Yvonne Caamal Canul, Author of ‘The Leadership Passcode: Unlock the Heart of School Leadership’

Yvonne Caamal Canul, veteran educator and former urban superintendent in Michigan, U.S., is well known for innovation, cutting-edge strategic reform initiatives, and ‘putting order to chaos’. Yvonne has been widely recognized for her leadership positions as a teacher, principal, district administrator, state education official, and in corporate and university roles and for receiving numerous awards at the local, state, and national levels. Among them are the Milken Family Foundation’s 1995 National Educator Award, the 2006 David P. McMahon Civil Rights Award by the Michigan Education Association, selected as Michigan’s Superintendent of the Year in 2015 by the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, and the National Women’s Leadership Award in 2017 given by AASA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


The historic pandemic has taught us many lessons.  We are resilient, we quickly seek solutions, and we can adapt to new world orders.  In a recent issue of The Atlantic (6.21.21), Derek Thompson describes a pandemic as, “a major crisis has a way of exposing what is broken and giving a new generation of leaders a chance to build something better—often in surprising ways.”

As we slowly emerge from the past many months of seclusion and virtual relationships and return to the promise of kinship in a F2F (Face-to-Face) world of schooling, now more than ever leaders need to build something better by highlighting the more humanistic elements of leadership in order to renew, reframe, and reengage their school communities.  Teachers and administrators have had a grueling year of uncertainty and many are leaving the profession, seeking careers with more purpose and sense of belonging.  Returning to an “old” world order provides us the opportunity to think differently about key elements of leadership that can create a new order of meaningful commitment.

Likewise, administrator preparation programs should seriously consider revisiting their course offerings to include the more nuanced side of school leadership.  Key factors such as the importance of being a reflective leader, knowing how to create an expansive network of relationships in order to advance a vision, and embracing the notion of positive rituals as a means towards forming a meaningful and inclusive school culture would certainly be useful in helping reframe school environments, and recruit and retain staff.

As a former urban superintendent, I have met with scores of aspiring and current school leaders that emerge from their graduate programs well informed about managing schools and eager to share their perspective on how instructional leadership is at the core of every great school.  Unfortunately, very few knew much about the critical aspects of knowing who they were as leaders.  Even fewer understood how relationships with their professional or school community could make or break their careers.  Few appear to have ever thought about the power of developing positive school rituals.

Unlocking the heart of school leadership is exciting work. Schooling is not just about the core mission of instruction.   It is also about creating a learning and social environment that engenders a sense of belonging, passion, meaningful engagement, and purpose for students, staff, and the entire school community.  Let us consider three critical elements in that work:  Reflection, Relationships, and Rituals.

Reflection:  It all begins with Reflection because everything you do as a leader is either a reflection of who you are and/or a product of your reflection on it.  Margaret Wheatley highlights this notion, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”(Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. 2006).

Knowing yourself well enables you to find threads of commonality with others and therefore build the trust needed to bring your vision forward.  It’s not easy for people to follow a leader that they don’t know or trust.  Therefore, an essential strategy for gaining that trust is to share with them who you are.   Do you know your typology? Do you surround yourself with others unlike you?  Do you travel and read? Do you embrace and practice cultural competencies?  When you make a mistake, do you have a plan for atonement? Are you clear about why you chose this career? Can you observe and analyze the decisions, actions, and data upon which a school basis its vision forward and make meaning, perhaps even having the courage to change how things have always been done?  A leader might consider these questions as part of continuous reflection.

Relationships:  In order for any leader to become more effective, it is crucial to broaden one’s definition and understanding of Relationships as more than socialization. The importance of on-the-spot synthesizing, being able to “connect the dots” and see the relationships between ideas and data, and systems thinking—all are more important now than ever, especially in an era of information overload.  As we emerge from 2-dimensional virtual relationships (one screen at a time), now is the time to re-develop that wide-ranging network and re-build a web of connectivity.  Relationship growth includes five elements:

  • With Self
    • Being Authentic and Transparent
    • Having a Good Sense of Humor (Ability to Laugh at Myself)
    • Being Clear About My Valuesand Leading With Light
  • With the Organization
    • Knowing My Value to the Organization
    • Building Professional Equity in the Organization
    • Understanding Organizational Politics
  • With Others
    • Developing a Team of Many/Unlikely Others
    • Building Multiple Partnerships: Community, Parents, Vendors, Business
  • With Situations
    • Always Looking for Unique/Unlike Opportunities to Advance the Mission
    • Believing that Behind Every Challenge is an Opportunity
  • With Ideas
    • Promoting Brainstorming as a Time-Worth Activity
    • Listening to Others Carefully
    • Believing that One Never Knows What Greatness Will Emerge

Rituals:  If you don’t think Rituals have an impact on human behavior, watch baseball players perform a sequence of physical foxtrots as they approach the batting stance.  Some never change their socks during the entire season. In fact, our world has many rituals.  One may think these behaviors are superstitions, but they are actually a form of ritual.  The assumption is that if I do the same thing every time with an expectation of a specific result, that desired result will happen.  More importantly for our purposes, rituals also serve to create societal bonds that connect us to the past and shape a future narrative. They provide a consistent touch point with the here and now and create a living short story.  Rituals are the weft and warp of a society’s culture.

Dr. Gary Phillips, founder and President of National School Improvement Project, Inc.  acknowledged that, “no schools can be changed without changing the rituals.Re-establishing the school community’s culture involves taking a serious look at old routines and how to make new ones more transformational.  Staff meetings, daily greetings, or acknowledging positive accomplishments are prospects.  School events and activities can also create cultural meaning.  How a school celebrates holidays and which ones are celebrated, convenes assemblies, honors graduates, types of field trips chosen say so much about what the school community values.

Artifacts as a form of rituals make visible the surface of a school’s culture and are easily seen in a variety of ways.  Physical artifacts such as the decorations, space allocation, the way people dress, awards, trophies, handbooks, posters, mascots, logos, and symbols all tell a story about the organization’s cultural values through a visual rendition of ritual.  Even the architecture of a school building tells much about the vision and values of a school or district.

Future Leadership Development

As leaders and those who develop and train current or future leaders, we have a unique opportunity to unlock the heart of school leadership by focusing more on engaging and nurturing transformational and positive human interaction (now Face-to-Face!) and less time on how to manage it.

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