Spring 2024

Harnessing the Leader Within

The post-pandemic world of education is facing unprecedented challenges ranging from teacher shortages and burnout to heightened social-emotional needs of children to achieving academic standards with limited resources.  Today’s principals have become accustomed to living in uncertainty and chaos and reacting to the needs of the day – perhaps at the expense of leading with an orientation to tomorrow. It is not easy to show up every day ready to inspire, but what if it could be easier?

In times of personal hardship, we are prompted to look within to our values, dreams, and innate strengths. In hindsight, we can see adversity as a growth opportunity where we surfaced new skills and aspects of ourselves.  Research tells us that a key component of resilience is our mindset. When we start to look at current circumstances as an opportunity and not a threat, a new path and not a roadblock, we can open up to the idea that the things happening around us may also be happening for us. It appears the conditions in our schools will be here for some time, so it is up to us to decide if this is a time of empowerment or disempowerment. Principals are being called upon to navigate the uncertainty around us by embarking on a journey of self-discovery that has the potential to liberate qualities and energy we may not have known we had.

As educators, we see each student as unique and work to harness what motivates that child to help them fulfill their potential. But how often do we turn the mirror on ourselves to understand what it is that makes us thrive? One thing seasoned educators know well is that when we work on things that energize us, we bring enduring power to our practice.  What if we could name the parts of ourselves that promote our thriving, while facilitating the same for others? Enter the leader within.

Who is the Leader Within?

Over time, we each develop our go-to responses, default behaviours, and comfort zones that regulate our lives each day. The leader within guides us deeper into ourselves and enables us to expand who we are and elevate our contribution in the world. It is the blueprint for your true potential. The degree to which you connect with your leader within will impact your confidence, effectiveness, and how well you show up for yourself and others. When we speak of leadership, we often say that change starts at the top but in this case, change starts with us.

The leader within connects our innate skills, intrinsic motivations, tacit knowledge, inner knowing, and unique gifts. Understanding the leader within doesn’t just help us to see our relative strengths and weaknesses, it also helps us to uncover obsolete or self-limiting beliefs that lead us to making the same self and organization-limiting decisions time and again.

As school leaders, principals are expected to have all the answers, and this can be daunting at times. Leadership is a journey and as writer Richard Bach famously said, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” By deepening understanding of self, we are then better able to understand and lead others. The leader within is also at the heart of authentic leadership models. In simple terms, being the best leader you can be means being your best, most authentic, and sometimes, most vulnerable self.

The leader within is an archetypal force that not only supports us in continuing to strengthen our assets but also in expanding the repertoire of traits that we draw on. For example, if you typically lead with discipline and structure, you may be called upon to offer up flexibility. If you prioritize predictability, you may find it necessary to prioritize innovation. And so, the solutions the school needs under your leadership become a growth opportunity in your leadership, and yourself – because they are one and the same.

The leader within is a deeply personal aspect of identity that, when accessed, fuels our passion, heightens our performance, magnifies our impact, and brings out the best in others. It has the potential to defy external circumstances and makes it possible to ignite a healthy and high-performance organizational culture.

Most importantly, the leader within enables us to model belief in ourselves and trust in circumstance. When we allow the leader within to surface, we are better able to navigate the complexities of things – sometimes with a clear plan, sometimes with agility, and sometimes by just keeping things moving forward. The leader within is the rudder steering the ship behind our team members’ intrinsic motivations, capabilities, and goals. It enables us to lead more fully around what is needed most in any given moment.

Naming the Leader Within

The leader within gives us access to key parts of ourselves that act as an inner compass. One way of naming these parts of us is through the archetypes of Captain and Poet. While we each have one, they show up differently in each of us, forming the foundation of our authentic leadership style.

Our inner Captain is the part of us that takes charge, makes decisions, takes us out of our comfort zone, tries new things, gains confidence through experience, perseveres, and rises to challenges. The presence of the Captain in principals today is self-evident but, as we are seeing with increasing exiting from the system, is at risk of waning over time under the weight of ongoing stress, overwhelm, reactivity, and even compassion fatigue. Enter the Poet.

Our inner Poet gives us access to everything that makes us human and offers a wealth of resources including our emotions, capacity for empathy, values, intuition, dreams and aspirations for what schools could be, our imagination and creativity, our moral compass, and what is in our hearts.

You may be thinking “Isn’t the Captain the leader?” Make a short list of qualities of good leaders (integrity, communication, a desire to learn, supportive, compassionate, etc.) and you will soon see that it is the partnership between the Captain and the Poet that makes a good leader.  The Captain is there to nudge the Poet to be more self-expressed and to have the emotional courage to go after our dreams. The Poet is there to guide and inspire the Captain’s actions and to take care of other Captains and Poets along the way.

The model of the Captain and Poet in balance reminds us that to achieve the best outcomes possible, we must navigate the stormy seas from our whole selves. Understanding the Captain and Poet partnership helps ignite our leader within. We know we are operating from this place of partnership when we are energized, have a clear sense of direction in our role, connect easily with others – and when those around us also start to show up as their best selves. A strong connection to the leader within, enables you to be a strong leader for others and inspires them to do the same.

The Principal’s Poet

It may seem counterintuitive, but being a great Captain starts with engaging our inner Poet. The Poet connects us with our true essence and provides the antidote to overwhelm and fatigue by inspiring a course of actions that nourishes and fuels us. Understanding your Poet is central to employing your innate superpowers and, in turn, to guiding and develop your team’s. Achieving standards of excellence takes tremendous drive and continuous effort to manage trust, foster team development and move toward shared goals and values. As on a plane when we are instructed to put on our own mask before helping others, knowing how to recharge your Poet is critical to supporting your Captain and the Poets on your team.  The Poet puts well-being at the centre of everything we do.

