This post originates from a data-based decision making course taught by Dr. Craig Hochbein at Lehigh University. Dr. Hochbein showed a short clip from The West Wing.

In the clip, the President’s inner circle was about to prepare the President for a debate. A bet was placed that Toby would call the President out for being unprepared despite being told beforehand that the President was suffering from a loss of confidence and needed to be treated with care. Toby predictably called the President out anyway. It is a great scene and definitely worth a watch.

Dr. Hochbein showed this clip to make the point that every leader needs someone that will tell them how it is no matter how difficult it might be to hear.

As a newly appointed school leader, it did not take very long before the importance of Dr. Hochbein’s point was confirmed to me.

I was facilitating a professional development session one Wednesday afternoon and I felt things had gone well. From memory, a student concert was scheduled the next day for parents to attend. This concert coincided with a casual dress day. A teacher asked whether or not teachers could dress casually. In all honesty I did not care either way but I made an on the spot decision for teachers to dress professionally as per usual. No-one said anything and everyone filed out of the room. I was still feeling good about how things had gone and did not give a second thought to the decision that I had made.

Fortunately for me, one teacher caught up with me later and politely suggested that I re-think my decision. As I listened I realised I got it wrong. I immediately went back to my office and sent an email to teachers allowing them to dress casually. I am in no doubt that this email went a long way to preserving the positive working relationships that were crucial to all of our collaborative efforts. If that teacher had not had called me out on a bad decision, those relationships would have been unnecessarily strained and all that I had thought had gone well in that professional development session would have been undermined.

Needless to say, I am still very grateful to the teacher that told me what I needed to hear. Now that I am leading a different school, I hope that there will be at least one person that will feel that they can tell me when they think I might have it wrong.

I am not suggesting that leaders should act upon every dissenting view. Often that dissenting view is not representative of the reality that a leader needs to base a decision upon. However, as a leader, I am very aware that I do not know what I do not know. It is very important to me that at least one well intentioned person whom I serve feels comfortable enough to turn my mind to my oversights or mistakes.

I am very interested in how different leaders cultivate these relationships and it is obvious that trust is the key. Teachers need to trust in the fact that inquiring into the reasons for my decisions will not compromise their relationship with me or their standing in the school. I want those that I serve to know that I will need their help at times, that their help will be appreciated by me and that it will ultimately benefit us all. Following the examples of leaders that I have had the benefit of learning from, building trust in this sense might be as simple as acknowledging my mistakes, giving credit to others and seeking advice. Failing that, I just hope I will always have a Toby.