Seriously, Lighten Up!

First impressions matter.


When a school leader assumes a new position, there is no bigger first impression than the introductory staff meeting.


Whether their staff numbers 80 or 800, new leaders must see this inaugural address as an opportunity to set the town for their tenure. Not only should they use this time to articulate their vision, they should also demonstrate vulnerability by opening up about themselves and allowing staff to see them as human.


When I was preparing for my first speech as a superintendent to our staff of 250 employees I thought everything was ready to go. My presentation outlined my strategic plan, measurable goals, and leadership philosophy ... leaving no detail unturned.


However, it wasn’t until a conversation I had with a mentor that I was reminded the most important part of the introductory speech aren’t the customary statistics or the traditional platitudes, but rather it’s the relatable stories that make the longest lasting impact.


After that meeting I added several slides to my presentation about my family and my upbringing to give the speech a more personal feel. I tracked down several childhood pictures, and identified key events that altered my life trajectory.


When I delivered the presentation I was delighted with my new colleagues' response. They were highly engaged as I flipped through family pictures and school photos. The biggest reaction came when I admitted my childhood nickname was “Opie” (from the Andy Griffith Show) due to being a scraggly redhead with big ears.

By acknowledging I was teased as a child and dealt with many bouts of adversity I wanted staff to know I was just like them. I was human.


In her book Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers this advice: “The best leaders aren't necessarily comedians, but they don't take themselves or situations too seriously. They can laugh at themselves and their mistakes.”


Educational leaders often believe admitting weakness is a mistake. However, I have found sharing personal imperfections helps me connect with the audience.


Beyond introductory orations, leaders should be vigilant in looking for other opportunities to model humility. One of the best ways to do this is simply to be with your people.


In the Truth About Leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner suggest, “One of the best ways you can show others that you care and appreciate their efforts is to be out there with them. Walk the halls, eat in the cafeteria, listen to complaints, go to parties. This type of visibility and availability makes you more real, more genuine, more approachable, and more human. It helps you stay in touch with what is really going on.”


When beginning a new leadership position, the temptation is to act important and invincible. Lighten up! Your staff will appreciate you more if you let your guard down and aren't afraid to laugh at your mistakes.

Looking for a great book about making strong first impressions, consider reading How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.