When we close our eyes and imagine, we each hold a vision for the world in its ideal form and our schools are an opportunity to start bringing that vision into reality with the younger generation. Drawing on your Poet’s vision will be a source of strength and inspiration when your Captain faces challenges. And when you can create a shared vision with your team’s Poets, the possibility of manifesting it grows exponentially.

As a leader who understands the Poet traits and drivers of others, you are better able to harness their collective energy to compliment and amplify your own strengths, creating a well-rounded team. Some Poets are reflective in nature, others are creative or resourceful, or foster a culture of care. Others infuse passion into team dynamics or promote open communications and collaboration.  Rather than shouldering the weight of responsibility, school leadership becomes about unearthing potential, inspiring others to be their best selves, and fostering the harmonious connection of Poets within your school.

Drawing on a rich tapestry of Poet qualities invites teachers to identify what fuels them on an individual level while collectively propelling the team toward success. Connecting with individual Poets in an authentic way regarding school issues, opportunities for improvement, and in decision-making processes also serves to ignite their Captains. The ripple effect on school culture and with students cannot be underestimated. And with the emergence of trauma-informed practices in classrooms, principals are being called upon to cultivate an environment where everyone’s inner Poet feels seen, heard, supported, and valued. 

Celebrating your team’s Poets fosters an environment where everyone feels appreciated, integrated, and respected for their unique leader within. The shared excitement from a team of engaged and diverse Poets bringing their gifts forward leads to a more enriched, vibrant, and engaged learning community and can be an unparalleled source of inspiration. The Poet is an untapped resource in today’s education system and when we ignite the Poet, the Captain is unleashed.

The Principal’s Captain

You may wonder how the Captain fits in when the Poet touches almost every aspect of leadership. While the Poet provides the inner guidance we need and lays the foundation for who we will be as an authentic leader, the Captain is the one who brings it all to life. Some of us are quiet Captains and others wear their Captain on their sleeve. What makes our Captain truly powerful, however, is how closely they are aligned to our inner Poet’s essence.

The Captain is a figurehead who can give people assurance in times of change but when the Poet is by their side they have a more authentic presence. The Captain is the doer in us and brings our Poet’s essence to life. For example, a Poet’s intuitive vision for how things could be, turns into a concrete plan and a series of decisions, big and small, that move us toward our goals. Similarly, our Captain’s decisions demonstrate our conviction when it comes to our Poet’s deeply held values. When we make decisions, our Captain draws on experience while listening to their Poet’s intuition. They give us a sense of discipline and grit in bringing our Poets’ vision and values to life. When we wake up each morning, our Captain is energized by what our Poet knows is possible. When we fail, they help us to recover and carry our learnings forward.

There is no time when the Captain feels more alive than during times of challenge and change. The Captain is there to take us out of our comfort zone and share parts of ourselves that are being called upon. When your Poet feels vulnerable and wants to hide, it is your Captain who will lend you the boldness to model self-development for others. Also, if you can understand what is holding your Poet back, your Captain will be better able to make a plan to move through your fears and insecurities. While the Captain gives us confidence, together, they give us courage.

When our Captain is authentically empowered, they are driven to empower others. What is often lacking in teachers in times of overwhelming circumstances is a positive sense of agency. The Captain knows firsthand the power of self-direction and that they cannot steer the boat for others if they are not the captain of their own ship. When a principal’s Captain is activated, they trust themselves and, in turn, extend trust to others. They find ways to empower the Captains around them to have an impact. Today’s trials and tribulations become platforms for contribution, growth, collaboration, and a source of job satisfaction.

The Captain takes others under their wing and strives to mentor greatness in their team. The leader within feels validated when it is recognized by ourselves and others. The Captain is bold enough to speak authentic truths, coaching ourselves and others on our blind spots. The Captain helps us to face the realities of a situation and rises to the challenge at hand by tapping into our unique abilities.

Heightened self-awareness enables us to be more authentic leaders which takes on a life of its own in an organization as we model bringing our whole selves to the day-to-day. We are able to operate from a place of emotional courage and inspired action. The greatest gift of the leader within is that the deeper you are in touch with your own self-actualization journey, the better you are at helping your team with theirs.

An energized principal sets an example, inspiring enthusiasm, and cultivating a culture of continuous improvement. They are stewards of the school’s vision and morale, shaping the educational landscape. Their dynamism is expected to become contagious, encouraging staff and students to embrace change and achieve excellence. In their ideal form, they can be a catalyst, propelling the entire school community toward success. The leader within makes this overwhelming balancing act of responsibilities possible. 

When we understand the leader within, we gain access to an innate set of resources and drivers that can turn a daunting challenge into a fortuitous opportunity. In partnership, the Captain and Poet move us from tactical execution to transformative practices, from surviving to thriving. As a principal, the leader within reveals to us how to bring our most authentic, energized version of ourselves into our leadership. Want to change the world around you? It all starts from within.

Jennifer Johnson, B.A., B.Ed., M.A is the co-founder of Captains & Poets. She is an OISE graduate, a seasoned leader in education and the corporate world, and a graduate of the Harvard Leadership Program. She is on a mission to empower children and adults to navigate an increasingly complex world with compassion, resilience, and authenticity.

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