Leadership credibility in incredible times

Sask Bulletin
May 25, 2020
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

Of the many factors that facilitate the leader and staff member relationship, credibility stands out as significant. Leadership development experts Kouzes and Posner assert, “Leadership is in the eye of the beholder.” In other words, successful leadership is just as much about what followers perceive as it is about what the leader does.

A recent blog from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology portrays leaders with credibility as those who can lead their staff through “uncertainty, volatility and transformation.” Without question, these are uncertain and transformative times. Whereas previously in schools, teachers and other staff members took their cue from observations of the leader’s everyday actions and interactions. Today’s context of remote learning creates challenges for school principals as they work to build and maintain credibility as an instructional leader.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey have written extensively about educational leadership and teacher education. They collaborate with Dominique Smith, a San Diego school administrator, and share four major components of credibility, which apply as equally to the teacher/student learning relationship as they do to the principal/teacher professional relationship.

Whether in a physical space or an online/remote learning atmosphere, the authors contend that establishing and maintaining credibility involves trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy. Let’s look at what these four might look like for school principals across Saskatchewan today.

  • Trust. As well as wanting honest answers, teachers today are relying on principals to help them understand their unfamiliar role of remote educator amidst tumultuous times. For example, they will look to the principal to clarify and contextualize Ministry expectations. Teachers will look for consistent messaging to families, students and communities and they will trust in their principal’s voice in regards to their professional capacity and commitment to meet students’ learning needs. Teachers look to their principals for honesty and integrity.
  • Expertise. Perhaps more than ever, teachers today will look to their principal to improve their ability in using new platforms and/or technologies to support student learning as well as their own professional learning. Although principals may not have all the technological answers, teachers will expect them to continue to ask curriculum- and pedagogical-related questions, including learning about teachers’ challenges and concerns regarding student engagement and learning. Teachers look to the principal for expertise.
  • Dynamism. When uncertainty consumes the spirit, people look to their leader to offer a sense of optimism and inspiration. Whether through email, text messages or Zoom meetings, teachers will continue to hang on to signals of the principal’s energy, passion and genuine interest in people and the topic at hand, as well as communicating forward-thinking ideas and possibilities for the future. Teachers look to their principals to sustain hope.
  • Immediacy. Communication is much more than the exchange of words. Some say that nonverbal communication accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the interaction. Without question, communication is more difficult when we are not picking up those subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) facial and hand gestures or physical shifts. However, teachers will still look to the principal for reassurance that their contribution matters and that they are valued professionals. Teachers look to their principals for reassurance.

Leadership credibility is important, regardless of context. In their book, Credibility, Kouzes and Posner (2011) contend that credibility is the first law of leadership and they state, “If you don’t believe in the messenger you won’t believe the message.”

Unquestionably, working in isolation presents numerous challenges to principals as they build and maintain credibility with their staff. However, it may be that when teachers are working hard, learning and adjusting to a new and challenging teaching reality, that is the time when teachers most need to perceive their principal’s trust, expertise, passion and presence. And that’s credibility at its best.