Growing a Culture of Care

Lessons Learned … Culture of Care.

My Window on Education

As an active full time coach/consultant I have the privilege of working with:  Three superintendent cohorts representing 50 Superintendents and nearly 200,000 students; two leadership development teams; and a dozen 1:1 coaching relationships.  I see weekly and monthly a broad sweep of educational issues as well as creative educator responses.

White Water Rafting

Our routines – built up over decades – have been shattered.  We keep trying to make repairs on the fly – only to find that our solutions often don’t stick.  Education issues are more volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous (VUCA) than ever.  Few leaders have the stamina and luck to make consistently successful and sustainable decisions.  Needed is the flexibility, skill and teamwork of a veteran white water rafting … team.

Personal Steps We Can Take


One wise management guru says, Culture eats strategy for breakfast.  Culture wars are proving that point.  We can’t strategize our way out of this mess.  Needed is the rebuilding of a strong and resilient culture. A culture where people are acknowledged, heard and to the extent possible, heeded.  Our adults are hurting, fragile, on edge and sometimes outright angry.  Kids are experiencing more trauma and triggers than ever.  Mental health needs are more apparent than ever.  And we face conflict over making students of color seen, welcomed, respected and appreciated.

Being the Change …

We are human beings … not human doings.  Much as we want to return to normal, we are all hurting and have some recovering to do. As leaders we have to go first – admitting our own vulnerability.  We have to model the change we want to see by being transparent and authentic.  Letting our staff know that hurting is okay.  Being empathetic – acknowledging the hurts and fears.  We don’t have to solve it all.  We can just be.  Be human.  Be caring.

Vulnerable Empathy

Vulnerability builds trust.  We are all hungry for connection, consistency, normalcy.  And we rush from one frantic meeting (or zoom) to the next.  Try this.  Start each session with 5-10 minutes to connect.  This is a breather, a chance for each person to get their bearings, and downshift from the last meeting.  Research shows using ice breakers that are slightly vulnerable make us more human, more trusting, and more productive.

What Teams Can Do

Ask Engaging Qs

Technical decisions call for experts.  Adaptive challenges call for great questions. Questions like: How can we create a resilient caring culture?  Adaptive leaders go to the balcony to see the big picture.  They reach out across silos, levels, and ethnicity to assemble a diverse group of advisors.

 Call the meeting

When in doubt call the meeting … BEFORE you have all the answers.  Make a safe space (reasonably safe) where people can exchange crazy ideas.  Create enough tension to foster change AND keep the stress low enough to avoid driving anyone over the edge.  Listen with empathy. Seek common values. Seek creative alternatives.

Wisdom of Crowds

The group is almost always smarter than any individual.  Point the way and then ask the group to find solutions for the group.  You will tap into energy and enthusiasm and commitment you didn’t know was there. Find solutions that we can all work on together.

Try This

When we push our solutions, we often get resistance.  When we ask the group for solutions we often get excuses.  Instead, try this.  Point the way.  Ask an adaptive question.  Offer 3-4 short one minute ideas … maybe with a crazy one thrown in.  Tell the group, I am sure you can improve on these.  Then provide time for table groups.  Again and again, I have seen energy levels perk up when we start to think together about better futures.  Sometimes we just need some ideas to prime the pump.

Build a Collaborative Coalition

Between Eras

The world is in chaos, and it is sitting on our doorstep.  Our old era is passing, and the new era is scary.  People are choosing sides and too often, we are caught in the storm.  In the middle of that storm we seek to steer the ship, batten the hatches, set the sea anchor, use the trim tab … and make it to our destination.  That requires a team … all hands on deck.

Deep dialogue

Positional power is dead.  Seldom do we change minds with impassioned arguments.  Adaptive Leadership says we need to identify the adaptive question, create a psychological safe space and ask the group to solve the problems of the group. Snoqualmie Valley did this through 16 hours of give and take around what should go on the tax ballot … and eventually came to a consensus decision.  Their tax levy passed. Research on decision making says we are more likely to change our minds when we engage in deep dialog – hearing the pros and cons of each position.

Listen – Share – Listen again

Spokane School District has created an expectation, a norm, that they will: Listen • Respond • Listen again.  They listen, share back what they heard, and add new information about what they are doing in response.  Acting on what we heard builds trust.  This process helped align their strategic planning process with work underway.  And this process helped them align key messages from the district and each school.  What a great way to build coherence, dialog, understanding and ownership.  Listen – Share – Listen Again.

Learning Culture


One final thought.  Adaptive leadership is far more than abdication or taking a public vote.  It is not either … or.  Either academics or empathy. It is thinking carefully about where we are and where we need to go.  It is setting direction … true north.  We are here for our kids … and for our staff.  We are empathetic and accountable.  We are caring and committed to each and every student.  The key is setting the right direction, inviting in diverse voices, asking engaging questions, listening, holding the tension until new shared solutions emerge.


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

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
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