuals, but with the will of the Board. For those who express interest and pursue this leadership avenue, what may have seemed like a fairly straight forward process at the outset becomes enormously complex once you finally find yourself in the seat that you desired. The  decisions you now make will impact an entire system and there are many things to consider and many people who are relying on you.

I’ve never met a teacher or member of support staff who thought, I’ll got to work and do my job poorly today.

I’ve never met a principal or vice-principal or member of district staff who went to work wanting to suspend kids, discipline staff or communicate poorly with the public.

I’ve never met a school trustee who was excited to cut budgets, eliminate programs, terminate an employee or close a school.

What I have met across the spectrum and in our system, is caring and dedicated people trying to do their very best including making the hard decisions that they sometimes need to make. This is regardless of positions, association or role. People want to do good, they believe in public education and they believe that healthy and vibrant discourse is a critical part of successful systems.

I’ve come to believe that, in general, these tough decisions always have a few things in common to be done well:

  • Process shall carry the day.
  • Transparency is critical.
  • No decision is most certainly a decision.
  • Working in isolation and in absence of consultation or collaboration (where appropriate) significantly increases the risk of an unpopular or simply poor decision.
  • You need to do a gut check to see if you have the courage, mandate and will to make the call that you may face at the end of the day.
  • Communicate clarity, re-communicate clarity, and ensure your actions reinforce that clarity.
  • In a situation that has a strong majority of support for the decision, what really matters is not how much support you have, what matters is how those who don’t support your decision have felt throughout the process and what they will do once a decision is made.
  • Rushworth Kidder’s tests – the gut test, the front page test and the mom test are great touchstones. Does it feel right, are you comfortable with this on the front page of the news, and would your mom approve?

This is not an exhaustive list for sure and I look forward to hearing other pieces that people would add.

Leadership has many definitions. I prefer to look at leadership as guidance along a path rather than some concept of out in front consistent with charge of the light brigade. True leadership isn’t about heroism, charisma, courage, tenacity, perseverance, although all such things are important and can play a part. Leadership is about the small things that people do every day to exert influence and as things get larger and more complex, the importance of process cannot be understated. I also admire all those who take the plunge because our world needs leaders on all fronts who are caring, compassionate and know what they signed up for.

If you do sign up for leadership in whatever form, I know one thing, if you do continue to rise in influence, at some point you’ll likely look yourself in the mirror and say “I didn’t know I signed up for this.” But hopefully that won’t stop you from doing what you need to do. We’re all counting on you.