By Rebecca Pianta and Caroline Lopez-Perry, Ph.D. | February 2020
When you think of a true leader, who pops into mind? Do you think of CEOs, elected officials and other people in power?
Or do you think of the middle school student who fought against unfair education practices and rallied the entire student body behind her?
Or the single mother working multiple jobs to support her family and teaching her children to believe they’re capable of attaining their dreams?
Or the elementary school student who stands up to the class bully and shows other students being a bystander isn’t acceptable?
Leadership has little to do with titles or positions and everything to do with your ability to influence. Without it, your ability to make what you envision a reality will remain elusive.
Leaders can envision a desirable future, articulate how it can be reached, set an example and show determination and confidence. They can bring about systemic change and significant shifts in their stakeholders’ thinking. These individuals inspire others by being a visionary, trusting others, stimulating people intellectually and possessing high emotional intelligence.
Step one in building your leadership ability is cultivating your emotional intelligence skills. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and use this to manage your behavior and relationships.
Self-awareness skills are the ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen.
Self-management skills are 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 first.
Social awareness is the ability to accurately pick up on others’ emotions and understand what is going on.
Relationship management skills are the ability to use awareness of your own emotions and the emotions of others to manage interactions successfully.
Develop Organizational Awareness
Leaders with organizational awareness develop working relationships with key stakeholders who can advance their cause. When school counselors and district directors have organizational awareness, they 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 it. Knowing your school’s or district’s organizational hierarchy is vital. 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: At what level in your school or district are decisions are being 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 individuals will play a decisive role in your cause and bring about change. Who are the key decision-makers that define the policy and practice changes you need? 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 and district directors must know how to navigate through politics to advance their initiatives. You may be hesitant to dip your toes into political waters. However, 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 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 and helps leaders learn to influence the different 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 to further their initiatives. When working with Strategists, build a trusting relationship. They are visionaries, so always keep the big picture in mind and be clear and concise. Having a well-thought-out plan linking your initiatives with theirs will help engage Strategists.
Developer: Preferring to work behind the scenes, Developers are committed to the school’s goals and priorities. They help others grow in knowledge and skills to strengthen contributions to the school or district. Developers prefer stability and limited risk. To develop trust with Developers, include them and others in plan development because they value the opinions of all sides. Highlight how your initiative aligns with the school’s goal and think ahead about potential political blind spots so you can plan to avoid them.
Arranger: With many connections, charisma and diplomacy skills, Arrangers negotiate deals. They use their networks for information to push their initiatives forward. They dare to take risks and can develop compelling presentations to sway decision-makers. To influence Arrangers, demonstrate your network with coalitions inside and outside the school or district. Think about 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. 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. Emphasizing benefits and ease of change will help keep Adaptors grounded. Ongoing and open communication and recognizing Adaptors’ work are 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. Demonstrate your competence, show your support from key decision-makers and have a strong network to head off any opposing moves. Being clear 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.
Planners: Cautious about their security, Planners are slow to adapt to change. To put them at ease, be patient and answer all their questions. Ensure that your plan is detailed and includes outcome data. Do your research so you are fully knowledgeable prior to meeting with them, and reassure them by having the support of key decision leaders.
Balancer: A great ally, 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 compromise, so it is a win-win for everyone.
Analyst: Before buying in, Analysts like to see evidence of something working. They are focused on results and like to consider all the alternatives and potential consequences such as time, resources and political fallouts. Success stories from others doing similar work will help gain their buy-in. Proposals should include a detailed outline of an initiative’s costs and resources needed. Showing that you have the support of others will help ease their anxiety.
Educate and Engage
Educating and engaging stakeholders allows you to use your networks to advocate for adequate school counseling program resources to meet students’ needs. To stay at the forefront of your profession, attend school counseling conferences, watch ASCA webinars, read scholarly journals and magazines and consult with school counselor educators and other school counselors.
A strong support system will help you process your ideas, obtain guidance and persevere during challenging times. Use these strategies to engage and influence various stakeholder groups to recognize school counselors’ value.
Staff: Start the school year by presenting a school counseling program overview to staff and let them know how to make counseling referrals. Staff meetings are an excellent opportunity to engage and garner feedback from staff about site needs. Throughout the year, school counselors can share mid-year and end-of-year reports and share data related to student outcomes. Invite administrators and influential teachers from various grade levels to be part of your school counseling advisory council. When key staff members are involved with planning the school counseling program, the other staff members are more likely to buy in.
District officials: District officials need to understand how school counselors’ work directly affects district goals. To educate them, attend district leadership meetings to present an overview of the ASCA National Model. Have school counselors implementing the ASCA National Model share examples of their work and highlight how they have improved students’ achievement, attendance and discipline outcomes.
School board: Provide regular school counseling updates and present at school board meetings. Volunteer to write a column for your district’s newsletter, with updates that include examples of school counseling interventions and how they improved student outcomes. Invite board members to be part of the school counseling advisory council so they gain an in-depth understanding of the school counseling program and can provide feedback. Board members will see firsthand your direct impact at your school and can become your most prominent advocates.
Parents and the community: Host school counselor showcases and present at back-to-school nights, sharing how you spend your time and annual student outcome goals and results. school counselors facilitate workshops, including on the districtwide school counseling curriculum and ways parents can help their children succeed. Host informational tables where parents can consult with school counselors and preview materials school counselors use with students. Educating influential parents is imperative. Present at a districtwide PTA presidents’ meeting, and invite one of these parents to be part of your advisory council. If your district has a parent legislative advocacy group, educate them about the crucial role school counselors play.
As a school counselor, you can’t accomplish your program’s mission and vision alone. Sharpening your emotional intelligence and broadening your sphere of influence can go a long way toward meeting your program goals.
Rebecca Pianta is coordinator of counseling and student support at Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and a doctoral candidate in organizational leadership at Brandman University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Caroline Lopez-Perry, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach and can be reached at email@example.com.