Leading from the Top Down

I have served as a volunteer for my local United Way for over 15 years on a team that recommends funding for afterschool programs in Lincoln. A thorough review of the program’s application, followed by an in-person interview with a program representative, is part of the process of awarding funds for a two-year period to worthy programs. In the second year of receiving the funds, our team conducts site visits to the funded programs to see them in action. It’s an opportunity to talk with top leadership, program staff, volunteers and kids and hear first-hand about their successes, challenges, needs and visions. Our top priority is to ensure the funding they received is positively impacting the kids they serve.

It’s interesting to see the similarities between all the programs as we visit each of them. But, what’s even more interesting to me are the differences between them. One thing that clearly sets programs apart from each other is their leadership. I’m talking about the leadership at the top of the ladder, whether their title be the Executive Director, Chief Executive Officer, Director of Operations, President or Principal. It’s obvious that their leadership style and the tone they set at the top drifts down to those below and can ultimately determine the program’s impact on the kids.

The leader impacts a lot. The leader impacts staff recruitment, morale and retention. The leader impacts staff work performance. The leader impacts the level of trust and respect their staff have towards them and with one another. The leader impacts the sense of community within the organization. The leader impacts the energy, enthusiasm and outlook of those they lead.

Again, the leader impacts a lot.

The leader may not be the one on the front lines working with the kids, but how they treat and interact with the staff and volunteers that do, indirectly impacts the kids. There might be many rungs of the ladder between the leader and the kids, but the staff in between who are working directly with the kids are looking up to their leader for guidance and direction on how to do what they do. What they see, hear and feel from the leader is what they are more likely going to model back to the kids.

It’s become clear to me as I have visited various afterschool programs that when great leaders do a lot of things right you can see it, hear it and feel it with the staff. And, I believe the kids can see it, hear it and feel it, too.

The bottom line is…if you want great outcomes with kids, you need great staff. If you want great staff, you need to be a great leader.

So, if you are a leader, here are some of the most important things I have seen great leaders do:

    • Great leaders recognize the value of every adult in the organization and they praise their staff members as often as possible.
    • Great leaders support their staff at every turn – with challenging students, challenging parents and challenging colleagues. They trust their staff, they have their back and they always try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
    • Great leaders don’t spend much time in their office. They are in the halls, in the classroom, at the bus stop, at carpool, in the gym or wherever the action is and they engage with those around them.
    • Great leaders do not try to do it alone. They involve others in the decision-making process whenever possible.
    • Great leaders are willing to do the things that are hard and difficult and in the best interests of the organization.
    • Great leaders do as they say. They follow through and model what they expect of their staff.
    • Great leaders intentionally foster a culture of collaboration in their organization. They recognize their staff are stronger when they work together so they create the conditions in the organization that facilitate this process.
    • Great leaders are never content with the status quo. They have high expectations for themselves and everyone around them. They articulate a bold vision for their organization and inspire others to elevate their game.
    • Great leaders equip their staff with the knowledge, skills and financial resources to do their job in the most effective way.
    • Great leaders understand the importance of morale and are intentional about creating positive and fun working conditions for their staff.
    • Great leaders commit to bringing positive energy to work every day. They realize that positivity is a nonnegotiable quality when creating a culture students enjoy being in and adults enjoy working in.
    • Great leaders always make it about the kids. They work to build relationships with the kids and they ensure that the best interest of kids drives every decision in the organization.

You may be one of those leaders who sometimes succeeds at being a great leader and sometimes you fail. The important thing is that you always keep working at it. Being a great leader at the top of the ladder should always be your goal with your outcome always being to make a positive difference at the bottom of the ladder.

Now, go forth and lead in great ways.