Leading With Heart: Creating a Map for Purpose-Driven Performance

Performance as an indicator that we are meeting our goals is in our DNA. Our human evolution depended on how well we performed under certain conditions. It is our natural inclination to want to push ourselves to be better, faster, and smarter. Performing, and performing well, is what allows us to discover and deepen our sense of purpose and our sense of belonging. And in schools, there’s an important opportunity to do just that; school leaders need to intentionally put purpose at the forefront of goal-setting.
Schools are often in, what I like to call, a cultural existential crisis—one in which every member of the school community would describe the school culture in a different way. Educators are a highly motivated group by nature, and they want to best contribute to the school culture but aren’t always sure about what that is or how they fit into its larger picture. The complexities of “what is everyone’s role in supporting the school’s values and mission?” has historically been left to a few members on a strategy team who have not necessarily communicated the answer to the entire school community. School leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the answer to this question is visible to everyone––by cultivating a culture of ownership where every single person cares about the school’s mission as much as the person who originally defined it. If school leaders want optimal performance from faculty and staff, they need to foster a school culture where people are allowed—and encouraged—to be their best selves.
The shift in leadership that school leaders need to be willing to lean into for purpose-driven performance––or performance that has purposeful meaning behind it––is to lead with heart. This means leading in such a way that people feel that their skills and talents are being put to excellent use, they are valued, and they can say they feel a deep sense of belonging and purpose within the school.

An Intentional Shift

Ask team members what gets them showing up every day, and their answer will likely be tied to a feeling of recognition, value, and belonging. They have a purpose, and they believe––because school culture supports it––that their actions are necessary to helping their school succeed. But creating a culture where everyone is fueled by purpose does not happen organically as much as we’d like it to.
School leaders need to be very intentional in how they make the school’s mission visible, how it affects decision-making and self-reflection, and how they empower faculty and staff to understand their unique purpose in supporting the mission. It is critical to understand that, although a school may have the same desire and reasons to reach strategic goals, the way people get there will be different based on how they perceive the value that they add. We need to shift from what will get us to our goals to how we will get there. And before people can understand their individual purpose and how they will best reach strategic goals, they need to understand the overall purpose of the mission.
Leaders should not assume that the mission is clear to everyone or that buy-in is already occurring. Is the why clear for everyone? Is it visible that leadership decisions are in service to mission? How do you know? Antoine St. ExupĂ©ry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the sea.” Where do school leaders start to get faculty and staff to yearn for the “sea”?

Inclusion as a Priority

It is critical for leaders to take the time to get employee buy-in for a strong and supported mission. Performance and engagement are directly linked with a sense of belonging and purpose, and when leaders have made the time, it communicates a very important message to the team: You matter to me and you belong.
When leaders assume that buy-in is already occurring––yet it actually is not––they haven’t created a space of growth where employees will want to take ownership and initiative. If a leader says to an employee, “you now own this project,” it won’t have the same effect as when an employee takes initiative and claims ownership. When they have this space, then leaders can trust that employees care about the ultimate goals as much as the leader. Of course, it can’t end there; leaders need to give guidance, measure progress, and offer feedback along the way.
But the first step of buy-in has occurred, they are collectively “yearning for the sea,” they bring their own amazing creative talents to “build the boat,” and they are supported and feel noticed.

Recognition and Feedback

If it is a human inclination to want to perform well, then it is human nature to want to hear about it. People want to know that they are doing a good job.
Think about how every single person contributes to the mission. Then, think about the reason, intention, and purpose behind how every single person contributes to the mission daily, and ask whether you, as a school leader, have communicated that you recognize their purpose through systems of measurement and appraisals? If we don't create spaces for effective communication, such as regular meetings among teachers and administrators when goals are reviewed and discussed, then we run the risk of transmitting the wrong communication. Faculty and staff need to regularly hear, “I’d love to talk to you about your purpose and the impact it has had.”
Taking the time to understand the strengths, and therefore purpose, of each employee does not mean countless one-on-one meetings. But rather, leaders have guaranteed that everyone has experienced inclusion and recognition before strategic goal-setting begins. Leading with heart means that everyone on your team knows their purpose, and no one doubts that their strengths and contributions matter.
When each member of a school community understands why they are doing what they are doing, when they feel others are noticing what they are doing, and when they receive feedback on how they are doing, everyone is working more efficiently and more joyfully.
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Ariane Baer-Harper

Ariane Baer-Harper is founding head of Brewster Madrid. She previously served as country director for Enko Education Senegal, director for the Center for Global Engagement at Allendale Columbia School (NY), and spent more than a decade as a world language teacher and department chair in the New York public school system.