Dr. Jody Carrington is an amazing speaker, maybe the best I have seen. Using her experiences as a psychologist working with some of the most challenging children in Alberta, research from the Circle of Security International (https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/), and the work of Dr. Brene Brown, she shared with us key information about how we can make a difference in our schools. She had our school district’s staff in the palm of her hand for a full day, and at the end of it she received a standing ovation. This was from a room full of teachers, three weeks in to the school year! Impressive. She spoke about the ways in which we need to help those kids who can cause us the most frustration and how those kids need an adult to help them establish a “circle of security”. To do that, the adult working with these students should be “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind”. She explained that although parents and other caregivers may not always get it right, as long as we respond to a child’s dis-regulation correctly about 30% of the time, the child will learn how to self regulate! Let’s face it, it isn’t easy to always be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind when we are stressed and facing really difficult situations. But as teachers and support staff facing complex challenges in our classrooms, that is our daily challenge.
Being a leader is also about being bigger, stronger, wiser and kind - regardless of the situation. Of course, like any human being, leaders will feel negative emotions when working with their staff at times, but the best leaders remain bigger, stronger, wiser and kind, even in the most challenging of circumstances. We know this to be true, because we have all had a moment at work where we needed our supervisor or leader to be our “bottom hands” and to show their care for us as people during a difficult time. A leader’s opportunity to make a life long connection with a member of their team presents itself at these times - if the leader can be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind that is. As a teacher, I recall being upset with a student once, and then being even more upset with how my principal handled the situation. At the end of the day, I went to him to discuss/vent, and he was open to my feedback, he listened to me share how I was feeling, and responded in a positive way. What could have turned into a conflict was turned into a connection, because at that moment he was bigger, stronger, kinder and wise, and I really needed that.
The opposite is true as well. If a leader responds to an employee who is in need of support but provides a negative reaction, a harsh judgement or passing critique, the leader may likely lose any hope of making a positive connection with that person. Establishing a circle of security is to know when it is time to be the bottom hands for someone, and when it is time to send them out into their world. When someone needs bottom hands but instead gets a palm in the face - well, the damage to that relationship will be deep and long lasting to say the least. I remember when a principal I worked with responded to an inquiry I had around an assignment once as challenging his authority, and he grew in anger and authority. I likewise become angry and stuck in my heels. This memory for me is extremely vivid because our memories are connected with emotions, and the stronger the emotion, stronger the memory. Although he tried to repair our working relationship, I was always guarded around him, never quite sure if I could trust his reactions.
This is the leader’s challenge then: to always be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind. To act with respect of everyone, to care for everyone, especially when things are really busy When the leader feels like they are moving at 100km/h with their hair on fire, they still must respond with kindness and support when they come across someone who isn’t doing so well, who is having a moment of vulnerability. The leader’s challenge is to take time with that person or to organize some time later. The leader has to set aside their own “to do” list and their own needs. The leader has to take the opportunity to be the bottom hands.
What can a leader do when they get upset or flustered in a situation. Well, responding to an employee with frustration or worse would be divisive and unhealthy in the work place. Dr. Jody Carrington said that parents only need to get it right about 30% with their children, but I would guess that leaders need to get it right about 95% of the time with their staff - not as much room for error because there will be less opportunities to repair it later. So the leader must be able to regroup and remember, that whatever is happening is not about them, its about something else: the employee, the role, life complications, work place drama or other factors. Then the leader should think: “how can I respond in this situation to help everyone move forward, and how can I respond that will help me connect with my team.” Inevitably, the leader should realize that they must be bigger, stronger wiser and kind. In this way, the leader can help establish a circle of security because as their team establishes trust and connections, they will be ready to be challenged and to develop their skills to work independently, knowing that if needed there will be someone their to guide them along and catch them if they struggle. This will help foster a feeling or being valued and recognizing how important they are to the team and the leader. I know from experience that when I feel valued by my leadership, I am more engaged in my work. When one of my staff share with me that they don't feel valued, I tell them that it will be my challenge to help turn that around; I ask them for their patience and an opportunity to do just that, because nothing is more important.
The greatest challenge that all leaders have is to make sure they have someone to support them; someone to be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind when they need it too. This person must be there to be the leader’s bottom hands and to help guide them back to a feeling of “I’ve got this”. There are moments when any leader will need the support from a trusted person to be their bottom hands in the circle of security. And in the often lonely world of school leadership, it is even more important to have this extremely important relationship. This is often someone from outside the school who will be able to invest in this relationship to provide that type of support. I think this immense need in leadership is why so many leaders are investing in a coach (executive coaching or cognitive coaching). Leaders are looking for someone to give them the support they need and to offer them insights into their own leadership practices, beyond what may be available to them in their organization. It really can be the missing ingredient for any organization to go from good to great - supporting the leaders who are supporting all the people who are doing the work. Great leadership is so important, and great leaders need bottom hands too!
I am personally grateful to all of the bottom hands who are there for me. I am blessed to have a number of amazing colleagues who are able to guide my thinking when needed and to listen when I need to share. Over my career I have worked with some fantastic leaders who have demonstrated to me time and time again how to connection and to support all of the people on their team. THANK YOU! I am also very grateful to Dr. Jody Carrington for teaching me the language of the Circle of Security, and for being bigger, stronger, wiser and kind!