Encouraging Vulnerability: Permission to Screw-up | Steve Barkley

Encouraging Vulnerability: Permission to Screw-up

Based on a recommendation from Simon Sinek, I have been reading Permission to Screw-up: How I Learned to Lead by Doing (Almost) Everything Wrong by Kristen Hadeed, who is the founder and CEO of Student Maid.

Hadeed began cleaning some homes as a college student who wanted a pair of jeans that her parents had refused to pay for. Almost by accident, requests for her work grew and she hired other students to work for her and meet the contracts for cleaning that came her way.

Today, Student Maid is a company where empowered employees are happy, loyal, and productive as they work mopping floors and scrubbing toilets. Hadeed, now a frequent speaker and coach to business leaders, describes how she learned to lead by making mistakes. Because of those experiences, she gives her employees the freedom to learn from their screw-ups.

Simon Sinek, writing the book’s forward, describes the importance of creating a culture where people feel safe while being imperfect: being vulnerable. He describes vulnerable as:

  • Feeling safe enough to raise your hand and say, “I don’t feel qualified to do the job I’ve been asked to do. I need help.”
  •  Feeling you can admit weakness and insecurity without fear of humiliation and the company can, in turn, offer additional training.
  • Feeling you can walk into the boss’s office and say “I screwed up” without fear of putting your job, advancement, or reputation on the line.

Hadeed describes how her father’s actions pushed her to take responsibility, beginning with refusing to pay for the jeans. As she began establishing a business, he supported her by giving her a starting point, suggesting the research she needed to do, but even though he was an attorney, he did not “take care” of things. The message he sent was that he trusted that she was capable. Hadeed sensed that each time she tackled a thorny issue and succeeded; she internalized the confidence message.

“Because we are social animals, we respond to the environment we are in. Leaders are responsible for the environment. Leaders are not responsible for the results. They are responsible to the people who are responsible for the results.”

– Simon Sinek

Sinek acknowledges that creating a culture in which people feel safe to make mistakes, to reveal their weaknesses and imperfections, isn’t easy, but it is what leadership is all about. Leadership is not about being in charge: it’s about taking care of those in our charge and making people feel safe.

Pam Moran writing in (Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change School) identifies common characteristics of highly successful teachers who change instructional practices over time. These three characteristics would reinforce the importance of a school climate that values learning from mistakes or from strategies that “didn’t work.”

  • They engage in critical inquiry to make sense of learners’ needs.
  • They seek out critical friends with whom they can reflect upon the challenges of reaching every learner and from whom they can gain insights into what to do when they aren’t connecting with a learner and learning.
  • They try new approaches to support individual children.

Hadeed recommended the writing of Patrick Lencioni in The Truth About Employee Engagement that identifies three causes of miserable work experiences:

  • Immeasurement– not having an immediate, concrete way to measure their performance
  • Anonymity– not feeling appreciated by their leaders for their contributions
  • Irrelevance– not knowing what difference their work makes or why it matters

A blog titled, “The truth about employee engagement” provides these questions for leaders to explore their roles around engagement:

  • Anonymity — Do I really know my people? Their interests? How they spend their spare time? Where they are in their lives?
  • Irrelevance — Do they know who their work impacts, and how?
  • Immeasurement — Do they know how to assess their own progress or success?

Combining the thoughts of the above business leaders with Pam Moran’s writing on school change and the current impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning point me in the direction of the need for leaders to empower teachers while teachers are focusing on empowering learners. As school administrators and teacher leaders return in January 2021, they might take time to explore current practices that support or discourage vulnerability that empowers educators and students.

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