STORIES FROM THE FIELD:
Leading with Listening
Introduction by Peter Senge and Art Kleiner
This article by a senior leader in the California education system articulates a challenge that many leaders face. They realize that the way they interact with others is no longer viable. This often takes them into a time of personal reflection, which can be very uncomfortable at first, and which may take some courage and compassion to navigate.
Jennie Snyder is the Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services at the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) in California. She works with a team of directors, program specialists, curriculum coordinators, and classified staff, supporting 40 school districts. Her focus is on creating conditions for the learning and engagement of teachers – along with site and district administrators – so they can create transformational learning experiences for students. These are the kinds of experiences that nurture their curiosity and wonder about the world, their social and emotional well-being, and their cognitive engagement.
Located north of San Francisco, Sonoma has long been known for wine, redwoods, and long-distance commuters, but it has also recently experienced a series of traumatic events: wildfires, floods, drought, and the global pandemic. All of these have deeply affected children and schools in the area. As you’ll see in this story, these challenges have brought the need for quality leadership to the forefront, especially as a catalyst for change. Seemingly small shifts in attitudes and behavior, aligned with self-awareness and empathy, can have great personal and professional effect.
LEADING WITH LISTENING
By Jennie Snyder
When I first took this senior leadership position five years ago, I had already been a teacher, principal, and district superintendent. It was an exciting time to move into administration at a larger-scale level. Big changes were happening around the role of the county office of education: we were going to work with school leaders in closer partnership, helping districts improve their programs and outcomes for students.
I came in with a lot of enthusiasm, determined to figure out a constructive approach to my new role. I would inquire and explore, and figure out what was going on across Sonoma County in the schools, and in the larger context of the state’s new policies. I would develop a vision, outline a strategy, and then explain it at staff meetings and roll it out. I consulted with participants as necessary, but I felt that it was up to me, alone, to drive the agenda. It also felt as if, with many of my tasks, that I was pushing a boulder up a hill. My measure of success every day was how many tasks I could check off my list of things to do.
I soon discovered that my approach was not working. I kept bumping up against resistance from others – or that’s how I thought about it at the time. People were pushing back.
Then came a turning point, at a staff retreat I convened for the department during my third year. More than 30 people attended. On the first day, I sensed tension in the room. People were guarded. I felt awkward. At the end of the day, I confessed to the meeting facilitator that I was not sure the agenda I had planned for Day Two was going to work. So we took a step back and, instead of our planned session, he asked people to talk about the feelings they had been carrying around. A number of people came forward. They said they didn’t feel valued, or that they weren’t sure about the new vision, or that they felt like they had been slighted. A few people were in tears.
It was uncomfortable, to say the least, for me to listen. My thoughts went right to reactions: “I’m responsible.” And then, “I need to resolve this.” It was clear that my usual go-to maneuver – figuring out an answer and fixing the problem – wasn’t going to work. This situation was deeper, more complex, and multilayered.
This retreat was a kind of breakthrough for me. It reminded me of the reasons why I had originally become an educator. As a young person navigating the school system, I had teachers who saw me and nurtured my curiosity about the world. In their classes, I felt safe, cared for, and challenged. That left a lasting imprint on me. Later, as a middle-school humanities teacher, I sought to create similar spaces for my students. I wanted them to feel deeply connected with a community of learners, encouraged to pursue their questions, and ready to take action in the world to make it a better place. This vision of a vibrant and caring community of learners had guided my career, but helping others put it into practice, in the context of a large and complex administrative structure, was more difficult than it had seemed. Now, with my role in the county, I felt like I was being called upon to stretch my capacity to lead in ways that I hadn’t expected.
Letting Down the Masks
A few weeks later I had an opportunity to let down my own mask. Just before a monthly staff meeting, some of the senior staff told me that people were asking them about the rules for attendance, to make sure they were fair. I started to follow my instinctive leadership approach: to treat this as another problem to solve, and dictate some rules at the meeting on the spot. But instead, I decided to do something different.
