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Positive School Culture Starts with Social-Emotional Leadership

Robin CEO and Co-Founder Sonny Thadani sat down for a very informative and insightful discussion with Dr. Barbara McKeon, Senior Programs Director at the Cahn Fellows Program and doctorate of Educational Leadership, Management and Policy. The two discussed strategies for setting leaders up for success in fostering a positive and supportive school culture and environment.

What is social-emotional leadership?

We know that the social emotional leader is responsible for everyone else’s well being. But how can you be that for everyone else if you are not yet that for you?

I’m gonna challenge you to be not the leader-as-hero but the leader-as-host.

When you act as the hero you become exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed and can neglect taking care of your own mental and physical needs.

As the leader-as-host you model healthy behavior such as setting boundaries and establish a work-life balance. You are the calm presence in the face of all of the complexity and the chaos that comes with being a school leader. As leader-as-host, you can deepen your understanding of the capacities of your team, create conditions for them to learn and problem solve creatively and actively seek ways for the team to connect and support one another and heal.

How can you shift your mindset and act as the leader-as-host and abandon the leader-as-hero?

Buckminster Fuller famously created this brilliant metaphor of Trim Tab Thinking – the smallest of steps can add up to big change and impact. A trim tab is a very small surface attached to the trailing edge of a larger surface, like a rudder on a boat. By applying a minor touch to this trim tab, there’s a very significant impact on the direction that the boat takes and it can be done with very little effort. In fact without that small movement there can be no larger movement.

Leaders today are that trim tab. It starts with small changes for yourself first. Fuller tells us “What you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count.”

Can you give us some advice on how to set boundaries and say no so we don’t fall into the leader-as-hero trap?

One idea is to communicate in a way that reminds the other person all that you have on your plate. Maybe say, “I’m happy to do this project but how do you want me to prioritize it over the other projects I’m doing?” This provides a reality check for the person who might not even know that you’re already working on a number of other projects.

I encourage you to sit back and analyze what percentage of your resources are going to your well-being?

What most people find is that they have very little energy left for themselves, which means that they are allocating all of their resources to others. This is not sustainable.

How does acting as leader-as-hero help change or improve school culture?

You are the model of school culture. Are you sending emails out at 11 pm? What is that saying to your staff? If there is an expectation that everyone must respond to an email in 5 minutes? You set the culture, you set the tone. Those small behaviors that seem like efficiency are really adding stress to you and your staff, which affects the climate of your school.

How do you keep a positive school culture in the midst of fear and anxiety from the whole community?

One of the things you can do is make time for it in your day to talk with your staff and your students, acknowledge the fear and find ways as a community to overcome that fear. There are lots of positive things that your individual communities have done, are doing and can do.

I think if you take your own action, as small as it is, it’s an action taken.

It’s one thing to make small changes for yourself but how can you encourage others to do it, especially those with a martyr mentality?

You’re not going to change everything and you’re not going to change everybody. The best you can do is change you and be the role model for positive outcomes and change.

How quickly can we change school culture?

If you are honest with your team, acknowledge the stressful situation you’re in and engage them in the process of that change, it can happen really quickly.

It’s about building trusting relationships by being the model, not the overseer.

The Cahn fellows program is a year long, no-cost fellowship, for principals with 5+ years of experience. The program provides them with recognition, wellness and advanced professional development. It is currently in 10 cities but will be expanding in the future. Anyone that is interested, just visit

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