Thoughts About Arts Education

Looking To Enhance Your Leadership Skills? My Cat Has Advice For You


Hello Leaders, 

I would like to introduce you to my cat, Rosalind. She is your typical fluffy tabby house cat who likes relaxing on the window still, chasing any one of her fifty-five million toys, and watching HBO. 

Rosalind and I meet during a pet adoption weekend sponsored by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2016. Although I was nervous about being a cat mama due to my inexperience with felines in general, all of my anxiety melted away when we were introduced. 

At the same time that I adopted Rosalind, I also became serious about exploring options for formal leadership in education. Although I had held many leadership positions informally throughout my career as both an educator and a performing artist, I was interested to see if formal educational leadership could be a possibility.

So, I dived into a three year journey. 

Enrolled in many different courses. Shadowed leaders in my organization. Engaged in specific activities. Observed situations beyond what I thought was even possible. 

Throughout all of these experiences, I have learned through a series of courageous conversations and reflective practices about my strengths, my triggers and my areas for growth as both a professional and a human being. 

Before I write my final report to complete my last qualifications course, here is a summary of some key leadership learnings from the three year journey presented as a comparison to my cat’s behaviour. 

Invest in Building Authentic Relationships 

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Relationships do not develop an instant. They are fostered and nurtured over a course of time. 

When I first adopted Rosalind, I was told that cats fit into two extremes: disappear artists or cuddler cuties. I wanted to see my cat, so I outfitted the most used area of my apartment with Rosalind friendly items and invested time in learning about cats in general.

I learned that Rosalind enjoys, at the end of a productive day of resting, a good play session with her LED light-up ball followed by a grooming session. She also gets annoyed when I’m off schedule and arriving home awakens her earlier than expected. 

The leadership lesson that was mirrored in my educational journey is the importance of building authentic, professional relationships. Leadership is about serving the needs of the group with purpose. I am fortunate to work on many diverse teams where we collaborate to build sense of belonging that allows us to focus on the needs of our community while pushing our own learning. 

To add a little Rosalind into your leadership practices, try to: 

  • find time to connect with your team to find similarities

  • get to know the different philosophies and communication styles of your team members, and the “why” behind their wants/needs/values

  • when you’re with your team, regardless if it’s a two minute check-in or a formal meeting, be present and responsive and avoid trival distractions

The best way to achieve all of this is through the work. Look at every project, meeting, and group collaboration as a opportunity to build your work relationship and get to know the “why” behind your colleagues’ behaviour. 

Be Clear In Actions and Language

Rosalind is very consistent with her language and behaviour. Whenever someone new enters our environment, she observes from underneath the coffee table. She gathers all information before she either “makes a move” and introduces herself to the person or decides that socializing is not “on the agenda” and moves into the other room. 

A roll over with paws stretched out is an invitation for play. One meow is a thank you for replenishing the water. She always jumps to the window sill via a specific section of the love seat. 

Clarity and consisitency is needed in leadership so teams can focus on the task at hand instead of wasting time deciphering inconsistent messages. Inconsistency opens the door for unnecessary negativity. The questioning in leadership should be focused on how the team is successfully going to achieve what they need to achieve. 

To add a little Rosalind into your leadership practices, try to be:

  • aware of your actions, reactions and communications and reflect/gather feedback on the impact of those behaviour on the productivity of your team

  • transparent with the “why” behind actions/decisions

  • consistent and follow through with everything that you say you will follow through with to build trust within your team

  • observe and base judgements on data, adopting a non-biased lens when gathering information (and recognize your own personal biases whenever possible if they are influencing decisions)

Pause and Take A Break When Necessary

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Rosalind is the queen of rest. She understands the importance of not only resting, but a consistent sleep schedule to keep her energy up for the day’s activities. 

In the Harvard Business Review’s “How to Plan Your Week to Keep Your Weekend Free,” Elizabeth Grace Sanders clearly states the importance of rest and recovery in the context of time management: 

Rest and recovery:We’re human beings — living organisms — not machines. Our bodies and minds and spirits were made to work in cycles of work, rest, and sleep. When you have a sustainable lifestyle, you can consistently be productive throughout the week, but it’s still important to have a day or two completely work-free. Not only does this give your mind and body a rest, but also it gives you the invaluable gift of perspective. The issues that seemed so overwhelming on Friday afternoon are typically much more manageable on Monday because you’re in a better frame of mind to handle them.

With burnout recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization, rest and recovery needs to be a priority for every human. For leaders, modelling rest and recovery, from technology use to “after hours” expectations, is important for encouraging an environment of wellness. 

To add a little more Rosalind into your practices, try to:

  • practice what you preach in terms of wellness, modelling behaviours and upholding policies that will increase wellness and decrease stress for your whole team

  • be proactive with timelimes and co-construct deadlines with your team to avoid last minute, stressful situations

  • model time management in your own activities and model appropriate boundaries for work-life balance

As Sanders mentions in the above article, recognize that, “[u]nexpected activities will always come up, and no matter how hard you try to estimate how long work will take, some of your estimates will inevitably be wrong.” As a leader, how you respond to those unexpected activities will set the tone for your team. It’s true that you can do your best to set the pace and be proactive with scheduling to make sure that everyone, including yourself, gets their necessary downtime. But, your true leadership skills will show when you need to respond to the unexpected. 

At the end of the day, after the years of leadership training and observing my cat’s behaviour, the key leadership lessons are echoed in my educational philosophy:

I believe that effective school leadership is rooted in transparency, clarity and collaboration. It is the practice of serving an ultimate goal that will encourage cross-department engagement. This leadership model empowers all stakeholders to take risks, engage in activities that will showcase their strengths, learn from others, and potentially even challenge their own thinking. Effective school leadership is dynamic and demonstrated in modelling growth mindsets, visibly working with teams to build shared understandings, and articulating why practices are beneficial for a greater purpose. Effective school leadership supports a culture of innovation and action, where team members use reflection as a tool for growth.

Leadership is about transparency, clarity and collaboration where all members of the team bring their strengths towards completing a project, addressing a need or solving a problem. 

The next time you’re reflecting on your leadership skills and effectiveness, think back to Rosalind and ask: 

  1. Have I fostered authentic, professional relationships that are supported by not only my personal values, but the values of my team and of my organization?

  2. Am I clear and consistent with my actions, so people can spend time excelling in their work and resisting unproductive behaviour?

  3. Am I modeling a philosophy of wellness with my proactivity, time management and interaction with colleagues, allowing my colleagues to thrive and showcase their strengths?

Leaders, I wish you a world of success as your navigate your own individual leadership adventures.