I told the entire staff that I’d been asked about attendance at staff meetings. “You know,” I said, “I could develop a policy and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ But if I did that, I would be signaling to all of you that this is my meeting and you are beholden to me. I want this to be our meeting. This is our time together, and I want us to decide together how we use this time.”
The whole group relaxed and the conversation shifted. What did we all want to accomplish? What was our commitment to each other? And how would we handle the question of who should attend?
During the months that followed, I went deeper into my own personal reflective work. I also attended a statewide meeting of county office administrators facilitated by Mette Böll of the Center for Systems Awareness. The meeting opened with a check-in. We split into small groups and took time for everyone to say something about what they were thinking and feeling. In that moment, I sensed a deeper connection with the others in my group; we let down our masks and showed each other who we really were.
I went on from there to more training on mindfulness and the compassionate systems tools with the Center. This included one memorable two-week-long exercise in which I kept a “self-observation habit log.” Twice a day, I recorded private notes on my reactive impulses. For example, if a staff member said something that I perceived as negative, I might note my bodily reaction: tightness in my chest, shallow breathing, or a quickening heart rate. I would also write down the thoughts, feelings and behaviors I noticed in myself: for example, if I felt embarrassed or frustrated. In the habit log, I reflected on the reasons for my reactions; maybe I had perceived another person’s remark as a threat to my identity. I noticed that I tended to get hooked when I perceived others as “not getting it,” or as making statements that I interpreted as negative.
I didn’t try to fix or adjust my behavior in any way. Instead, I noticed these impulses as they arose and leaned into self-inquiry. I was amazed to notice that instead of trying to curb my reactions, or judging myself as “being a bad person,” I could accept that the impulses had occurred and move on. This released their grasp on me. Sometimes after releasing an impulse, the storylines (my interpretations of what happened) would run like a streaming movie in my thoughts, frame by frame. I’d stop and laugh at myself and move on. Other times, I found myself immersed in the movie and chose to stay with it.
Through this self-inquiry, I recognized that there was usually a gap in time – a second or two — between my internal impulse and my reaction to it. By focusing on this gap, I gained some distance from the intensity of the impulses, and could choose how I wanted to respond to them. By the end of the two-week period, the frequency and intensity of the impulses waned.
What I learned from this two-week exercise challenged some of my deeply held assumptions. There was a better way to appear as a leader: bringing more attention and presence into my relationships with others. I started simply. I began opening our monthly staff meetings with breathing exercises and small group check-ins. It felt risky to do this at first, but I noticed that people connected in a more settled way, and this set a better tone. Soon, it just became the way we did things.
Learning to Lead Through Listening
Gradually, I have learned to lead from a different place. I do less telling, and more listening and observing. Instead of planning alone, I co-create what we do with others. I am more aware of my inner landscape. When I feel ready to jump in and offer a solution, I am more inclined to suspend that impulse, and to sit back and listen, or to say, “How are we in this together?” Ideas come up that were not on my radar, or that I didn’t think were possible.
Personally, my days have more space; I am more likely to respond in the present moment. I no longer pride myself on the number of tasks I can check off my list. Instead, I orient my days to focus on who I am connecting and meeting with. What’s the conversation? What do we think about the work that will be needed?
Listening, inquiring, and observing people in a calm, present way helps me connect with people. I use the tools of system inquiry to broaden how I see things. I express how I value people. I share my feelings in addition to my thoughts. I feel less stressed and more energized.
I now realize that I have been limited by my assumption that I knew all the answers, and that my answers were the best. The boulders are still there, but I’m no longer in their path. It’s as if I’m not even on the hill any more, not focused on getting to one particular place.
If I had to sum up what I’ve learned in one phrase, it would be about the importance of listening. I’ve gotten out of the habit of trying to resolve situations quickly and telling people, “Here’s what you need to do.” That can often make a situation worse. It discounts the experience of the people I work with, and what they’re trying to realize themselves.
Instead, I now try to take the time to really understand what each person is saying, and the broader context around all of us. The important part is not the ideas themselves, or the specifics of what we’re going to do. It is the act of asking questions, of suspending certainty, and always being in a place of learning and inquiry.