My parents always taught me to leave things better than I found them.  I can still hear these words echo in my head anytime I leave a room, my table at a restaurant, or the park where I am playing with my kids.  I find myself unconsciously organizing pillows on the couch, straightening chairs at a table, or picking up someone else’s trash to “leave things better than I found them.”  This idea has bled into so many aspects of my life, and in these simple words, I have found a great deal of wisdom.


I often find myself asking at the end of a day as I walk out the doors of a building where I serve as a middle school principal, “Did I leave this place better than I found it this morning?”  Most days, I believe the answer is “yes,” but even on the days it is not, I know I have a chance to come back tomorrow to work on making it better.


Recently, I accepted a new position in my township, and will be leaving my current position to serve as the principal at our feederLeadership is... high school.  In the past few weeks, I have been thinking a great deal about how to make sure I am leaving my current school better than I found it. Although I truly believe my leadership has helped my school, my staff, my students be better in my presence, I find myself asking: Did I lead in a way that will allow my school to continue its amazing work in my absence?  


I love the Sheryl Sandberg quote here in this post. True leadership not only comes from making people better because of your presence, but leading in a way that makes an impact long after you are gone.  Sure, there are those in education who are intelligent, who drive decision making, take the lead, push forward, and make amazing things happen.  They are truly bold, brilliant people, but they are not leaders.  When they leave, the brilliance leaves with them, and the school is back to where it was before they started.  Leaders leave things better than they found them by making lasting impacts.  Leaders build a culture where everyone has an opportunity to contribute and they find ways for each person to contribute to the overall improvement of the organization.  As I reflect on the five years I have spent in my school, there are three main ideas that I hope will continue to impact change in my absence.


Leaders build an environment where risk taking is not only valued, but expected.  I believe that change is inevitable, but our growth is optional.  Education is changing, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  How we handle these changes is our choice. I believe it is a leader’s responsibility to create an environment where taking risks and trying new things is not just important; it is the norm.  Complacency is the enemy of success.  We must strive to get better, or we are going to get left behind.  But, this can only happen in the  correct environment.  If as leaders, we only value success, people will play it safe so they can be successful.  But, if we place our focus on valuing the process of improvement, people will take risks to improve everyday.  When a leader creates an environment of risk taking, risk taking leads to innovation, and innovators leave a school better than they found it.


Leaders help people believe they can accomplish anything if they work together.  None of us are stronger than all of us — we need each other in education.  A collective strength is found in having a common purpose, built around an understanding that we are here for students.  We must have the mentality that all students can and will learn, and it is our responsibility to find a way to make that happen. When we trust and believe in each other at this level, being challenged and held accountable is expected and wanted.  This idea must be modeled from the leadership.  It takes a great deal of vulnerability to trust at this level.  If a leader does not allow themselves to be vulnerable, no one will.  When a leader creates a collective purpose and belief in each other, people leave a school better than they found it.


Leaders help people get better, not just make places better.  Too often as leaders, our focus goes to make places better.  We simply give people what they need to solve a problem or reach an arbitrary goal.  The problem is fixed, the goal is met, the improvement is made.  This can work- if our focus is just on making our school better in the short term — quick, easy, and to the point.  But, this does not build lasting change.  As a leader, our focus needs to be on inspiring people to solve their own problems and establish and meet their own goals.  We need to focus on people, as the ones who drive improvement.  I am reminded of the old proverb: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. If we feed the people we lead, things will get done, problems will get solved, and goals will be met.  At the same time, we create an environment where everyone looks to us for answers.  If all the answers come from us, then we place a ceiling on learning and assure our school will never be any smarter than we are.  If we inspire people and teach them to fish, they will take ownership in the improvement process. Our focus cannot be on improvements and change, but rather always on the people who will bring the improvements and change. Leaders create a desire in others to be better and to leave their school better than they found it.


I hope my leadership has left better risk-takers, better innovators, better colleagues, and most importantly better people.  If I truly led, my work has not only left my school better than I found it, but has inspired others to continue this betterment every day.


I challenge you to ask yourself at the end of each day: What did I do today to leave my school better than I found it?


Then, ask the tougher question: If I were not to return, would that impact last in my absence?


Brian Knight is the lead learner and principal of a Middle School in Indianapolis, Indiana area. Brian is also the moderator for #Perrychat. For more writings by Brian. 


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