Many middle and high schools do a great job supporting the growth of their student leaders through leadership classes, various clubs and extracurricular activities, and student government. But what do schools do for staff members to encourage their growth as leaders?

It’s a question I started to seriously consider 12 years ago when I became an assistant principal of a high school. At the time, I believed that we as school leaders were missing something important at our school by not intentionally challenging and growing our staff as leaders. So, six years later when I became principal of Kerman Middle School in Kerman, CA, I added staff leadership growth to my five-year plan for our school.

After deciding that we needed such a group, I invited all staff, certified and classified, to join. Anyone who was interested in growing as a leader was welcome to be a part of this new group, which began meeting in September 2020. Initially, our group consisted of seven teachers, two administrators, and one classified staff member. Two years later, one teacher left the group, and the classified staff member moved on to another position, but we finished our second year strong with six teachers and two administrators. The first year we met online throughout the pandemic. But as the virus started to abate and things began to open again during our second year, we were finally able to meet in person. We typically met once per month for about 30 minutes.

The Marigold Effect

I am an avid reader of leadership books, and my favorites include It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques From the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by D. Michael Abrashoff, Developing the Leaders Around You: How to Help Others Reach Their Full Potential by John C. Maxwell, and One Word That Will Change Your Life by Jon Gordon, Dan Britton, and Jimmy Page. I drew on topics from those books to frame our meetings. I usually provided something for the group to read prior to our meeting since our time was limited, and then opened it up for discussion when we met.

For our first meeting, I shared with the group the idea of “The Marigold Effect” or “Find Your Marigold.” This well-known concept in teaching uses marigolds—companion plants that are planted near other plants to help them grow—as a metaphor for the importance of surrounding ourselves with the resources and people we need to thrive in our professional lives. This concept is something that I share with all of my new teachers, but it is an important lesson for all leaders as well. That’s why I always give a packet of marigold seeds to members of our leadership group, as a visual reminder of the concept. Every time our group has met, I have challenged them to see themselves and their role as a leader on our campus through the lens of this marigold idea. What followed the first time I handed out these seeds was powerful indeed.

In that first meeting, several staff members shared that “The Marigold Effect” reminded them to be aware of their tone of voice and which topics they raise when talking to staff members. As campus leaders, they had  begun to see how their actions can influence others who look to them and follow their lead. A couple members shared that they used the marigold seed packet as a visual reminder to stay positive throughout the day and to be welcoming to and open with other staff. It was at this very first meeting that several of the members became vulnerable when sharing personal stories about difficult times in their own lives.

A space where everyone felt comfortable enough to let their guard down was just what I was hoping for. This vulnerability immediately drew us closer together and created an increased feeling of trust. Throughout the following two years, this trust only grew, and we drew strength from it many times as we faced challenges as a staff together.

Strengthening Leaders to Strengthen Teaching and Learning

We also delved deeply into the work of experts who have studied and written extensively about leadership. Among the topics we have covered in our meetings are holding others to a consistent, high standard and being passionate as a leader. We also have read psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and Stephen Covey’s work on setting goals as well as his seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.

I chose these topics intentionally because of the climate and culture shift I saw happening due to the pandemic and its effect on staff and students. I believe that one of the most important parts of my job as principal is to equip my staff to lead and teach their students. My staff was exhausted, and they were barely keeping their heads above water, both professionally and personally. We were all struggling, yet we were still expected to provide a safe, inviting, and stimulating environment for students. My challenge was how to uplift, support, and encourage us all so we could, in turn, do the same for our students. I believed I could achieve this through the development of adult leaders on campus. As Abrashoff explains in It’s Your Ship, strengthening others through positive, personal reinforcement and helping them see their leadership potential helps them to become confident leaders in their own right.

This leadership group has had a ripple effect on our campus. Members have affected positive change through their influence and the example they set in their classrooms, during club meetings while they are supervising students, collaborating with colleagues in PLCs, coaching sports teams, and interacting with all educational partners. The trust and camaraderie that has grown in our group has fostered a caring community that we have relied on many times throughout the school year. These leaders are the ones I have called upon when making tough decisions or those times when I have needed honest, thoughtful feedback.

This school year, I am hoping to continue growing my staff leadership group. I intend to invite members to my home for a meal and a planning meeting. I will challenge them to identify other staff members with the potential to develop as leaders. And I will turn to Maxwell’s book Developing the Leaders Around You as a basis for identifying and nurturing this growth.

Maxwell identifies 10 leadership qualities to look for in others: character, influence, positive attitude, excellent people skills, evident gifts, proven track record, confidence, self-discipline, effective communication skills, and discontent with the status quo. Our group will be looking at these qualities more in-depth this year, as we seek to identify new staff members to join us.

“Good leaders deliberately seek out and find potential leaders,” Maxwell writes. “Great leaders not only find them, but also equip them to be great leaders.” To be great leaders, school leaders like myself must also help others to grow as leaders, and that is my goal and my focus for this school year.

Margaret Nichols Files is the principal of Kerman Middle School in Kerman, CA, and the 2021 California Principal of the Year.