By Kate Wolfe Maxlow
With the winter holidays right around the corner, it’s a great time to unwrap one of the best gifts you can give your direct reports: your occasional, purposeful absence. I learned this lesson the hard way the first time I had direct reports. As a new leader, I thought it was my job to get to the office before and stay later than everyone else. I worked tirelessly, running from meeting to meeting, balancing multiple projects at one time. I never delegated and tried to keep my hands in everything. I joked that “education is my job and my hobby” and worked in the evenings and on the weekends.
Imagine my surprise when my direct reports, sometimes through tears, admitted that they didn’t know if they could live up to my expectations and that they found me intimidating. These were talented, hard-working, incredibly intelligent people—the last thing I wanted was them thinking they weren’t “good enough.” I never once told a single person they weren’t living up to my expectations, so where were they getting this idea?
I knew I needed to reflect on my personal leadership theories. I happened to be taking an educational policy course that required reading about Complexity Theory. One concept in particular stood out to me: fractals. Shoup and Studer (2010) explained that “fractals are reiterations of patterns across scales in a system” (Location 308); characteristics at the macro-level tend to be mirrored at the micro-level and vice versa. Leaders have a strong impact on these fractal patterns. These two sentences from Shoup and Studer (2010) especially struck me:
“Leaders need to be sensitive to the fact that their standards and idiosyncrasies (both positive and negative) get mirrored throughout their organization. … Whether it is punctuality, certain standards of excellence, or styles of relating, the dominant values will mirror themselves throughout the system and become essential features of the system.” (Location 308)
I realized: even though I had never officially set an expectation that my people work non-stop, my direct reports assumed that was my expectation because that’s what I did. In setting the bar so high for myself, I inadvertently set it there for everyone else. And while I thrive on a packed schedule and working on multiple projects at one time and racing to meet tight deadlines—not everyone does.
I decided to explicitly inform my people I had no expectations that their schedules mirror mine. Anyone who has ever been a child or a parent knows exactly how well this “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy worked. Rather than comforting people, it led to confusion and worry that even though I said I didn’t expect people to respond to the emails I sent after work hours, I was secretly judging those who were not obsessively checking and responding to their work email during non-work hours.
In their 2007 article “Fractals of Strategic Coherence in a Successful Nonprofit Organization,” Black et al. wrote that “To be effective, strategic logic cannot be embedded only in the head of the leader; it must also act as behavioral guidance for organization members (p. 423).” In other words, it’s not enough to share your expectations—you have to live your expectations. And this includes your expectations around a work/life balance.
I stopped sending emails during non-work hours, and instead used the Gmail Schedule Send feature. In the rare event of a work emergency in which I did need to contact someone beyond regular hours, I made sure to apologize and explain why this contact was necessary. When my direct reports worked extra hours, I hounded them to submit their hours for extra pay or flex their hours. I took actual personal days to just do nothing in particular, and told my people I would be out and to only contact me in the event of a work emergency—and made sure I similarly did not contact them when they took days off. As a group, we looked at who was doing what and how we could better balance the workload for everyone. I scaled back the number of projects with which I was directly involved in day-to-day work, which also demonstrated my level of trust in those who did run those projects.
To make this a school-system wide approach, I also worked closely with our curriculum teams to develop a comprehensive curriculum with daily, quality lessons for almost every content area and grade level, allowing teachers to tweak lessons rather than write them from scratch. We explicitly tell teachers during training: use the curriculum and adapt it, so that you can spend home hours with your families and hobbies. We also increased how much we pay teachers for writing curriculum to better compensate them for their time—letting them know that we value their time and appreciate the sacrifice they make to provide curriculum for our whole district.
I slowly saw the ripple effects. More teachers want to work in our district because they know that we value their work-life balance. People in the departments I supervise take care of each other, reiterating that “family comes first,” and truly meaning it. I haven’t seen any tears in a long time.
As leaders, it’s important to be self-aware. The concept of fractals reminds us that it’s not enough to be aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, but to be actively working on ourselves. We need to be not just the boss that we think we should be, but the boss that our people and our organization need to thrive.
Black, J. A., Hinrichs, K. T., Fabian, F. H. (2007). Fractals of strategic coherence in a successful nonprofit organization. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 17(4), 421-441.
Shoup, J. R., & Studer, S. C. (2010). Leveraging chaos: The mysteries of leadership and policy revealed. Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as: an elementary school teacher; an instructional coach; a Director of Innovation and Professional Learning; and a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. She’s taught classes from PreK-PhD. One of her favorite non-work activities is designing escape rooms with her 7 year old. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.