I take a lot of time to reflect on my work and as I’ve grown as a leader I’ve been reflecting on the benefits of being influential vs. having some sort of officially sanctioned authority or positional power in the workplace. 4 years ago, when I accepted my first position outside of the classroom, the only model for educational leadership that I had relied heavily on authority and positional power to get things done. Most of my prior administrators had no interest in creating buy-in, rallying the troops, or tapping into staff members’ individual strengths to get the job done. More often than not, I witnessed administrators, instructional coaches, and central office staff use their titles and their perceived positional power to try to get things done. In my opinion, as a result of this particular leadership approach,  staff members’ effort and output were influenced more by a need to be compliant than by a desire to do good work. Sure, there were people who did good work no matter the style of the leader, but in general, most people simply did what they were told because there was an undercurrent of fear, fear of retaliation if directives were not followed. This type of environment kills innovation, enthusiasm, and stifles the good ideas that staff members may have about the direction of a school. During my first semester as an instructional coach I tried to rely on this authoritarian style of leadership. After a short time very few of my teachers wanted to work with me. I wasn’t seen as a resource, a critical friend, or even an asset to the school. I was a nuisance to be endured and when teachers did what I asked there was very little enthusiasm, or quality, in their output.

Thankfully, I had the summer to lick my wounds, reflect on my sins as a leader, and switch up my approach to my work.

I came back with less of a desire to tell people what to do and more of a desire to convince people that a particular shift in the direction of our work was necessary. I had more conversations with people about their ideas, opinions, and needs. I still relied on data, district initiatives, and long-term goals to make decisions, but taking a more inclusive approach to the work made it more satisfying for me, and more beneficial for my teachers. Over time, I realized that I didn’t need to use my positional power to get the work done if I took the time to actually take into account the needs and concerns of my staff. A great former administrator of mine once told me that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” I finally understood what he meant. It took me years to be completely comfortable with the shift in leadership style, to view the work as a collaborative and collective effort. I also understood that my ability to influence people is much more powerful, and valuable, than whatever perceived positional power I may have.

Fast forward to my current tenure as an instructional leader. I believe in the power of the collective. I respect the talents of the people on my team. I work hard to think through my plans before I present them to the group for discussion. I ask more, listen more, and tell less. I give my team the space to make choices about the work they feel is important and I work hard to make our environment comfortable enough for dissenting opinions to be shared, debated, and sussed out before making decisions. I rely more on my positive professional relationships to get the work done. The team takes ownership of our school’s problems. They volunteer to work in areas where their particular gifts and talents shine. They work when they don’t have to. I value that commitment because I recognize that their commitment to the work is really the only thing that makes our collective success possible. I’m an effective planner, but the best laid plans don’t mean a thing if the right people aren’t around to see them through to completion. So, I’m in an interesting place now. We’ve had some successes and I’m trying to leverage my influence with my team to create more successes, but I have to be very careful with their time and their effort, because if we fail to follow-through on a plan in which lots of people have an emotional and professional investment, I know I’ll find far less support for our next endeavor. To say that I’m nervous would be an understatement. It’s the good kind of nervous though.

The best thing about the immediate impact that my shift in leadership style and philosophy has had on the team is that when we work, we smile, we complete our plans, we celebrate our successes, we reflect on our failures, and we repeat the process from project to project. These incremental wins are exciting because I feel that they’re laying the foundation for a big turn-around in our school’s culture.

So, my ability to influence people (by respecting them as people and as professionals) is far more valuable than my perceived positional power. Influence makes people want to work while authority makes people feel that they have to work…or else. The difference between those two types of power is like the difference between love and fear. One builds you up. The other can tear you down. Here’s to more of the love and less of the fear.

As always, thanks for reading. Apologies for any grammatical errors, typos, run on sentences, etc.

Until next time.

Influence vs. Authority in Educational Leadership
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