Leading through Challenges: Leadership Team Health
This article was originally written for Edvance on May 3, 2021.
Close to Morraine Lake, Alberta, just outside of Banff, is a network of trails to explore the area and its beauty. When you venture a few dozen metres from the parking areas, you will come upon a sign indicating the possible danger of meeting up with a bear. By law, people must hike in a group of four or more to protect themselves from a bear encounter.
We feel the same warnings apply to Christian school leadership. As a leadership team, especially during a time of challenge such as the current pandemic, we find ourselves frequently remarking that we are so glad that we are not leading alone! While we don’t face the physical threat of a grizzly bear attack, the social, emotional, and even spiritual challenges that Christian school leaders are likely to encounter are so much better handled when you are able to work with a team.
In this article, (which we’ve written collaboratively), we share some of our thoughts around why a leadership team is important, what we have found to be the greatest benefits of working as a team, especially through this challenging time, some suggestions as to how one might seek out and craft a leadership team regardless of your school size—leadership teams are just as important at a small school as they are in a larger setting—and ways we’ve learned and continue to grow as an effective team. We offer some resources and suggestions for ensuring that your team functions well—a toxic or inefficient team environment can sometimes be more harmful than ‘hiking alone’.
Bonnie and Joyce both served as principals in small school settings before working together at Cairn Christian School, and Kevin has experience working with a high school guidance and admin team before working in administration at Cairn.
This morning, I picked up the phone, called Kevin and just sighed. In some ways, I suppose, that is a short summary of what a gift it is to work as a team. I knew that someone I trusted would be at the other end of the phone who would first laugh, then listen, then ask if I wanted advice, and then make a suggestion.
When I first started my tenure as a principal, it was in a small school where I taught four grades, took my turn cleaning the building, typed the weekly newsletter, and served as principal. My colleagues were supportive and dedicated, and parents certainly were appreciative. However, I missed the idea of ‘team’ leadership, or working with an administrative ‘team’. I should have looked harder; if you find yourself in a small school setting, it is even more imperative to create a team of support.
I’ve been rereading Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak. Chapter 6, titled “Hidden Vulnerability” resonates with me. With many kinds of flourishing, we see authority and vulnerability together. Sometimes, however, flourishing comes with invisible vulnerability, especially in leadership. Leaders have access to more complete information than those they lead. When asked about how things/school/business is going, the leader’s answer is “great”—always, the answer is “great”. As Crouch writes, “the leader must bear the shared vulnerabilities that the community does not currently have the authority to address”. Crouch makes reference to leader as a singular noun, but we would propose that, in actuality, a leadership team is much better positioned to bear one another’s vulnerabilities. It is key, then, that the leadership team is comprised of individuals who bring complementary strengths to the table, and who are willing to hold each other accountable. We have varied experiences and areas of giftedness and weakness; as iron sharpens iron, so we, too, must be honest with one another, always putting the needs of the school community first.
When a COVID-19 outbreak hit our school, I took care of the logistical details, Kevin informed the school community, and Bonnie made sure we didn’t miss anything. We each played a role to ensure the work got done effectively.
The team approach helps us to do our job better, provides us with an accountability structure, and allows us to support each other. We are able to bounce ideas off of each other, and encourage one another. The team is a safe place to wonder and to take risks. The team keeps us rooted in God and His will for us and the school. Ruth Haley Barton in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership reminds us that “it is impossible to overstate how dangerous we can become as leaders if we are not routinely inviting God to search us and know us and lead us in a new way.” The team approach gives us some breathing room and accountability in searching for God’s will in our decision-making.
When I served in a smaller school as the sole administrator and the only person on the team, I often feared burn out and felt lonely. I was the go-between for the staff, parents, and board. I wondered where my safe place was. In a leadership team, we protect each other’s wellness. The wellbeing of the team is dependent on the wellbeing of each person.
So, who should be on your team? In our case, we are a team of three administrators, but many schools are not large enough to carry a team like this. It is important that you have people on your team who you can trust; people with whom you can be honest and they in turn can be honest with you. Look around at people in your life: is there a VP, another staff member, or a friend with who you can be totally honest and know that they will keep your confidences? Is there a board chair or past board chair or board member who understands the workings of the school and has both your and the school’s best interest at heart?
Be careful that the team you build is not one that becomes a place to gossip or where your ideas will never be questioned. Find two or three people that will hold you accountable and will be free enough to challenge you when you need to be challenged.
Over a number of years of working together, both in our smaller leadership team of three as well as with a larger administrative group that includes office and finance personnel, we have found that there were times when we were at our best as well as times we have not functioned as well as we could have.
