As a leader, eyes are on you. People are absorbing and learning from your reactions, your decisions and how you show up in every room you enter. The imprint a leader leaves is often bigger than they imagined.
That’s been the case for Charles Land, principal at Nimitz Ninth Grade School in Aldine ISD. After watching from the assistant principal’s chair as Aisley Adams led the all-freshman school, Land was promoted to principal last year after Adams left for a new role as principal of the upper grades at Nimitz High School.
The lessons he learned from Adams – winner of the district’s 2020 Principal of the Year award – were invaluable. His bosses noticed how he put that learning into action and in 2022, the district named Land Aldine ISD’s Rookie Principal of the Year.
We had a conversation with the pair of powerhouse principals on the leaders who influenced them and what they’ve learned about leadership.
Was there a special leader in your life who had a big impact on you?
Adams: My first year as a teacher, I had a principal that was just everything you could imagine. She had great people skills. She knew how to deliver feedback – even when it was corrective feedback, you still felt like it came from a place of love. She always pushed me. I felt inspired and empowered by her leadership. She repeatedly told me I should go into leadership because she saw something in me. She said, “I’m going to keep giving you leadership tasks to support your growth so you know how to lead when it’s your time.” She left a major impression on me. So, I’ve had great leadership experiences, but then I’ve also been on the other side of leadership – that taught me a lot about the ways in which I don’t want to lead.
Land: When Adams came in, she jumped out of the gate as someone who could build relationships and influence. I could see how she connected with staff in a positive way and I gravitated toward that. She didn’t just tell me about growth, she really put me a position to grow.
Adams: When I came to Nimitz almost four years ago, Mr. Land was the assistant principal. I remember he told me early on that he doesn’t “work.” He said, “This will never be work because I get up every day and I absolutely love what I do.”
I knew that he aspired to take on greater leadership roles, and I feel like the rest is kind of history. When we needed a principal at the ninth-grade campus, I remember sitting in his interview panel just blown away like, “Oh my God, who is this person?” He spoke as a principal, someone who had learned and studied and absorbed so much. We’ve been rolling ever since. We talk and collaborate every day. I just have to remind myself that he’s not my assistant principal anymore, he’s the principal!
How do you take lessons from mentors and incorporate them into your own leadership?
Adams: The biggest thing I’ve learned from great leaders is the importance of building authentic relationships. Relationships are critical to the work at hand. Leaders who do not see the value or investment in relationships will miss the mark. As a leader you need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get in the work, or you will never have an impact on student outcomes. So, I try to focus on building relationships to leverage them in a way that keeps the work going for the benefit of students as well as faculty and staff. The biggest investment we can make is always in the people we serve.
Another big leadership lesson is knowing how to leverage the capacity of team members. I think sometimes leaders feel like we have to know everything because we’re held accountable for everything. But it’s OK not to know, or to have someone on my team who knows more than me. I don’t surround myself with people who always say, “Okay, yeah, great, I agree with your idea.” I want people who are going to push my thinking as a leader.
Land: I’ve always been a sponge for learning. Whatever leaders I had above me, I’ve always tried to take something from it and use it in a good way.
If you are doing a good job as a leader, what are staff saying about you when you’re not in the room?
Adams: She’s a listener. She is responsive, approachable – she cares. And that I’m not going to ask anyone else to do more than what I’m willing to give.
Land: I hope they would say, “He cares and he’s consistent, transparent and trustworthy.” When I say something, I stand by it. I try to be the same every day so you always know what you’re going to get with me – someone solid you can depend on to come through for you.
Why is listening so important?
Land: Listening creates buy-in. But you have to really value what people say, not just blow them off. You can take that information and push it under the rug. But if you don’t make any kind of actionable changes, you’re going to lose people.
Adams: Listening is a leadership trait that helps build trust and transparency. We have to create a space where people can bring their knowledge and opinions to help influence which direction we should go that aligns to the vision of the campus. There is power in allowing others to be a part of the decision-making process rather than me being the person that’s always making the decisions. When it’s our decision and not just my decision, the action that follows is far more impactful and the commitment from faculty and staff is greater. Collaborative decision-making builds leaders and teams as well.
What reflections do you have on two years of leading schools through a pandemic?
Adams: I would’ve never imagined that we would be here facing the things we’re facing. At the beginning of the school year, we were so ready to hit the ground running. Then reality hit. The stress and strain caused by the pandemic showed up everywhere. As a leader, I acknowledge the challenges, and also see a wealth of opportunity for us to lead in a different way. The conditions we’re operating in have caused us to lead with a greater sense of empathy. I think of the hashtag we would use on campus when the pandemic first hit and that was #challengedbutnotdefeated. I remind myself daily that we are indeed challenged by what’s in front of us, but we are not defeated.
Land: Learning has changed. Kids have changed. Teachers have changed. The systems and structures need to change too.
Adams: We should be listening to those with boots on the ground. Nobody knows the work better than the people who are truly in it every single day. By not listening, we waste time making assumptions and put off addressing the need. The best people to advise us are in our buildings right now. They are faculty, staff and students. As leaders, we must move their voices forward in a way that’s productive and speaks to the real needs.