Each year I select a word to guide my year. Before choosing a word I first take time to reflect on the past year. I reflect on how I grew, what I learned from my experiences. I reflect and then turn my focus on to the future.
My word this year is CULTIVATE.
Webster defines cultivate
1) to prepare and use
2) to foster the growth of : to improve by labor, care, or study
apply oneself to improving or developing to foster friendship or favor
Synonyms: try to develop · work hard at · foster · nurture · encourage
Author Lara Casey said about her book, CULTIVATE, something that really resonated with me: “We can’t do it all, and do it well. But, we can choose to cultivate what matters. It’s in the imperfect—the mess of the dirt–that good things grow. Peonies grow through the dirt, and so do we.”
Growing up in Iowa, I saw the cultivating of the land that farmers did before planting crops. It took work. It took hard work and this work could not be skipped. There are no shortcuts to farming. They invested in the land to get their crops to succeed. I want to invest in the things that matter.
In leadership, there are no shortcuts. Developing your leadership takes time. It takes work. It takes going through both positive and negative experiences. As a leader in education there is a daily whirlwind of pressures you are asked to address. The role is bigger now than ever – mentor, coach, guide, instructional leader, relationship builder, budget manager, community liaison, crisis manager, cheerleader, entertainer, disciplinarian, quasi-parent……among others. 😊
Throughout all of this, one of the most important steps you must take is identifying your area of growth (growth goal) and doing the intentional work to grow. You cannot leave this for someone else to decide for you. Remember, it’s not what you are going to do, it’s who you are going to become through this process. When you are clear about what’s important to you it enables you to focus. If you’re not growing as a leader, then the problem may not the seed, it most likely is the soil.
I’m in a new place this year – literally. My husband and I have a new home, a new hometown, and I have new professional responsibilities. I have a lot of things to cultivate and I couldn’t be more excited. Cultivating myself, however, will be my most important task. To cultivate myself is to grow what I’ve been given, (developing, nurturing, encouraging) right where I am with what I have.
Cultivate what matters. You matter. What will you intentionally cultivate this year?
“I’ve long said that in areas of skill, target strengths, and in areas of character, target weaknesses—because skills growth happens more naturally in areas where we’re not fighting it.” ~John Maxwell
Among the many leadership experts there are, for me, one stands far above the others when it comes to impact and longevity: John C. Maxwell. I listen to his podcasts weekly and I read his books and blogs.
One of the books that Maxwell wrote that I have used over and over in my life – as a mom, educator, and leader is, “Talent is Never Enough.” In this book, he shares that a leader’s effectiveness is determined by his leadership ability. He goes on to say that a leader, at any level in the organization should always be focusing on strengths, not weaknesses. His explanation goes like this — if one is weak in an area, say a 3 on a scale of 1-10; with a lot of work one might be able to rise to a 4 or 5 (still ineffective). On the other hand, if one is a 7, rising to an 8 or 9 is quite achievable, which is a great increase in effectiveness.
I have learned from experience that “natural talents” can only take you so far. When you are beginning your leadership journey, talents such as technical and analytical abilities are important, but as your journey progresses and you look to advance, you will find that you will need to transition your thinking from using not only your talents but also utilizing your strengths. These important strengths are connected to the highly regarded research found in MCREL’s 21 Leadership Responsibilities.
For example, when I took on a new role in my leadership journey, moving from a high achieving middle school to a large high school with some challenges, two of my skill strengths became especially crucial: being a change agent and remembering the importance of flexibility. This high school, like several schools, had challenges with student attendance, concerns about student behavior, and needed a boost in teacher morale. Being a change agent was critical to my leadership in shifting the learning culture of this 6A high school. Gradual adjustments needed to be implemented in order to make collaborative changes that sustained both student and faculty engagement while also resulting in incremental improvements in attendance and student behavior. Flexibility was key. The situation provided an opportunity for this leader to be okay with being uncomfortable, to grow in using my strengths and to ask questions about the way things had always been done.
A quick way to discover your strengths is to take one of the many “strength assessments” out there. Gallup has a Strength Finders Assessment that I took early in my career. The assessment ranks you on your top 5 plus 29 other strengths. Once you have your list of strengths, ask yourself the following questions:
In what areas of my life do I use these strengths?
How can I use more of my strengths at work so I am more fulfilled in what I do?
For me, learning both what my strengths were and what they were not, let me be the leader I knew I could always be. Let me be clear, however, it was not an opportunity to makes excuses for myself. Remember, as leaders we are frequently asked to do things that are not within our strengths “zone.” Getting out of our comfort zone is the only way to grow.
Do you agree or disagree with Maxwell that leaders should always be focusing on their strengths? Is there a time when we should work on our weaknesses?
I was recently asked what advice I would give someone considering applying for a principalship. I think the most important thing I can share – get ready. When the opportunity presents itself, it’s too late to prepare.
A first step to take is to ask yourself why you want this position. Do you want this position because “it’s just the next step”? Maybe you’re tired of your current position? Does someone else want you to have this position?
These are all answers to the question that I heard when I was a supervisor to college interns and other individuals considering a principalship. Those are not necessarily wrong answers; but I challenge you to think a little deeper.
In my own journey, I was blessed to participate in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People at the beginning of my career. It’s still probably one of the best trainings I’ve participated in for both personal and professional growth. We did a lot of work on our purpose and the legacy we wanted to leave – both personally and professionally. We began with the end in mind (Habit 2). Beginning with the end in mind means that when you make choices today you consistently take into consideration the values you stand for. You determine what you find important in life, what you stand for, what you want to accomplish. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to be known for? You then determine how can you start working towards that today.
Discovering one’s “purpose” basically means finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself and those around you. Those things that you are passionate about AND that you have a talent for. This gives you direction.
I chose to go into the principalship because, identifying my own purpose (to help people grow and add value to others), my impact would increase, and I could reach more individuals – both adults and students. Knowing my purpose was an important first step in figuring out the direction I wanted my career to take. When your purpose becomes clear, it enables you to find the courage to take risks, stay motivated when things get hard, and make a greater impact through your work.