Lessons in Leadership: Be Vulnerable and Strong

By Jon Saphier - August 10, 2015

Over the last 40 years I have been working directly with principals, instructional coaches, and central office personnel who supervise principals on their roles in improving classroom teaching and learning. This has brought me into over six thousand K-12 classrooms in roughly a thousand schools from Alaska to Maine. Each year I form continuing relationships with certain districts, so I get to know the leaders there pretty well. Reflecting back over all of this experience, there is one lesson about leadership that rises above all the others: the best leaders are vulnerable and strong at the same time. In addition, they use those qualities to mobilize powerful collective action.

Vulnerable does not mean weak; and strong does not mean loud or necessarily charismatic. As Jim Collins found in Good to Great, I have also found leaders of many different personality types who are extraordinary. You can’t tell in the first meeting, or by the feel of the handshake, or the level of knowledge they display in their talk, who will turn out to one of these great educational leaders. You can only tell when you see them in action in a variety of settings.

“Vulnerable” means, as a leader, being open about what you don’t know and clear that you need to mobilize collective action because you can’t do it alone. You are willing to be seen as a learner; in fact, you plunge in with your faculty members to learn new strategies and programs. You try out with students whatever you expect your faculty to try, and share success and struggles openly with your staff. In this way, your learning stance and vulnerability make it safe for others to take risks, learn, and struggle. They can admit their mistakes, and acknowledge when they are not sure what to do.

“Strong” means, as a leader, you have core values and goals that drive all your behavior. You are public and persistent about these goals. Quietly or loudly, and ideally with the support of compelling data, you continually put the work in front of your staff and raise their sense of urgency. They know which goals need to be met, and they are up-front and persistent about working on these most important goals no matter what.