Leading With Heart

Last month I participated in a workshop called Own Your Voice, led by one of my heroes, Grace Kraaijvanger, founder of The Hivery. Grace’s goal was to help “entrepreneurs, writers, creatives and seekers describe their work, wisdom, and talent with confidence.” In the workshop, Grace shared nine pillars for owning your voice. Here is a sampling of my favorites.

  • Choose your megaphones: find the ways of communicating that are most you. 
  • Write like you speak; speak like you are. Your personality is your greatest asset.
  • Speak to your particular audience, not to everyone.

At the end, Grace gave us the reflective assignment of writing a brief bio of ourselves, being sure to answer the following questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I do?
  • Who is it for?
  • What am I passionate about?

This is what I wrote. Give it a try yourself.

I am Sharon Olken. I am the Executive Director of Gateway Public Schools and the founder of Everyday Leadership. As a teacher, leader, writer and coach, I help people discover their unique potential, cultivate their authentic voice, and lead from their heart. I support nontraditional leaders – primarily young people and women – to step into their power as thinkers, dreamers, artists, and activists. I love my work because I believe that education and shared leadership are two essential tools for personal growth and social change. I am passionate about helping to create a more inclusive, kind and just future that benefits from the wisdom and contributions of all.

As I reflected on this brief description of who I am and what I do, the phrase “lead from the heart” kept jumping out at me. Perhaps it sounds squishy to some, but I don’t think so. I believe that heart has everything to do with leadership. As my friend, Marlene, says, “The heart is the true brain.”

What does leading with heart mean?

  • Recognizing that your power comes from within, not from a fancy title or position of authority;
  • Never forgetting that true success is measured by your impact on the people you serve;
  • Staying grounded in your why – your bigger purpose and goals;
  • Remembering that how you treat people and demonstrate how much you value them is the most important thing.

The Hall Pass Principle

When I was a classroom teacher, I started each class period with a brief check-in with my students. Together, we would share highlights and lowlights from the previous day, moments of joy or sadness, jokes or songs, funny stories. I invested time each day to get to know my students as full people, to build mutual trust in the classroom, and to demonstrate how much I cared. My classroom was built on relationships first, learning second. Learning requires being open to risk and failure; who wants to put themselves in such a vulnerable position without trusting that their teacher has their back and sees the best in them? Students choose to engage when they feel seen and safe. 

I became a high school principal at 31. The number of students I felt responsible for ballooned from those in my classes to the entire student body. I didn’t have the opportunity for daily check-ins with all my students as I had as a teacher. I reasoned that my power, therefore, must come from my title, my positional authority. I started wearing shoes with thick stacked heels so I would click-clack with authority as I strode down the hall. 

Throughout the day, students were required to carry a hall pass if they were out of class. As a new principal, I would approach groups of students in the hallway and ask to see their passes. More often than not, they would cooly respond or scurry away, but there was no real connection. My interactions with them neither ensured they returned to class more quickly (my short term goal), nor helped them feel safe, seen and valued so they would engage in the risky work of learning (my long term goal).

That’s when I changed my approach and implemented the Hall Pass Principle: Start each interaction by showing you care, not by asking for the hall pass. “Good morning. How are you this morning?” Often students would initially respond automatically, “I’m on my way to the bathroom.” I would redirect, “I didn’t ask what you are doing. I asked how you are doing.” As this sunk in, students would actually look at me, their protective barriers would melt away a bit, and we would connect. After a few interactions such as these, they’d get it.

I extended the Hall Pass Principle by greeting students at Gateway’s front door when they arrived after school had already started. They often arrived in groups fresh from the harried experience of the 38 bus line. Some students would hustle to get to class as quickly as possible, while others ambled as if taking a leisurely stroll. Some approached sheepishly and tried to skulk past; others approached with an air of defiance or defensiveness. No matter how they approached, I greeted each student warmly. “Good morning. Glad you made it.” or “Tough morning? Take a deep breath and gather yourself before heading into class. You got this.”

I’d remind myself that no one wants to be late – it never feels good. As a student who was often late to school myself growing up, I remember how agonizing it was to wait for my mom to find her keys or try to find lunch money.  I didn’t want my students’ first experience of school in the morning to be a reprimand or hurried and testy exchange. I hoped that these brief moments of kindness and connection helped my students feel welcomed, important, human. 

Now I wear Doc Martens. No need to click and clack. I’ve learned that my title and positional authority are largely symbolic. True leadership comes from the heart. Though we don’t all have hallways and classrooms to lead, we all have the opportunity to positively impact those around us by demonstrating how much we care and value them. 

What is your equivalent of the Hall Pass Principle?

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