Leading with Vulnerability: Developing my Leadership Potential
Leadership seems to be constantly thrust upon me, often by others seeing something in me that I didn’t quite see in myself. As I progressed through my teaching career I would avoid leadership roles because I didn’t believe that I possessed the qualities needed in a leader, in my mind having a vision of what a leader was; outspoken, confident, and always sure of what they were doing. I felt I was the opposite, quiet, observant and I liked having time to think so I could gather my thoughts before I responded. Also, growing up I didn’t see people that looked like me (Latina) or see people lead in ways that seemed closer to who I was personality wise.
When I was asked to be the leader of our History Department two years ago I was hesitant. How do you lead others when you don’t see yourself as a leader? I imagined nightmare scenarios of everything that could go wrong. I questioned if I could lead other adults and make our meetings meaningful. While I felt confidence in my classroom leading my students, leading adults was a whole other story. Sadly teachers are often asked to lead without getting much training themselves on how to lead.
So there I was feeling anxious before every meeting, not sure if as a department we were making any real progress. Last year I learned that we were partnering up with Lead by Learning. Quite frankly it couldn’t come at a better time, I felt that I hit a roadblock leading my department and then I was charged with leading the Instructional Leadership Team (a role that I again felt unprepared for). When we started our work with Lead by Learning I wanted to soak up everything like a sponge and hoped that somehow the secrets of good leadership would be revealed. I was very excited to finally get an opportunity to learn how to lead adults and how to become a leader. Little did I realize that this partnership was going to help me realize that there is no single mold on how to be a leader and that it is through the vulnerability we share about our struggles that we grow as leaders.
The one-on-one coaching was invaluable in helping me see the steps I needed to take to grow in my leadership because it allowed me an opportunity to share my thoughts through public learning and get feedback to push my thinking forward. A pivotal moment for me came in one of my early coaching sessions with Nina, my Lead by Learning facilitator. I was preparing for a meeting with my department and I was feeling very frustrated because I didn’t feel that I was being an effective leader in supporting everyone in my department. I had noticed there was a gap in my team between teachers new to the profession and teachers with several years of experience and I was at a loss on how to support their varying needs. I had prepared meetings that covered the new technologies we were using during distance learning, but then I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to move them forward. Nina and I discussed my dilemma:
- How do I plan department time to support everyone?
- With our varying degrees of experiences, how do I shift the culture from one of “fear of being judged” to one of “openness to be vulnerable to learn together”?
She used the Lead by Learning practice of Supportive Challenge to push me to think about my “why” and to have an open and honest conversation with my team. I needed to do some framing, to be clear on my vision for the department which was to use student data to move towards alignment and then communicate it because if we wanted to have conversations around student data, then we all needed to be willing to share and follow through.
Finally, the day of my meeting came and I felt less anxious and more prepared. I was open and honest with my department on my vision for us, I heard a willingness to dig in and do the work, and most surprising was they were willing to be vulnerable with me in return by sharing their own teaching insecurities and thus seeking support from their fellow department members. They were even willing to participate in a Public Learning at our next meeting, which they had expressed to be uncomfortable with before! That moment was eye opening for me because I learned that in being honest and vulnerable with my team it could help get us to where we needed to go.
The funny thing is, I have no problem being vulnerable, it is something that I am not afraid to be in my personal life or in front of students, but didn’t believe that it could be a leadership quality. Reflecting back on the year of learning how to become a leader, I can honestly say that I have come a long way and have yet still more to go. I take with me a very important takeaway, something that will hopefully help others who like me never saw themselves reflected in leadership spaces:
There is no single mold on how to be a leader. A stereotype of who or what a leader is has been engrained. Push back against that. You possess qualities that you may not realize can work to your advantage when leading. For me, it was realizing that my willingness to be open and vulnerable was a strength and not a weakness. I could use this willingness to help others feel safe and supported and thus lay the foundation to bring everyone on board to collaborate.
What are your strengths? And how can you use that to develop your leadership potential?
Luz Nunez is an educator at De Anza High School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. In addition to teaching U.S. History and AP U.S. History she is also chair of the Social Studies Department, the Instructional Leadership Team, and WASC Coordinator. She started her career 15 years ago in San Diego where she received her teaching credential from San Diego State University. Luz enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with her family and their dog.