SEL for School Leaders: 5 Strategies for Adaptive Leadership (Part 3 of 3)

This is part of our series on supporting the capacity of leaders to foster the psychological safety and well-being of staff, in partnership with leaders in Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Check out Part 1 on building emotional capacity, Part 2 on meeting design and facilitation and the full deck of strategies.

“If there was ever a time for adaptive leadership practices, that time is now. Since the pandemic started, leaders like you have been running, running, running to adapt to changes and make it possible for your staff and students to thrive in a changed environment. 

Our team in the Office of Professional Growth and Innovation has been trying to create opportunities for school leaders to reflect, express their feelings and practice ways to handle the big emotions that come from trying to carry a school community through this time. We’ve learned from our work to be responsive to the needs of our people, and we hope this can support you as you work to be responsive to the needs of your people 

From our conversations with principals, we’re seeing that one thing many of you are struggling to take  the time to do is pause and see how far you’ve come, even in a pandemic. You’re leading through a time of such change and ambiguity, and you’re doing so much. We hope you’ll take time to reflect and take pride in all you’re accomplishing.”

– Dr. Paulette France, Dr. Janene Gorham, & Ms. Anna Surratt, Office of Professional Growth and Innovation, Virginia Beach City Public Schools


Visual Mapping

You can balance priorities and increase productivity by using a visual map to manage the constant flow of information you receive. Ensure more effective collaboration, visualization of your team’s work and clearer distinction of role clarity around projects by using a simple management tool such as “Do, Doing, Done,” in which tasks are organized into columns according to their stage of completion. 

Visualization strategies like this help with increasing productivity, communication and collaboration; monitoring the stages of products; assisting in decision making; and providing evidence to monitor the workload of team members.

More Resources:

This Doist guide offers simple ways to increase focus and raise productivity, and this Sources of Insight article offers a simple way to visualize, organize and complete tasks.

Coaching Questions

Stressed and overwhelmed team members often come to leaders for help. Coaching your team through challenges, rather than offering advice or solving their problems for them, builds capacity and self reliance. Use coaching questions to help team members identify the real problem, surface issues and develop a strategy. 

Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever suggests these seven questions:

  1. What’s on your mind
  2. What else?
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you want?
  5. How can I help?
  6. If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
  7. What was most useful to you?

Tips on approaching coaching questions:

  1. Stay curious. Ask questions to learn, not to drive a solution.
  2. Do not ask fake questions by giving advice that you are disguising as a question.
  3. Be comfortable with silence.

More Resources: 

Check out this playlist of videos based on Michael Bungay Stanier’s book.

Reframing, “What ifs”

Anticipating future concerns is a vital skill for you and your team. As you prepare for the end of the school year, changes in learning models and plans for next school year, the concerns are going to revolve around “What ifs.” To ensure that the “What ifs” don’t allow genuine concerns to be seen as unsolvable challenges, reframe “What if” with “Even if.” Reframing is a strategy that fosters resilience. Support others through their reactions to a challenge by positive reframing strategies. Many of us live in fear of whether the worst might happen. Replacing “What if” with “Even if” and articulating a possible solution is a liberating exchange.

For example, if your staff is planning reopening logistics, you might lead a positive, solutions-oriented meeting by grounding the conversations in reframing “What ifs.” Invite teachers to each write a “What if” statement about their biggest concern and read it aloud. Then, collaborate on possible solutions and turn the negative “What if” statements into positive, “Even if” statements. 

A “What if” question, like, “What if a student gets sick and misses two weeks of instruction?” becomes, “Even if a student gets sick and misses two weeks of instruction, I now have experience delivering instruction virtually to ensure the student doesn’t fall behind.” 

Consider sharing this article on turning down the “What if” voice in our brains, or check out this article to find “Yes, and” – a similar strategy with a different framing.

Generous Leadership

Leadership success is not about how much power you have because of your position, it is about how you share that power with others so they can grow. A generous leader is one who reaches for a higher standard of empowerment, achievement and recognition for those they serve rather than from those they serve. 

Become a generous leader by seeking strategic steps that build leadership in others by truly seeing their needs and then act to meet those needs. 

For example, before giving constructive feedback to a teacher on an ineffective lesson, pause to consider all the ways this school year’s changes, both personal and professional, could be impacting the teacher’s performance. Establish questions that allow you to create space to listen to the teacher’s perspective. Think about what you can say to model grace and show that you are committed to supporting the teacher’s growth through coaching, resources and time. 

More resources: 

Read this Harvard Business Review article on being generous at work, and check out this Mind Tools piece on why generous leadership is the key to great leadership. 

Strengths-Based Leadership

Do you know your “why”? Your “why” can be summed up in a statement that encapsulates the essence of your value and purpose at work, at home and in the world. Knowing your why inspires what you do and is closely connected to your core values and overall well-being. In fact, getting clear on your core values and your “why” can prevent burnout. Make time for you to connect with your “why” as a leader, and help your staff stay focused on their purpose, too.

For example, if you have staff members that feel burned out, set up time to help them connect with their “why.” You can invite them to begin a staff meeting by reflecting on a question like, “When you think about your role in the school, what is the purpose of your role and how does it serve the greater good of the school community?” 

After silent reflection and journaling, debrief with your team, giving them time to absorb and recognize their shared values, using these prompts (1) what values are represented in the purpose statement you shared? (2) what connections do you make between these emerging values and the core values of our school division? (3) how might our collective strengths and values help us gain clarity on our roles and purpose? 

More Resources:

Colin Breck emphasizes the power of knowing your why in this article on the mental balancing act of school leaders. This article explores the connection between core values and burnouts, emphasizing the importance of working with purpose.