Being a leader doesn’t mean always being right or knowing the right way. To be a good leader, you have to be willing to learn.
There are dozens of books, hundreds of case studies, thousands of magazine articles, and countless Internet pages about leadership skills. Those can be good resources. But an important aspect of building your leadership ability involves learning from those around you. Through your parent group work, you will encounter many role models. Some will be obvious to you, and some will be very subtle. These people will influence your growth as a volunteer, as a leader, and even as a person. Just watch, listen, and learn.
You might encounter a fellow leader who is especially graceful handling difficult members or out-of-control meetings. Take notes. Observe the executive board that is faced with a controversial issue. Do they give in to popular opinion, or do they use the mission of the PTO to guide their decision? And how do they communicate that message to the broader group?
Pay attention to the PTO president who works much harder than everyone else does. In fact, she might be doing too much herself. You might make a mental note to delegate more if you’re in her shoes someday.
The way a PTO president approaches her leadership role can have a significant effect on whether people want to join the group. Does she take time to personally welcome new parents? Can she run a meeting with a balance of organization and friendly informality? Does she reach out to new parents? Some people are very capable but lack the self-confidence to get involved. When the president asks new members for their help, sincerely, face-to-face, it’s hard to say no.
Learn from dedicated committee chairs who take the time to train newer members so the committee can flourish in the future. Absorb the good habits of the vice president or treasurer who not only fulfills her basic responsibilities, but also moves the job to a higher level of quality.
Pay attention to those reliable members who are happy to work on any committee but don’t want the spotlight. Their dedication is essential to the success of the group. If you find yourself in a “co” leadership position, divide the duties to capitalize on the skills of your cochair and learn from her abilities.
School personnel can also help you become a better PTO leader. Of course, the principal can introduce you to school protocol and politics. Her aid is essential to your successful navigation of the classrooms and interaction with the teachers. School secretaries, paraprofessionals, and custodians typically are the most knowledgeable school staff in terms of day-to-day operations. Thus, their support is vital to most parent group activities. Listen to them and heed their advice. For example, trust the custodian and plan accordingly when he tells you there are only 10 tables available for Doughnuts With Dad even if you counted 15 in the storage room. He knows five are broken because he sets them up daily.
If the media specialist says she needs three days of lead time to set up for the book fair, plan your volunteer schedule accordingly even if you think you could set up in one day. She is the expert who knows what other activities are going on in the media center. It’s wise to include the school support staff in your project planning, to respect their schools jobs, and to avoid pummeling them with PTO demands. And it’s vital to say “thank you” often.
You can also learn a bit about volunteering from beyond your school building. Your own family can remind you when to take a break from designing the auction catalog or cutting out reading award badges. Children and husbands are excellent balancers when you are excessively consumed by parent group business. They will help you remember the real reason you’re involved in the PTO: to improve the educational experience at your school, not to become obsessed with staff appreciation dinner menus.
Sometimes you can adapt a PTO skill to other volunteer service groups. For example, if you chaired the PTO’s silent auction, perhaps you can share your skills with the chair of your church’s auction committee. In the process of sharing your knowledge, you may learn some new tricks to help your next PTO auction run more efficiently.
PTO members from other schools can set an example to follow. Reach out to them—chances are they’ll be happy to talk about similar experiences and trade ideas, too. The message boards on ptotoday.com can also be a source of information and advice.
As you embark on the year as a parent group leader, you will meet others who will have an impact on you. They can help you become a better leader no matter how experienced you are already. Make a mental note of their influence. Absorb their best traits. Learn from their mistakes. Take it all in and use it for your personal growth. Even if you spend just one year involved in your parent group, you will pick up skills and experience that you can apply to any future endeavor. Great role models are everywhere. To find them, you just need to look.