Leadership Insight: Ginger Cole-Leffel, PIC Alumni Council Member, shares the benefits of embracing struggle and maintaining an open-mind in school leadership
Ginger Cole-Leffel, proud member of our PIC 2016 Cohort and principal of McNutt Elementary in Arlington ISD, has most recently extended her leadership expertise to join the PIC Alumni Council member. Like so many of PIC’s veteran principals, she is no stranger to the immense pressure and demands of leading a school, but encourages leaders to embrace struggle and maintain an open-mind as they approach a new school year.
Redefining the vision of leadership
Part of Ginger’s ability to maintain well-being and embrace challenges in the principalship has come through a redefinition of what it means to lead well. “Participating in programs like the Principal Impact Collaborative has really helped me to understand my role differently. My perspective is more others-centered. I recognize that it’s not about me anymore.”
She also reports feeling more comfortable and confident in embracing challenges. “In the past, challenges or obstacles in my role were kind of frightening. I now see them as an opportunity to grow myself and my people. They help me to learn more so that we can do things better.”
When asked how other leaders could embrace this healthier mindset, Ginger emphasized the power of vulnerability. “In my earlier years of leadership, I was under the impression, like many leaders, that it was my responsibility to solve problems and have all the answers. And while that’s true to an extent, I now try to drop the ego and just be open to the process and the struggle,” she said.
Using feedback to grow
One way Ginger does this is by continually soliciting feedback. “Feedback is like a mirror. It reflects back all of the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of people around me. It helps me to see how my actions, my words, and my unintentional communications are impacting others. I appreciate getting feedback so I seek it out and I ask for it.”
Ginger also uses nonverbal feedback to perceive the attitudes and feelings of her staff. “When I’m in a PLC and people are visibly uncomfortable or quiet, I use that as feedback too. It gives me an opportunity to ask questions and dig in.”
Most recently, she has put feedback into practice by re-evaluating her method of giving recognition to teachers. “I have a recognition system on campus, but it did not seem to be working. It was not the right kind of recognition. So I went through a 360 feedback process and sure enough, recognition was among the top five lowest metrics. Now, I’m digging into research and talking to my executive coach about it. Next, I want to talk to the people on campus about what successful recognition would look like for them.”
Throughout this process, Ginger emphasizes the importance of an open-minded perspective. “It’s important to question and to keep an open mind. You have to be willing to think from a different perspective and wonder what if something else were true.”
She shared that PIC’s design-thinking training had been a big part of helping her embrace this part of the journey. “Design-thinking really opened my eyes to the idea of being in the process and not necessarily having the answers right away. We had to keep questioning and iterating.”
She also recommends that leaders read Willing to be Disturbed by Margaret J. Wheatley. An excerpt from this text reads: “We no longer live in those sweet, slow days when life felt predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.”
Ginger exemplifies this ability to sit in the unknown and her leadership practice and campus culture has clearly benefited as she embraced an open mindset.
Encouraging others and embracing opportunities
Being a part of PIC’s 2016 Cohort has also transformed Ginger’s mindset in leading others. Specifically, the “Transtheoretical Approach to Learning”, a theory that describes how people move through five stages of behavioral change, has helped her to better address her staff when bringing new ideas.
“I’ve learned that as a leader, I have to go slow to go fast. Sometimes I’m so excited about a new idea and want to try it out immediately, but I know that I have to give my team time to learn about it and adjust.”
She also shared that she tries to refrain from giving her team direct advice. “I try not to give advice anymore. I feel like I did a lot of that early on and realized that's not what people need from me. They need coaching,” she explained.
Leading others well is now something Ginger is committed to do moving forward in her career. Right now, she’s content at her school and wants to invest more deeply in the community, but eventually she envisions herself developing and coaching other leaders.
She shared: “In the next five years, I see myself still at my school if they will allow me to stay there. I want to have a longer term impact. I value community and I know that I have to stay somewhere and build relationships if I want to help the community to grow and develop and empower others around me. But in 10 years, I see myself doing something around leader development. I want to coach in a way that inspires others and helps others to meet their goals.”
With her humility, open-mindset, and continued desire to grow, we have no doubt Ginger Cole-Leffel will achieve these ambitions. We are grateful for her vulnerability and leadership insights about the importance of embracing challenges and keeping an open mind.