Recognising our strengths

In schools, we know the importance of building students’ academic confidence – we provide positive feedback and acknowledge their achievements. The recognition of their emerging mastery is critical – when students feel a sense that they are capable of learning, they are more motivated to continue learning.


This need for recognition is important for adults, too, including school leaders. Data from 1,945 360° feedback surveys completed by Queensland, Department of Education principals for their line supervisors reaffirms that recognition of strengths is both a need and a want. Recognition from supervisors was one of the top ‘do more’ requests along with coaching for development.


In Scott Barry Kaufman’s new book ‘Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization’ (2020) he updates Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Instead of a pyramid of needs he uses a ‘sailboat’ metaphor. The boat in this metaphor represents people’s need for security and belonging. Without the boat itself, we would spend all of our energy just trying to stay afloat in the potentially dangerous water. Having a secure boat – getting a sense of not only safety and connection but also worthiness – is essential. It’s easy to see how recognition, acknowledgement and appreciation from their supervisors could help fulfil the self-esteem and security needs of principals. To improve performance and sail towards better outcomes, particularly in the ‘turbulent waters’ that principals often find themselves in, it is especially important that they first feel secure in the ‘boat’.












Recognition in the coaching process


It is telling that both coaching and recognition topped the ‘want more of’ list of principals’. Taken together, they speak to a need to feel confident that while they will face challenges on the road to improvement, they have strengths that they can draw on to meet these challenges. This belief in one’s professional capacities is often referred to as ‘self-efficacy’, and has been shown to be critical to a leader’s capacity to manage challenges and lead change.


So how can a coaching approach support the development of self-efficacy? In a strengths-based coaching approach, a key part of the process is to draw out and recogonise the tools and skills that a leader already has, and explore how these can be applied to a specific problem or situation. This engenders confidence, reinforcing a sense of mastery and competence, which in turn enables action.  Put simply, when leaders are confident that they have the capacity to meet the challenges that come their way, they are much more likely to take action that will lead to success and growth.


Building a culture of coaching


In Queensland, it is clear that both principals and their line supervisors want to focus more on coaching as a pathway for professional growth. The strong alignment between the needs and intentions of principals and their supervisors represents an opportunity to build a culture of strengths-based coaching, where recognition of an individual’s skills and abilities underpins each stage of the coaching process.


This article is based on a discussion paper written by Gary Cox titled Why Principals Want ‘Recognition’ From Their ARDs. To read this paper as well as the first paper in the series of articles titled What Principals Want From Their ARDs, click here.


Gary Cox is the Director and Lead Consultant for At My Best. He is a registered psychologist with over 40 years’ experience in organisational development executive coaching and career development.

Make Inquiry Your Leadership Default Position


It’s now common to hear organisations – particularly schools – talk about how they are nurturing lifelong learning. How might leaders benefit from seeing themselves as lifelong learners?


When we talk about the kinds of skills and attitudes required to thrive in a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate, the notion of lifelong learning is often front and centre. In an information-saturated world, it’s no longer sufficient to simply focus on the transfer of a set of knowledge and skills; rather, organisations have begun to invest in the development of individuals who are oriented towards always asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what if’.


So how do leaders make inquiry a part of their everyday practice?


Leadership as inquiry


In education, as in other sectors, there is growing evidence that inquiry, as an effective mode of deep learning, should be at the heart of how leaders learn and grow. Leaders need to develop and apply the inquiry processes to their day-to-day practice: asking questions, collecting and analysing evidence, taking action, and reflecting on their progress. Through this learning process, leaders not only build a deep understanding of their context, but also build their professional knowledge of the practices that promote organisational learning.


A cycle of action and reflection


In his paper Leading inquiry at a teacher level: It’s all about mentorship (2012), Mike Fowler draws on his own experiences as a Deputy Principal to lay out the principles and practices that are essential in fostering a culture of lifelong learning within an organisation.


Fowler identifies a cyclical, reflective process that incorporates collecting feedback, identifying an area for improvement, and taking action. In this process, multiple sources of feedback are essential, as a means of providing insight for the leader as to where they are in their practice, and what they can do to enhance their effectiveness.


Of course, as Fowler emphasises, the key to making inquiry a source of real growth for leaders is to make space for structured reflection. Professional conversations that are grounded in strengths-based feedback allow an individual to reflect on their skills, identify areas for development, set goals for growth, and plan actions to take. A culture of reflective practice is one that makes time for these kinds of conversations, and makes them central to the organisation’s improvement agenda.


A community of learners


It’s clear, then, that middle and senior leaders play a critical role in creating a culture of learning through inquiry. They can model the practice of inquiry as a way of driving positive change. When leaders engage in the cycle of asking questions, seeking feedback, reflecting, and taking action for improvement, they make learning central to their work, and reshape organisations as a professional learning communities.


Harnessing the inquiry cycle everyday


Cycling through the inquiry process can be integrated into your daily leadership practices, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:


  • Make the process visible:
    • Create a visual of the inquiry cycle, and make it part of your performance development and professional learning frameworks.
    • Share the process with staff, and discuss how it might be used in their day-to-day work.
  • Apply the process:
    • Structure meetings according to the phases of the inquiry cycle
    • Use it to design extended professional learning and development projects
  • Reflect on the process:
    • Identify opportunities and problems that could benefit from the application of an inquiry process.
    • Share examples of how the inquiry process was used to create positive change.


