Adult Cultures Matter

In a recent episode of the podcast ReThinking with Adam Grant and Simon Sinek, Brené Brown said, “Who we are is how we lead. Self-awareness, kindness, vision, accountability, trust, just basic skills of being a good human being to other human beings” (2023, May 23, 4:33) Unfortunately, not all adults seem to have the skills to be good human beings toward other human beings. When educators dedicate their attention to developing these capabilities, they can appropriately model them for their students.

This modeling also needs to come from the building and district leaders. The 2023 Merrimack College Teacher survey asked participants an open-ended question regarding what school leaders needed to learn in the areas of teacher well-being. The results indicated that “aspiring administrators should learn to understand, support, care for, value, and listen to teachers” (p. 23). While budgeting issues or state mandates often take center stage, intentional support for school leaders in empathizing and building trust is a key component of creating a culture of support and growth for everyone – adults included – in our schools.

When considering our purpose as educators, Ritchhart (2023) offers the following questions: “1) Who are our students becoming as thinkers and learners as a result of their time with us, and 2) What do we want the students we teach to be like as adults?” (p. 31). The answer to this question, Ritchhart continues, is often found in “institutional mirroring” (p. 5), or the idea that the way teachers are treated will directly impact how these same teachers treat their students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that teacher behavior, or the adult culture of a school, is directly linked to the actions and beliefs of building and district-level leadership. 

The adult cultures of a school matter far more than we realize. All too often, behaviors that would never be acceptable in a classroom run rampant in the staff room. This work we do is hard; it is complicated, emotional, and messy. And it can also be full of joy and laughter and possibility. As leaders, how do we cultivate more of this positivity – and not in the toxic sense, but in a way that truly allows people to thrive? This requires embracing a level of emotional intelligence that focuses on our shared humanity. In today’s volatile political climate, the call for human-focused leaders is stronger than ever. It is not a new idea that we should value kids over content and thinking over correct answers. Nor should it be a novel approach to embrace the idea of a both/and culture, one that does not separate academic learning from social-emotional learning, scheduling SEL lessons only from 9-9:30 on Tuesdays. 

With so much research available on different types of positive leadership styles, it’s hard to figure out which one will lead to a change in the adult culture. Goleman et al.’s (2013) updated four domains of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management) are elements of many leadership frameworks. There’s the transformational leaders who create the conditions for positive change and evolution; there’s the authentic leaders who bring their whole selves to the table and invite you to do the same; there’s the servant leader, who truly lives to empower others, and – my absolute favorite, the heliotropic leader; the ones who serve as a light shining and life-giving force for others. 

In the quest to find the most impactful leadership style, I began to notice how similar and overlapping many of the ideas were as they were applied to different contexts. The themes of inclusivity, connection, and personal growth began to show up again and again. Many authors seemed to have 4, 5, or 6 pillars, mindsets, or other ways to describe their ideas around “soft skills.” Throughout my research, there were moments of beauty and brightness. Simultaneously, though, another brilliant picture was emerging on its own: suggestions on how we might be more human-oriented in our leadership.  

In order to ground my doctoral study and easily recall and explain these ideas, I focused on the word ‘human’ and what it could mean. This led to the H.U.M.A.N. framework; a synthesis of the work of multiple scholars, built on the foundation of adult development and conceptual development theories. It weaves together Emotional Intelligence and Appreciative Inquiry, as well as Authentic, Transformational, and Heliotropic leadership philosophies. Ultimately, It describes leaders who hone their empathy, understand themselves as leaders, are motivated by a mission and make meaning for others, anticipate and acknowledge the unknown, and nurture trust and a sense of belonging. Here’s a breakdown of what that can look like in practice. 

H:  H.U.M.A.N.-focused leaders ‘hone their compassion.’ Brené Brown (2021) says empathy is a tool of compassion, and this is something we need to practice daily. To hone our compassion, we try to gain a deeper understanding of everyone around us, especially those we might not agree with. These regular refinements can lead to deeper connections and a greater understanding of the adults on our teams and in our buildings, and ultimately, a more positive culture.

U: H.U.M.A.N.-focused leaders don’t just strive to understand others but take intentional steps to understand themselves and who they are as leaders in their schools or districts and even the world. As leaders with a more human-oriented style, we can separate ourselves from drama and chaos long enough to consider why it’s happening. This isn’t easy, but it will spur reflection on our decisions and reactions. We can use those insights to make changes that help us grow, modeling this practice for those around us.

M: H.U.M.A.N.-focused leaders make meaning for others as they are motivated by a personal vision. As leaders in our schools, we have the privilege of being able to regularly head up to the Hefeitz et al.’s (2009) metaphorical balcony, where we can see across the school system how different decisions impact a variety of groups. But we have to remember to do it: to come up for air, get out of the weeds, and gain a new perspective that can help us understand what is happening at a deeper level. We then help those we work with see these same things in order to alleviate anxieties or answer lingering questions. Covey (2022) reminds us we need to “connect WITH people and TO purpose” (p. 36). No matter what motivates us to do the work we do, we are all driven by something deeper that inspires us to show up each day and do what we can to make the world a better place. When you can keep your eye on the greater vision you are hoping to achieve and use that to help others make sense out of what often seems chaotic and convoluted, you bring to life another element of more human-oriented leadership. 

A: Anticipating and acknowledging the unknown. As H.U.M.A.N. leaders, we know that not everything will go the way we plan, and we’re ok with that. Education in general, and schools in particular, are complex, multilayered systems, and we have to anticipate and acknowledge the unknown. This is about our positionality towards change. Is it something you hide from? Or something you embrace? 

N – H.U.M.A.N. leaders constantly nurture trust to create a sense of belonging for everyone in our spheres of influence. Building relationships needs to be our number one priority, and we all know that trust is essential in this endeavor. And when people dare to trust the connections they have with others, they feel that sense of belonging, allowing them to truly thrive.

All in all, a H.U.M.A.N. approach to educational leadership is essential. While so many agree that social-emotional learning practices are vital for students, there is not the same attention paid to how the adults in the building embody these ideals. This may be due to a lack of models in the style of leadership that emphasizes our shared humanity. There are over 500 million leadership resources available on the internet. New articles, books, and research studies– not to mention other varieties of social media wisdom–seem to be added each second. More and more of these address how leaders can connect to those they work with via their own humanity, as clearly, there continues to be a need for this kind of content. For leaders in education, these resources provide essential reminders of why we do the work we do, and they offer practical suggestions for how to incorporate techniques that embrace an appreciative inquiry mindset and positive presuppositions. Though these ideas are not new, their volume is finally being magnified. Ayers (2011) wrote, “Teaching is at its heart an act of hope for a better future” (p. 37). Yet this principle often gets lost in the endless complexity of each school day, to say nothing of larger political and social issues. By embodying the elements of the H.U.M.A.N. framework, educational leaders will be able to develop themselves and their organizations in service of what is most important: our collective humanity. 


With more than two decades of experience in education around the globe, Dr. Kristen Moreland is committed to bringing humanity back to education. A former middle school English teacher and Instructional Coach, she is currently serving as the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Littleton Schools in Littleton, New Hampshire. You can follow her on Instagram @educatorsforhumanity or on LinkedIn @moreland-kristen



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