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Leadership Tenets for the New Normal: Connect with your Purpose and Feed your Values

By: Kristen Howell on July 28th, 2020

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Leadership Tenets for the New Normal: Connect with your Purpose and Feed your Values

Organizational Leadership & Change Management  |  Crisis Management  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership

If you are anything like me, you are at a loss for how we are suddenly in the last week of July and barreling straight towards the new school year. After a spring spent in crisis triage mode and a tumultuous summer filled with political and social unrest, there haven't been many opportunities to recharge our batteries and reflect in the ways that we may have in past years. If you are feeling tired, you are not alone. If you are feeling afraid and overwhelmed, you are in good company.

Yet with the challenges we are facing this fall around equity, safety, social-emotional learning , and academics, we know that our kids and our communities will need us to show up as our full selves and with a spirit of optimism. We know that they need and deserve the best we have to give as leaders and that we will fall and fail and need to get up time and time again.

Which puts us in a challenging position: how can we be the best versions of ourselves as leaders when we aren’t quite at our best?  In speaking to many leaders across the country about precisely this question, two leadership tenets have risen to the top:  Connect with your purpose and feed your values. When it feels like the unknowns are mounting by the day and change is the only constant, our purpose and values are the linchpins that will allow us to stay grounded and resilient as leaders. 

The first order of business then is to ensure that we deeply know and understand our purpose and the core values that drive our beliefs and behaviors. And you may have some quick answers to what your purpose and values are - I know I have a few responses in my back pocket. But with the past few months of leading through crisis and the imminent challenges in our very near future, we may have lost sight of or feel out of alignment with our purpose and our values. The best thing we can do as leaders right now is to build small habits that connect us with our purpose and feed our values. 

Connecting with Your Purpose

“Self-knowledge is the portal through which we cultivate our disposition of purposefulness. When you feel purposeful, you’ll sense it in every confident stride you take, in the words you speak, and in the way you dust off your knees and stand up tall again after you’ve fallen down.” 
- Alena Aguilar, Onward 

Many of us have seen Simon Simek’s famous Ted Talk on “Start with Why” or this powerful clip from Michael Jr. (if you haven’t seen it, it is worth checking out!). The idea is that the “what” of our work is not nearly as powerful as the “why”. The why drives the what and not the other way around. As educators, most of us have a strong “why” that is based in our commitment to equity and to the students we serve. And although this may exist as a silent backseat passenger in our life and work, now is the time to make our purpose the driver. Bringing our purpose - our “why” - to the front and center will help us to stay grounded and resilient as we face the many challenges that lie ahead. If you need a way to reconnect with your purpose, I recommend this IDEAS.TED article and this guide from DePaul University, in addition to Simon Simek’s golden circle exercise. Once you are there, build a small habit that can connect you back to your purpose daily.  

Personally, I have tried a lot of things- journaling, reflecting, mantras, meditation- but very few have stuck for long. The goal is to find something that will stick for you- for me, it has been taking a walk in nature each day and using the time to reflect and reconnect with my why. With the flurry of emails, zoom meetings and calls and the countless daily decisions amidst constant ambiguity, the best thing for me has been taking time to clear the clutter and think -- to reconnect. When I started this habit, I would focus my energy on a specific goal. At first, it was really tough not to put on a podcast or make a phone call. Now, I look forward to this time and my mind is trained to move into reflection mode once I step out the door. What is one habit you can build to consistently connect with your purpose?

Feeding Your Values 

It may sound odd, but in order to live and lead in accordance to our values we must feed them. Just as our bodies need fuel, so do our values. And as a very food motivated person, this idea resonates with me. When our locus of control feels incredibly small and overwhelming at the same time, and the stakes for decisions and actions are incredibly high, our values can come under siege. For me, one of my core values is balance. Turns out that it is hard to maintain balance when our homes are our offices and there is more work to be done then there are hours in the day. Over the past several months, I have found myself anxious, short with loved ones and feeling out of control. I had lost my sense of balance, and it showed up in my personal life and my work. It kept me from being the best version of myself and best leader for my teams. When we are out of accordance with our core values, we cannot lead as our full and authentic selves.  For you, a core value might be ambition or connectedness, or security. Whatever your values are, finding ways to feed and fuel them is critical for your leadership, particularly right now. I recommend starting with this exercise from Bright Morning or this blog post from Psych Central. Once you are there, build a small habit that can connect you back to your values daily.  

Although it is a constant struggle, I know balance is important to me. One habit I have developed, in addition to my daily nature walk is building my morning routine, breaks, meals, workouts, and stop times into my daily calendar. Just like I get the little “ping” 10 mins before a Zoom call, I get the same reminder to workout, go on a walk, or stop my work for the evening. What habit can you build to feed your values?

I love the idea from Leah Weiss with IDEAS.TED of thinking about our purpose and values as the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box. Without that picture as your guide, it is exceedingly difficult to successfully construct the puzzle. Comparing life right now to a very complex puzzle is fitting, so let your purpose and values be the guide to help you put the right pieces together.


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About Kristen Howell

As a Partner at Education Elements, she teams with district leaders to help advance more innovative and responsive educational models for their schools. Previously, Kristen helped scale personalized learning in Chicagoland schools at LEAP Innovations and worked as a teacher, coach and district leader in San Francisco Unified School District. In her role in the Superintendent’s Office in San Francisco, Kristen oversaw $30M in philanthropic funding to design and launch a districtwide Vision, Vision 2025. This included the oversight of a multiyear partnership with Salesforce.org and other funders, the development of SFUSD’s innovation strategy (iLab), the rollout of a K-12 Computer Science scope and sequence, and a blueprint for digital learning. She holds a Masters degree from Stanford and Bachelors from Duke and is constantly exploring, adventuring and questioning the status quo.

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