Renewed Calling

Dear Larry:

I would love some advice on how superintendents can continue to stay motivated when they feel under attack from their staff, community, or other groups. Little by little, the joy we once experienced erodes, and we’re left with a hollow shell of an office and—even worse—a job, not a calling.

Dear Friend:

I hear you. I, too, have felt the stress that causes calling to fade in the face of intense job pressures. Each of us eventually faces such moments. Looking back, we see lessons learned in earlier times that provide encouragement and inspiration in tackling today’s daunting puzzles. For me, those look-back moments include strikes and rebuilding, job disappointments, and ongoing board challenges.

We had a good conversation today. You are such a good thinker and ask just the right questions. Ask those questions in cabinet and do a go-’round. Or do it virtually, with JamBoard or GoogleDocs where you can all contribute. It’s energizing. You got me fired up today. I got my “get moving” notice from Fitbit at 12:50. Thirty minutes later I was still in the zone, thinking about creative ways for you to share the vision, focus, and load with your team. Go get ’em!

Core values … we come back to this one again and again

True North

You can’t make everyone happy.  In times of turmoil our core values keep us sane and centered and remind us why we do this job. Yes, as you say, “Lead from the inside out.”  Work on your ‘teachable point of view’ or ‘Story of Self/Us/Now.’ Zero in on your core values that provide a focus and a touchstone to counterbalance all of the detailed responses needed regarding COVID.  Safety, for example, may be one those core values.  Safety of of students and staff—always in the same breath, not one or the other. We care about students and staff.

Grow the culture

Cabinet and principals face some of the same pressures you do.  Working together on core values helps build a shared culture. Trust, Brené Brown says, is built one small vulnerable moment at a time.  Build those moments of sharing and relationship building into each of your meetings.

Branding 1

Yes, we need to respond to issues like COVID and other pressures of the day. Write out your Shitty First Drafts, as Brené Brown calls them. That connects you to who you are and what you are feeling. Name your emotions. Name your core values. Then ask cabinet how they might respond. Use a go-’round. Get them used to feeling what it is like to sit in the hot seat. Get them closer to the arena and out of the spectator seats. Use the ladder of inference to move from specific conflicts to core principles we agree on.

Branding 2

What are the core beliefs that run through the center of all of your communications?  Susan Enfield, in her AASA profile, said that Highline’s focus on “knowing students by name, need, and dream” resonated so much that people started calling them out for it during board meetings. What are the tag lines and frequent sayings that you want everyone in the district to think first in a crisis?

Prioritize the things that matter most

Manage time

Make time for SOT: strategy, operations, and tactics. Allocate time in cabinet for each time frame: the next two weeks, two months, and two years. Delegate some of the tactics to free up your time for future-focused thinking. That is the true worth of a CEO: thinking longer-term, helping the organization see ahead. Concurrently, ask a guiding coalition to think now about the bond issue or the start of school. What we can do now to get ready?

WOW = Working on the Work

We are all happier when we are well-grounded in what we know well and do well. First, what brings you JOY? Make time each day for something that brings joy … and share those moments with others. Gratitude makes us happy and gives a boost to others. Second, find thing that teachers can do well – even in COVID.  Give them focus and call them out when you see them doing well. I love the way you call out teachers for good work at board meetings. Third, what is the work that principals can do right now?


We gain more energy from the things we ‘get to do’ than the things we ‘have to do.” Ask for volunteers – to work on the bond, reopening, or communications. Our brains start creating dopamine and give us new surges of energy and creativity. Fear overloads our systems and we don’t think clearly.

JOY committee

Create a JOY committee that thinks of self-care, celebrates small wins, and maintains a steady flow of ideas to cheer staff up. Clover Park did four weeks of appreciation, with many of the ideas coming from staff. In Highline, we created a visual “wall of fame.” Staff were asked to send in “Pats on the Back” for colleagues which were posted on the wall of fame and included in the newsletter. We all need relationships, personal touch, and human caring right now. How can we pool our ideas to make that happen despite COVID?

Communications — Over-communicate in times of stress

The Story of Self, Us, and Now

Yes, write your story of self, us and now. Be vulnerable. What is one small vignette that illustrates (without over-sharing) that you are real and face similar issues that others do. Then empathize with a shift to us. “I know how hard this is for all of us. I can’t wait for this to be over to see you and say thank you in person. NOW, we need to look out for each other. Share a good word with a colleague. Keep a gratitude journal. Send that uplifting email. If we each do one thing per day, we’ll help each other get through this. You matter, we each matter. Our kids are counting on us. We need each other to fill our buckets so we can fill our students’ buckets.”


Send something short each week to all staff. Maybe a note from you. A favorite quote. Maybe small wins where you shout out staff for doing the things that resonate with district values. Ask principals to send in one story per quarter over the rest of the year. Or create a venue for kudos and shout-outs. No one can do it alone. You can create structures that support each other.

3Ps = People, Purpose, Plan

In every communication – oral or written – mention people, purpose and plan. Let everyone know that they matter, that people are important to you. Remind them of the Big WHY, purpose.  And share what you can about plans so they aren’t surprised. And keep hope alive by pointing to better times. Ask, “What will our headlines look like on September 1 with everyone back in school without COVID?” “What have you learned now that we want to keep doing in the future?” Post one positive hope-filled question each month, with a small gift for the winning ideas.

Self-care. Hard-won lessons that got me through hard times

Think Positive Thoughts

Good books, praying scripture, the therapy of journaling.  Thinking on great quotes, biography, spiritual lessons.

Learn to “Walk Humbly with God”

Lots of Bible verses, reminding myself that God is good and has my best interests in mind. I put the verses on 3×5 cards and reviewed those on my commutes, noting answers as they came and seeing God’s faithfulness.

Time to recharge

I took one day a week OFF. Doing something I love: family, genealogy, reading mysteries, going for a run. And made time for my run/walk every day. Something to fill my JOY bucket.

Support System

Some call this a personal board or mastermind group I met with a group of fellow superintendents each month. Together we created a safe place to dream dreams, ask questions, share confidences, gain understanding and perspective, and pray together.

Today … I would add two more:

Core Values

Back to that calling you asked about at the beginning. Core purposes keep us going through those dark nights of the soul. What did God create you to be?


Grow the team into a learning organization that solves problems together and provides moral support. How do we create capacity so we are all sharing the load?  Pouring ourselves into others will be our legacy.

God has begun a good work in you. He has a unique and wonderful plan for you. You have more years in which to leave a legacy, an inheritance in the lives of students and your community. God invites us to be an important part of His plan for the future. No matter how high you rise or how far you fall, God has a plan for you.

Know that you are a human being, not a human doing. Significance lies not just in what you do, but in who you are: beloved by God. God is at work in, through, and for you carrying on a good work in you.

Hang in there. Keep praying. Keep looking UP!

– Larry

Reader: Which ONE of these ideas resonates most, and gives you JOY!? 

PS: Look for additional Letters from Larry in my upcoming newsletters. Most are drawn from real monthly coaching conversations, modified here for a broader audience.


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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