Elizabeth Alvarez, Adjunct Professor, Aurora University

Dr. Elizabeth Álvarez, a bilingual educator with over 15 years of leadership experience, holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. As a superintendent, she has consolidated schools, fostered family engagement, developed STEAM labs, and mentored aspiring leaders. With 13 years of upper-grade science teaching experience and roles as a math and science coach, assistant principal, and principal, she also served as Network 8 Chief of Schools in Chicago Public Schools, improving achievement significantly. Now, superintendent of Forest Park District 91, she is the first female, Latina, and person of color to hold the role, advocating for diversity, equity, and excellence.


Leadership transitions often bring tales of triumph over adversity and the mastery of challenges. Such narratives emphasize individual heroism, yet the reality is far more nuanced. Too often, new leaders try to impress their teams by showcasing how much they know or have achieved, aiming to prove their qualifications or justify why they were selected for the role. However, this approach can become their downfall. Successful transitions aren’t solely about personal victories; they rely on the collective wisdom and support of the team. As someone who has navigated new leadership roles multiple times, I’ve learned that crucial lessons come not in the first leadership role but in subsequent ones. Every new team has proven invaluable because they recognized that I leaned on them as much as they relied on me. They understood that our initial introduction would lay the foundation for something we’d build together. Embracing vulnerability is crucial as it fosters authentic connection, trust, and meaningful change.

Vulnerability: A Strength, Not a Weakness

Embarking on a new leadership role is often daunting, as you may feel lost in a maze in the first days and weeks. Embrace the challenges of this transition by acknowledging what you don’t yet know. Vulnerability enables you to build trust with your team, who can provide the insights and expertise needed to navigate obstacles. Once these unknowns are brought to light, the maze starts to unravel, revealing a clearer path forward. Recognize your skill set and confidently leverage your strengths, all while remaining transparent about the areas where you need assistance. Your vulnerability and humility will become your greatest assets in untangling the challenges of your first year of leadership.

It’s essential to approach this process with humility, understanding that no leader is expected to have all the answers. By actively listening and asking your team for guidance, you create a culture of shared purpose. When leaders admit to gaps in their knowledge, team members feel empowered to step up and provide their insights. They recognize that their expertise is valued, which leads to stronger engagement and a more cohesive working environment.

The First Year: A Period of Discovery, Listening, and Celebrating Wins

The first year in a new leadership role is best spent understanding the organization from every angle. Listening rounds—systematic efforts to engage team members at all levels—help reveal gaps, identify needs, and build relationships. Engage custodial staff, administration, faculty, and others. Their historical knowledge and unique perspectives can guide strategic decisions and foster an inclusive culture. By including all voices, your team members feel valued, seen, and heard.

It’s crucial to share back what you’ve learned, particularly the patterns and the unique outliers that stand out as significant. When listening to custodians, they might highlight issues that impact the morale of the entire organization or improvements to the physical environment that would benefit instruction. When listening to faculty and administrators, patterns might emerge around areas needing strategic direction or resources. These summaries acknowledge team members and affirm their importance to the organization.

This approach also builds trust by demonstrating that the leadership is willing to listen to all perspectives and apply their insights. Follow up with further listening sessions to ensure you’re closing the feedback loop. Doing so reassures the team that their opinions have been heard and that the organization values their input. This consistent, respectful engagement strengthens relationships and boosts overall morale.

It’s equally important to celebrate small wins during this first year. Acknowledging these successes publicly recognizes your team’s contributions and reinforces a culture of appreciation. This celebration and recognition build strong relationships that will set the foundation for future success. By sharing these victories, you encourage continued engagement, collaboration, and innovation. Recognizing these wins as part of the relationship-building process will lead to success in the years to come.

Relationships are Key

Every superintendent knows that success hinges on relationships, relationships, relationships. Active listening and honest communication build rapport and establish trust. Explain the purpose of your listening rounds and revisit conversations to show how their input has influenced your decisions. In return, your team will value your commitment to their feedback and recognize their vital role in the organization.

Over time, your team will no longer be nervous about meeting with you as these rounds become regular opportunities for positive engagement. Missed rounds will be noticed because your team will eagerly anticipate them, emphasizing the importance of these sessions for morale and collaboration. By building this culture of listening and engagement, you create a network of relationships that can withstand the challenges of leadership transitions.

Strong relationships enable you to identify high-potential individuals within the organization who could be future leaders. By empowering them with opportunities for professional growth, you’re helping create a sustainable succession plan. This long-term perspective ensures that the organization remains resilient and capable of navigating future challenges.


In a new leadership role, vulnerability and relationships are foundational to success. Understanding what you don’t know and involving your team in strategic planning will empower your organization. Recognize that you are only one person, and you’ll progress only as far as you enable your team to go. Set high expectations, and your team will strive to meet them.

Your first year will undoubtedly be challenging, but these small gestures can make it smoother and immensely rewarding. By maintaining open lines of communication, demonstrating commitment to feedback, and continuously fostering relationships, you’ll find that your new role becomes less about personal triumph and more about shared success.

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