Gradually, through deliberate action and reflection, organisations can make the shift to a culture of learning, where an inquiring mindset is the ‘default’ position.

Building trust through vulnerability


Leaders can be most effective when they model the capacity to reflect and ask questions, rather than having all the answers.


Known Unknowns


In our conventional view of ‘strong’ leadership, we tend to assume that the leader is the one with the plan – the vision, the strategy, the answers. We look to leaders for direction and decision-making, and no doubt, many of us internalise this notion of leadership when we become leaders ourselves. We assume that others are looking to us for answers, and feel pressure to have those answers readily to hand, no matter the complexity of the situation.


It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that leaders – and not just those new to the role – often feel they’re falling short of this ideal; indeed, imposter syndrome is now believed to be something that is experienced by a majority of people at some point in their working lives.


Of course, as has now been so clearly demonstrated in the COVID-19 crisis, there are plenty of times when leaders simply don’t have the answers, so it’s perhaps timely to consider a different view of leadership, wherein openness and vulnerability are a source of strength, not a sign of weakness.


Trust and vulnerability


In her extensive and influential work on leadership, Viviane Robinson advocates for the importance of trusting relationships in the work of effective school leaders. Trust, she argues, is essential if leaders are to embark on the difficult and important conversations that lead to meaningful change. Importantly, leaders must work at building trust within those conversations by modeling an open, inquiring mindset and a comfort with vulnerability. When leaders acknowledge the complexity of an issue, or the lack of immediate answers, they provide the psychological safety for others to ask their own questions, to inquire into their own practice and together find ways forward.


‘Confident Vulnerability’


Of course, as Robinson acknowledges, it is equally  important that leaders are perceived to be competent and capable; as we have seen in the recent crisis, the role of a leader to provide a sense of certainty amid uncertainty cannot be underestimated. The challenge for leaders is to integrate the work of building trusting relationships with the ‘substantive’ work of improving outcomes.


Here, we might turn to the idea of ‘confident vulnerability’, which Paul Freeman expands on in a recent blog. Acknowledging the tension that leaders must navigate between being ‘in control’ and being ‘open to learning’, Freeman suggests that when leaders model the behaviours they hope to see in their staff – to continuously reflect on practice, seek out feedback and take risks to improve – they earn the trust of staff and create an environment where continuous learning is the norm.


In a climate of uncertainty, we have little choice but to be open to learning if we are to adapt to the challenges that confront us. As leaders, we can instil in others the confidence to be vulnerable, by allowing ourselves to sit with the questions, rather than immediately reach for the answer.

Leading the way in a pandemic


Leading a complex organisation is difficult enough in ‘ordinary’ circumstances, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up all kinds of new challenges for leaders, at a time when everyone is looking to them for answers. How might leaders create a ‘point of certainty’ in uncertain times?


Predictably unpredictable


It’s no exaggeration to say that the current pandemic has caused unprecedented levels of disruption to our ways of working and living – to say nothing of the enormous human and economic toll. The lack of a roadmap makes this crisis particularly challenging – governments, organisations and communities are responding day-to-day, working with limited information which is always changing.


This unpredictability can be particularly uncomfortable for leaders who are used to working to a strategic plan; as the Harvard Business Review points out, such crises have historically been ‘make or break’ moments for leaders.


So what can we learn – from research and from example – about the key elements of successful leadership in a crisis?




Perhaps the most challenging task facing leaders is to project calm in the face of chaos and uncertainty. In a crisis, communities look to leaders for guidance and reassurance, and while a leader may not be able to provide all the answers, it is crucial to provide a sense of direction and resolve.


This ‘direction-giving’ is a common element in leadership communication theory; however, as Suze Wilson notes in The Conversation, leaders cannot rely solely on this approach if they want to successfully lead communities through upheaval.




Citing Ronald Heifetz’s work on leadership in the midst of uncertainty, Wilson notes that a clear message from leaders becomes even more important during crisis situations. She gives the example of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic, and particularly her use of a simple and transparent decision-making framework.


By clearly communicating the possible scenarios and actions the government would take in those circumstances, she provided citizens with clarity as to what might lie ahead, as well as an understanding of why particular decisions would be made. This transparency enhances trust and a sense of certainty, despite the constantly evolving circumstances.




While it may seem obvious, the expression of empathy and compassion is particularly important during a crisis; yet, as Wilson points out, many leaders struggle to do this effectively, perhaps feeling that it may undermine the projection of strength and reassurance.


However, as we see with Ardern, when a leader articulates and acknowledges the fear and anxiety of the broader community, this can enhance a sense of psychological safety. Ardern also acted directly to address this anxiety, creating an open forum to speak directly to citizens and answer their questions. By recognising emotional responses, leaders can speak directly to them, and provide reassurance that they understand the lived experiences of those in their community.


Communication in a crisis


As we all live through the pandemic, it has become evident that calm, clear and compassionate communication from leaders is more important than ever. We can draw on these lessons from successful crisis leadership to better understand how we might lead our communities through this crisis with both strength and empathy.