A few weeks ago, I found myself feeling disillusioned and frustrated as I stared at my computer screen. My inbox was crammed with staff emails complaining about everything from student behavior in hallways to lack of communication from the school’s administration. It felt as if I were running on a treadmill and the weight of the school was slung over my shoulder. How could I "fix" everyone's problems and still manage my day-to-day responsibilities? Didn’t teachers understand that there are more of them than administrators? I became overwhelmed with the thoughts of trying to respond to every email  in a timely fashion. My first instinct was to clear my calendar and double-down on answering emails. However, in my moment of suspended cognition, another thought popped in my head and I decided to do the complete opposite.

 

I decided to leave my office and walk through the building. My motivation was partially to stretch out my legs and relieve some stress. But, my more important mission was to survey the landscape of the building and immerse myself in the current temperature of the culture. If the sky was indeed falling, I wanted to see and hear directly the damage that was being caused. Strangely, as I intentionally walked the building speaking to staff members who had emails sitting in my inbox, I found that they were more excited about telling me about their kids, grandkids, and weekend experiences than they were about the emails that were sitting in my inbox. Many smiled and joked about the school year. When I pressed about their emails, oftentimes they told me “not to worry about it” or that they were content with me just being there. I suddenly went from feeling overwhelmed to feeling guilty. All this time, it was not the management resolution that made them feel joy, it was knowing that someone cared about them that made them feel validated.  

 

In his book, “360° degree Leader,” John Maxwell describes this as “Walk Slowly Through the Halls.”  Maxwell describes the experience of many school leaders: “One of the greatest mistakes leaders make is spending too much time in their offices and not enough time out among the people.” (Maxwell 213) It is often easier to be task-driven rather than people-driven. “Walking slowly” through your school or organization allows you to see and engage with all stakeholders from their vantage point and engage them on an informal and interpersonal level. According to Maxwell, here is how you do it effectively:

  1.  Slow Down

    • You need to slow down enough to connect with your staff, engage them on an informal level, and listen to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  This is not a time to interject, offer suggestions, or be judgmental.  Just Listen!   

  2. Express that you Care

    • The people who follow you would be pleased to know that their boss had a genuine concern about them and value them as human beings, not just as workers who can get things done for them or the organization.  The care can come in the form of a thoughtful note, compliment about a classroom project, or just an acknowledgement that the staff member is here working during COVID times. 

  3. Create a Healthy Balance of Personal and Professional Interest. 

    • Take interest in your people as human beings.  Ask about their family, pets, hobbies, college football team, etc.  Start with fairly neutral questions and just listen.  Do not feel the need to interrupt. According to Maxwell, “when employees' personal lives are going well, their professional lives often follow suit. “

  4. Pay attention when People Start Avoiding You

    • Walk the halls slowly and you will know the people and the organization better.  Your intuition will increase, and you will pick-up on when something is wrong.  If something is wrong, people will often avoid you.  Seek those people out and engage them the most.

  5. Tend to the People, and they will tend to the Business

    • Leaders who tend only to business often end up losing the people and the business.  But leaders who tend to the people usually build up the people- and the business.  

 

Frustrations can mount and you can find yourself mired in trying to tackle “management” issues or frivolous conflicts. However, rather than cranking up your hours on addressing emails and responding to these requests, you should purposefully and intentionally walk the halls of your school. (This is not to say that this is an even exchange because managing building issues is a part of our administrative role; especially approaching breaks and stressful times. But it is a mitigation strategy to help alleviate some of the “lesser concerns.”  And, if done in advance, it can be a preventive measure to connect with your staff and improve the health of your school culture.) In his book, "You Win in the Locker Room First," Jon Gordon describes the role of a leader in a healthy culture: "Never underestimate the importance of making time to make someone feel special. Then, when you develop a reputation for caring and others expect more from you, you continue to deliver more than they expect." (Gordon 110)  So, the next time you find yourself frustrated with emails, resist the temptation to “manage” the situation, and take the time to discover the “why” by connecting with the stakeholders in your building.
 


Written by Othamian Peterson, Groves High School Assistant Principal and MASSP Board of Directors Member

References:

Gordon, Jon, and Mike Smith. You Win in the Locker Room First: 7 C's to Build a Winning Team in Sports, Business, and Life, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ, 2015, p. 110. 

Maxwell, John C. “Lead-Down Principle #1: Walk Slowly Through the Halls.” The 360 ̊leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization, Nelson Business, Nashville, TN, 2006, pp. 213–219.