When has our leadership team health been compromised? Largely, it surfaces when we begin to practice what Brené Brown refers to in her book Dare to Lead as ‘armoured leadership’ which shrinks away from vulnerability and into something else. Our team has experienced this in various ways:
When we’ve avoided issues to keep the peace rather than confronting them.
When we’ve chosen control over delegation, either for lack of trust or for overconfidence in our own abilities (or even the seemingly altruistic offer to just ‘take care of it oneself’).
When we’ve stopped taking responsibility for problems individually or as a team and blamed others for outcomes that were actually within our control.
Perhaps the most detrimental of them all: when we’ve sought our own wins or protected ourselves rather than looking to the overall health and thriving of the organization.
Reading this, you may get the impression that we would be a great subject for the sequel to Patrick Lencioni’s infamous book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The truth is that we are human, we are broken, and we’ve learned to be real with one another. Brené Brown would identify this as being able to ‘rumble with vulnerability’. In her more direct moments, she would refer to it as calling out one another’s crap. There is no perfectly healthy team, and perhaps the sooner that is acknowledged, the sooner the team can get on with leading together effectively.
So, when have we shone as a team? Certainly, the past year has provided ample opportunity to test our mettle. At our healthiest, we have been able to trust and rely on each other’s ‘super powers’, otherwise known as complementary strengths and skill sets. Admitting that others can do something better than you can is both terrifying and freeing at the same time. Many of you have become familiar with Lencioni’s Six Types of Working Genius. Knowing what your areas of genius are, identifying your areas of working frustration, and then actually shifting tasks so that each of your team members spends more time in their proper strengths can transform not only your team’s results, but also their enjoyment and fulfillment of their work.
Another seemingly obvious way we’ve discovered that we can shine is by meeting together more frequently. Through the early days of the pandemic, we met together daily, which was a far cry from the bi-weekly meetings (if we were lucky!) that we had before. Prior to this, we communicated daily, but we didn’t focus together. Now, our meetings are more frequent, more productive, and shorter. Some have a sizable agenda, and others have a pointed one. By connecting more often, we have increased our effectiveness.
Finally, the fact that we each bring to the table varied experiences, skills, ideas, communities, agendas, personalities, genders, and ages all while being highly committed to the objectives and goals of our organization, allows us to exercise a wisdom that isn’t present when we work alone.
As you lead your school, beware of the dangers of walking the path alone. While at the outset it may seem beautiful, inviting, and even easier to go it alone, there is safety and resilience in numbers. If you find yourself alone, identify someone who can join you. Not working well together? Take a close and honest look at what could be holding your team back and operating in dysfunction. Together you’ll be effective, protected, and wiser, and as a result, so will your school.
Kevin Huinink, Bonnie Desjardins, and Joyce Koornneef are the leadership team at Cairn Christian School in Smithville and Stoney Creek, Ontario.
Kevin Huinink is the current Executive Director of Cairn Christian School which has a JK-8 campus in Smithville and Stoney Creek, in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Kevin has taught a wide range of subjects and ages through his career including grade three art, middle school social studies, high school business, computers, leadership, math, family studies and philosophy, and coached XC & T&F Running. In administration, Kevin has served as a guidance counsellor, principal, and now head of schools. Kevin holds an M.A. from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Kevin enjoys learning, running, hiking, and singing and does all of the above with his wife and four teen- and tween-aged children.
Bonnie Desjardins is the principal of the Stoney Creek campus of Cairn Christian School, located in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. She graduated from Dordt College (University) in 1983 and taught in the primary division in Strathroy, ON and Renfrew, ON, where she took on the role of principal after a year of teaching. In 1996 she joined the crew of Cairn Christian School and became the principal in 2006. Bonnie is committed to developing strong relationships with students, parents, teachers, support staff and Board members. She is particularly grateful for the leadership team she works with each and every day, for their dedication to seeing students flourish, and to holding each other accountable as we dedicate ourselves to inspiring students to love, learn and lead together in God’s world. In her ‘free’ time, Bonnie enjoys playing Scrabble, baking, hiking, and connecting with friends over a good meal. She and her husband have a married daughter, as well as two grandchildren who are currently in JK and SK at Cairn, Stoney Creek.
Joyce Koornneef is the current principal of Cairn Christian School in Smithville, Ontario. Joyce has taught grades JK-8 over her 35-year career in several schools in the Niagara area. In administration, Joyce served as a VP and principal in Dunnville Christian School before becoming the principal at Cairn Christian School. Joyce enjoys hiking, walking, camping, waterskiing, snow skiing, gardening, people, and taking on challenges such as feeding 50-pound eels in the wild and skydiving. Joyce is married to Jim and has two grown children and one grandson.