The Empathy Imperative 

I’ve had multiple conversations within the last week with thought leaders on school culture which is clearly a passion of mine.  One of these conversations centered on the importance of context in leadership.  We discussed how a new Principal must realize that what worked at their mentor’s school or in their last Principalship may not work in the new setting.  A formulaic approach can prove to be a recipe for disaster.  I’ve seen many leaders unknowingly walk into this buzz saw with the best of intentions.  Principal candidates create elaborate entry plans and begin the job of executing their plan the day of their arrival.  Their plan has been carefully crafted utilizing a variety of data points including test scores and surveys, but lacks a critical component.  They have determined the problem without first building empathy.  What if they are solving for the wrong problem?

In our quest to help our students improve critical thinking our school stumbled into design thinking.  Design thinking is messy and not linear.  So are people.  We were amazed to discover that the design thinking process applied to problem solving in our school as well.  The first step in the process is gathering empathy data from people.  Design thinking begins with the user and seeks to define the real problem through the eyes of the end user.  The thought that data alone can determine our course of action in school improvement is significantly flawed.  Data might reveal that math achievement is an area of opportunity so the new Principal creates a remedial math course focusing on numeracy.  Students could be struggling because they have trouble understanding their teacher or struggle to convert the math vocabulary into an algorithm.  Speaking with students would ensure that the Principal was indeed solving for the right problem.  This can save significant time, money, and frustration.

The idea of gathering empathy from stakeholders is absolutely essential before a new leader begins executing “their plan”.  Winning school cultures are only possible when a collaborative process is utilized to define core values and a vision for a better collective future.  Students, staff, families, and community members deserve a seat at the table.  Successful school leaders understand that the school belongs to the community and they recognize their responsibility to understand before acting.  Failure to gather empathy before making decisions can undermine the leader’s ability to make a lasting impact on school culture.  Conversely, a leader who regularly analyzes data and meets with stakeholders to define and solve  for the real problem is on the road to success.  

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