My phone buzzed. I was in the middle of a meeting, and I tried to glance down inconspicuously at my phone in my lap.
It was a text from my boss.
“Fix your face,” the text read.
My immediate reaction was to think, “WTF!” Then, I did a quick self-check and realized that my face was showing what I was thinking: I would rather be anywhere, doing almost anything rather than listen to this speaker.
Some people can mask their thoughts and emotions extremely well. That is not me.
I took a deep breath, and then made a choice to show up and care for the content, rather than be someone who appeared to have contempt for the situation. I texted back, “Thanks!”
When I think about the things that I have had to overcome as a leader, “fix your face” is one of the big ones. The other two are “dumb it down” and “everyone is intimidated by you.”
It might seem like harsh feedback—especially since those are exact quotes from people who have supervised me, but leadership is really about helping other people to be their best selves. If my facial expression, choice of vocabulary, or tone of my voice is preventing me from helping others, then it’s important for me to be able to hear that feedback, and to be self-aware enough to allow my trusted colleagues to tell me if I am “off.”
Any of these lessons are easier said than done.
I am a strong woman, and I am pretty driven. I am intelligent, well-read, and passionate about many things, including education. I am direct and I speak up about things that need to be said. I have a clear vision and I can see the plan for getting there.
These are positive characteristics in a leader. In fact, most people say that these are traits they look for in a leader, according to Forbes. So, it was really difficult for me to realize early in my career as a school building leader that if things didn’t go well, it was on me.
Map out your vision.
When I first started in school leadership, I did two things that have made a huge difference in how I developed as a leader.
The first was to keep a journal of things I would do and things I wouldn’t do if I were in charge. When you are working as a part of a leadership team, it is important to know that while you might do things differently, it is definitely your job to make the plan work, regardless of how you feel about it.
I kept notes about how something might have worked better and things that may have been concerns. This gave me a lot of reference material when I was eventually the one making all of the decisions.
Map out difficult conversations.
The other thing I learned to do was to map out difficult conversations before I had them. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this lesson until I had some really difficult experiences.
Giving feedback, especially when you are pointing out an area of growth for someone, can be difficult. It is important to be direct, but the feedback has to be heard by the recipient and result in change or it is irrelevant.
As a brand new school leader, I realized that when I was giving feedback to people, they either got very upset with me or they went to my boss to get “the real answer.” While Hemingway’s quote, “there is a time in every man’s life, if he is worth a damn, when he has to be unpopular,” could definitely be applied here, it defeats the purpose of true leadership—which is to serve.
I was giving feedback, but it wasn’t in a way that could be heard and it definitely was not making change. So, it was up to me to shift my practice, not on everyone around me to shift to make me more comfortable.
Be mindful and put the other person at the center.
I learned that if I took a moment to center my thinking, or become more mindful about the message I had to give—including thinking about the receiver of the message, that I was more successful.
I began to take a few moments before a difficult conversation and think about what I knew about that person, putting the recipient at the center of my thinking. Then, I jotted down some areas of strength, some areas of growth, and some next steps. By centering and being more mindful about my feedback, I was using feedback to build a relationship with someone, rather than just telling them what to do.
It is hard to hear feedback about your personal leadership style and to realize that it is having a negative effect on those around you. We bring our true selves to our work when we are passionate about what we do, and hearing that people don’t like my face or my voice tone or my choice of words can be frustrating and deflating.
By taking the time to be mindful and consider the recipient and the message, we can grow through our personal challenges and help others to hear us.
Before you have to have that next difficult conversation, whether it’s at home or at work, take a moment to get centered, be mindful of the person you are speaking with, and make sure that your face shows that you care about them as a person. You will be glad you did.