By Rebecca Pianta and Caroline Lopez-Perry, Ph.D. | January 2023
When you think of a true leader, who pops into your mind? CEOs and elected officials? Or the middle school student who fought unfair education practices and rallied the entire student body? Or the single mother working multiple jobs to support her family and teaching her children to believe they’re capable of attaining their dreams?
To be leaders, school counselors must master the ability to influence others. Leaders can envision a desirable future, articulate how it can be reached, set an example to be followed and show determination and confidence. They possess the ability to bring about systemic change and significant shifts in their stakeholders’ thinking. These individuals inspire others to accomplish remarkable results by being a visionary, trusting others, stimulating people intellectually and possessing high emotional intelligence.
Step one is to cultivate your emotional intelligence skills. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. Emotional intelligence is more important to job performance than any other leadership skills. It includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management skills.
Self-awareness: the ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen.
Self-management: the ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and positively direct your behavior. Leaders skilled at emotional management are more likely to put others’ needs ahead of their own.
Social awareness: the ability to pick up on other people’s emotions accurately and understand what is going on.
Relationship management: the ability to use awareness of your own emotions and the emotions of others to manage interactions successfully.
Develop Organizational Awareness
Organizational awareness is just as important as self-awareness. Leaders benefit from developing working relationships with key stakeholders who can advance their cause. When school counselors and district directors have organizational awareness, they are better able to use their understanding of relationships, hierarchies and decision-making processes to communicate more effectively.
Understand the structural framework: To change the system, you need to understand the system. It’s vital to know your school’s or district’s organizational hierarchy. For example, does your district have assistant or associate superintendents or directors? What are their positions and roles within the organizational hierarchy?
Understand interpersonal dynamics: Leaders identify the level at which decisions are made and through which decision-making process. Are they centralized at the district level, or do sites have local control?
Identify key decision makers and influencers: These are the individuals who will play a decisive role in your cause and bring about change. Who defines the policy and practice changes that need to happen? Who are the influencers consulted in the process? Who has formal and informal power within the process?
Navigate Different Political Styles
Politics are inevitable in any school or district and school counselors must know how to navigate through politics to advance their initiatives. You may be hesitant to step into political waters, but the policies and practices affecting our daily work and our students’ lives are political in nature. School counselors can’t afford to be passive recipients of policy. With increasing demands and limited resources, being a politically savvy leader is imperative.
Being influential is complex and requires insight, analysis and careful handling. According to “The Politically Intelligent Leader: Dealing with the Dilemmas of a High-Stakes Educational Environment,” a politically intelligent leader uses a moral compass to influence the organization in the right direction while considering others’ wants, needs, values, motivations and emotions. The book identifies nine political styles:
Strategist: Highly active in furthering a school’s vision, the Strategist empowers others, which leads to innovation. Strategists frequently collaborate to design and market proposals and are skilled at building networks of support to further their initiatives. When working with Strategists, it’s important to build a trusting relationship. Because they are visionaries, always keep the big picture in mind and be clear and concise with your delivery. Having a well-thought-out plan linking your initiatives with theirs will help keep Strategists engaged.
Developer: Preferring to work behind the scenes, Developers are committed to the school’s goals and priorities. They help people grow in their knowledge and skills to strengthen their contribution. Developers prefer stability and limited risk. To develop trust with Developers, include them and others in plan development; they value opinions of all sides. Also highlight how your initiative aligns with the school’s goal and consider any potential political blind spots so you can plan to avoid them.
Arranger: Having many connections, Arrangers can negotiate deals using their diplomacy skills. They are charismatic and widely respected. Arrangers use their networks to get the information they need to push their initiatives forward. They dare to take risks and can develop compelling presentations to sway decision-makers. To influence Arrangers, build coalitions with others inside and outside the school or district to highlight your broad network. Consider possible blind spots and have a plan to address them. Include Arrangers in your planning, and be open to their ideas.
Supporter: Positive and optimistic, Supporters inject harmony into team settings. They like clear, concise messages that advance their goals. To keep Supporters motivated, encourage them and celebrate small wins. It’s also essential to establish trust by being honest, transparent and consistent.
Adaptor: Skilled at adapting quickly to organizational changes, Adaptors will be open to your ideas as long as the ideas don’t put them at risk. Reviewing the benefits and ease of the change will help keep Adaptors grounded. Ongoing and open communication and recognizing Adaptors’ work will be key to maintaining their support.
Challenger: Quick to give commands and make decisions, Challengers are aggressive in pursuing their initiatives and like to take risks. They like the limelight, are task-oriented and like efficiency. Challengers like being associated with top decision-makers, so be sure they see you have leaders’ support. To earn Challengers’ respect, make sure they know you are competent. A strong network will help you head off any of their opposing moves. Clarity about your vision and priorities will help keep you focused so you aren’t swayed by Challengers. To gain their trust and support, acknowledge them in front of others, and stay calm under pressure.
Planner: Cautious about their security, Planners are slow to adapt to change. They ask a lot of questions and seek as much information as possible to understand the issue. To put them at ease, be patient, and answer all their questions. Ensure your plan is detailed and includes outcome data. For a meeting with a Planner, do your research so you are fully knowledgeable about the topic. Since Planners are risk-averse, they need to know you have the support of key decision leaders.
Balancer: A great ally to have, the Balancer has connections with many people and can inform you of any potential blind spots. When trying to influence Balancers, highlight your commonalities, and generate multiple solutions they could select. They prefer coming to a compromise, so it is a win-win for everyone.
Analyst: Before giving their buy-in, Analysts like to see evidence that an initiative works. They focus on results and like to analyze all alternatives and potential consequences such as time, resources and political fallout. Success stories from others doing similar work will help gain their buy-in. Proposals should include a detailed outline of the associated costs and resources needed. Showing Analysts you have the support of others will help ease their anxiety.
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Contact Rebecca Pianta, coordinator of counseling and student support at Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., at email@example.com. Contact Caroline Lopez-Perry, Ph.D., assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach, at firstname.lastname@example.org.