She's been called the "kid-whisperer" of Mackworth Island. Pender Makin — Maine's 2013 Principal of the Year — directs a public alternative high school on a tiny island just off the coast of Portland. I got to know her last month when we toured Bath Iron Works, part of an innovative program to connect educators with Maine's industries. She talked passionately about her work, and repeatedly attributed her success to the high quality and dedication of her staff. She draws people to her by simply shining a light on the power of possibility.
I first met Makin when a friend coached a team of educational leaders whose group work had gone hopelessly awry; Makin was a member of the team. This set of principals and superintendents struggled to truthfully name why — for months — they hadn't worked well together. When it was Makin's turn to speak, she looked around the table, opened her eyes wide, flashed a genial smile, and then put her finger directly on what had troubled her: Some members of the team had made mean-spirited and insensitive comments, either intentionally or inadvertently, and now others felt uncomfortable speaking their minds. After she'd finished speaking, the group's mood shifted instantly. Her courage and honesty cut through the muck; the group was back on track by the end of the evening.
Makin's actions exemplified what Santa Clara University professors James Kouzes and Barry Posner — authors of "The Leadership Challenge" — identify as a key practice of effective leadership: modeling the way. They assert that in order to successfully encourage the behavior you expect of others, "leaders must find their own voice, and then they must clearly and distinctively give voice to their values." Once they take a stand, they use relationships to forge agreement around common principles.
Makin did just that: She frankly but thoughtfully identified behavior that had become permissible and then invited the group to find a kinder — but still truthful — way forward. The group responded because Makin has credibility. This is the bedrock foundation of effective leadership. As Kouzes and Posner maintain, "if you don't believe the messenger, you won't believe the message."
Kouzes and Posner's 25-plus years of research — based on thousands of personal interviews and 75,000 written responses collected all over the globe — reveals that, remarkably, "ordinary people who guide others along pioneering journeys follow rather similar paths." Regardless of the organization, the country, or the gender of the leader, leaders who get extraordinary results from their groups all engage in five practices of exemplary leadership: modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process of the organization, enabling others to act and encouraging personal connections. When leaders successfully employ these practices, individuals willingly follow them and become more invested in both the organization and their own productivity.
Their research also pinpoints four key characteristics that people — across time and cultures — look for in their leaders: foresight, inspiration, honesty, and competence. These qualities ranked well above imagination. Those interviewed sensed that effective leaders know how to bring out the best in their team members. They don't necessarily need to possess the imagination to move an organization forward, but must identify who does. They use their position and talents to create a common core of understanding, build agreement on what is valued and expected, and then employ the gifts of their team members.
Makin has this talent in spades. Jeanne Crocker, assistant executive director for the Maine Principal's Association, said that Makin enlists and nurtures her staff. Crocker recently told the Portland Press Herald, "She helps her staff become the best they can be." She does this is by publicly valuing each member of her team — from drivers to instructors. Makin acknowledges that the school's loving and supportive atmosphere is created by the entire team: "This is a group of people who work shoulder-to-shoulder. You can really feel a good vibe when you come into our school."
Makin also fearlessly challenges the process of education. Assistant principal Martin Mackey says, "She has the professional courage to try anything, and with that courage comes tremendous opportunity for success." Mackey explains that Makin has spent her entire career developing creative solutions for some of Maine's most troubled students. Says Crocker, "she does totally out-of-the-box stuff" and "has a reputation for working miracles." The staff and students respond; they adore her and are healed by her.
This gifted leader attributes some of her success to her job before she went into education: bartending. She trained her ear to listen to the subtext of others' stories and tuned her heart to feel for vibrations of loss and longing. It isn't surprising that this former bartender's desk is right in the middle of the hallway. She explains, "This is a job where you have to be super approachable." This aligns with what Kouzes and Posner assert is critical for any effective leader: close proximity to the people with whom you work: "[Y]ou have to get near enough to people if you're going to find out what motivates them, what they like and don't like, and the kinds of recognition that are most appreciated." You must bring your heart to your work.
As we parted ways, it occurred to me that although we stood among awe-inspiring ships at Bath Iron Works, I left feeling even more inspired by Makin's ability to build strong relationships. She gave me a marvelous gift: a chart for navigating effective leadership in my own work.