In this series on leading well, we’ve been exploring a handful of seminal qualities that undergird strong leadership. Characteristics that are seen throughout research and literature as common strengths of those who are able to advance the organizational vision and priorities over the long haul, regardless of field or sector focus.   Previously, we’ve considered ‘Growing and Learning’, and a leader’s personal, contagious, and articulated commitment to learning as a leader and fostering an environment that encourages and prioritizes the same in its employees. Additionally, we have reflected on the importance of casting a clear vision – one that is digestible, communicated continuously, and systematically upheld and measured to ensure progress toward goals. Today, we’ll consider the final of the three qualities – caring for people. The expression of this characteristic can be seen both internally and externally, as it serves to shape offerings and strategy as well as long-term sustainability.  

Caring for people, as it relates to external stakeholders, such as parents, community members, and civic and philanthropic partners, shows itself on the calendars of both the leader and school or organization. On these calendars, you’ll see priority given to connecting and listening. As noted throughout sources that range from school principal standards and accreditation guides to Peter Druker’s work and the Baldrige Criteria for Excellence – caring enough to listen is foundational to leading well.

Internally, the quality or characteristic of caring for others plays out in a similar, though more layered and holistic manner. As you reflect on how to lead and care well for your team, here are a few topics that experts affirm as worthy of consideration.

Individual health. Assuming that the selection and hiring processes are aligned to the norms and expectations of the organization, and that the right people are ‘on the bus,’ which Jim Collins notes as foundational, individual health or flourishing can be fostered in many ways, including:

  • Protecting the sustainability of the individual team members as it relates to work-life balance. Organizational leaders can, at times, fail to notice the ongoing burdens of their teams, inadvertently turning a blind eye to the humanity of the individuals or the burdensome processes that are irreparably broken. The expected stretch factor, which is much needed in seeking norms of excellence and serving others well, stands as the high bar over the long haul. It operates apart from and to the exclusion of the long-term wellness of the individual. Caring for others through thoughtful work-life balance, though more time consuming and at times costly on the frontend, brings the long-term rewards of sustainability. Leading well toward this end retains talent, deep knowledge and attracts excellence from the field as the organization grows.
  • Developing an environment where individual staff members are empowered and have the freedom to own the work and operate autonomously toward clearly defined and strategically aligned goals.
  • Enabling personal mastery within a known scope of work and providing professional growth and increasing responsibility, if sought, retains those seeking mastery only as well as those seeking challenge.
  • Acknowledging critical contributions toward the shared vision. This is done not only as a means of appreciation, but also as a means of understanding individual talents and seeing how their unique gifts fit together to serve the greater good.
  • Creating rhythms of listening. Both formal and informal surveys and feedback processes encourage personal growth at all levels and can reveal hindrances or organizational misalignments that stymie effectiveness and crush morale. Reiterated by John Maxwell, “A good leader encourages followers to tell him what he needs to know, not what he wants to hear.” Often overlooked as a priority, this critical process has the power to refine strategy and strengthen long-term sustainability. Outcomes achieved today do not ensure an organization will be in tact tomorrow.
  • Culture and functional norms. Here, the expectations, character, values, and collective identities are revealed, defined and protected by the leader. In this realm, leaders can care for others by creating an environment that increases trust among team members. Simon Sinek, Brene Brown and others note that this can be done by modeling the character and values desired, while living authentic lives, as imperfect people leaning into our own growth. Trust, as highlighted in Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is the precursor to sharing well and having courageous conversations. If individual members of the team are valued and are able to operate with a deep sense of trust in the inherent good intentions of their leaders and teammates, they are more inclined to have courageous conversations. Such conversations are ultimately what challenge individual and organizational assumptions and assist both the staff members and the leadership team in thinking differently about the work.
  • Organizational health. Though not intuitively a direct link to the topic, organizational health takes the long view of ‘caring for others.’ Lencioni notes in his book, The Advantage, that, organizational health is a byproduct of appropriately aligning management, operations, strategy and culture in a way that makes sense. Thoughtful care in these areas minimizes the confusion of clunky workflow or internal politics that stem from structures that don’t make sense. Done well, thoughtful alignment boosts morale and productivity, as it facilitates the functional synchronization of work that allows for the team members to flourish in their unique role of within the organization.

So, I would ask, as we reflect together on how to lead well by caring for others – do your actions align well to your intentions? Does your calendar reveal listening well, both internally and externally? Have you established policies, practices or norms that articulate and prioritize caring for others? And, is trust deep enough and wide enough to withstand iron sharpening iron and conversations about new ideas well?

This year, as you lean into leading your team with excellence, may you do so in a manner that values others, provides an avenue for meaningful work, and is sustainable over the long haul.