District leaders should shift from a traditional “command and control” structure to an approach that focuses on trust and inspiration of the educators and administrators they lead—one that recognizes “the inherent greatness of people,” best-selling author Stephen M. R. Covey said Friday.

“Our job as leaders is more like a gardener than it is a mechanic … Our job is to create the conditions for people to grow—both the students but also our own people, our teachers and administrators,” Covey told about 3,000 district leaders from around the country on Feb. 17 at the National Conference on Education, an annual event hosted by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Sessions at the three-day event focused on the urgent need for academic recovery after pandemic disruptions and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on school and district employees.

Factors like changes in technology and the workforce, concerns about employee burnout and attrition, and looming financial concerns all contribute to a need for a different type of leadership, said Covey, who is the son of Stephen R. Covey, author of the influential book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Today’s challenges require an all-hands-on deck approach, he said, and people at all levels of school systems need to be empowered to be part of the solution, rather than being forced into a compliance mindset. Leaders should “be efficient with things and effective with people,” treating the flourishing of educators as an end goal in itself, Covey said.

“The moment we start to manage people as if they were things, we are going to end up with no people and a lot of things,” he said.

Conditions for flourishing

That mindset shift is especially important for leaders in education at this moment, Covey said. He cited the results of a June Gallup poll, which found that K-12 workers reported the highest burnout rates of employees in any profession. Forty-four percent of K-12 workers who responded to that poll reported that they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work, outpacing all other industries.

And schools are competing for employees against businesses offering remote work and new flexibilities, which may draw teacher-candidates and other K-12 professionals away from the field, Covey said.

“To try to lead in this new world, this new environment, this new reality, the way we have been leading in the past, is not going to work very well,” he said. “People don’t want to be managed, they want to be led, they want to be trusted, they want to be inspired.”

While the current moment may seem frustrating and overwhelming, growth is possible given the right conditions, Covey said.

He cited Death Valley, Calif., as an example. The typically barren desert land, known as the hottest place on earth, saw a rare “superbloom” of yellow wildflowers in 2005 after an unexpected rainfall.

“Wildflowers popped up and carpeted the entire valley,” Covey said. “It turns out it wasn’t dead after all; it was just dormant … The seeds were there all along. They just needed the right conditions to flourish and to grow. In a sense, people are like that.”

A mindset shift for leaders

Leaders can make several key mindset shifts to create a culture of trust and empowerment in their schools, Covey said.

  • Leaders should unleash employees’ potential, rather than trying to control or contain their ideas, he said, and they should inspire employees to explore solutions, rather than motivating them toward fixed ideas.
  • Good leaders fight against a scarcity mindset, focusing instead on an abundance of things like respect, capacity, and trust, Covey said.
  • Finally, districts shouldn’t expect trust from educators until they extend trust to them, he said.

Teachers have echoed those ideas in many districts, asking for space and autonomy to try new approaches in their classrooms, and for a voice at the district decision-making table.
“Inspiring others is a learnable skill,” Covey said. “And, as a leader, it is a stewardship that we have.”


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