Climate and Culture Steer the LeaderShip

A positive school environment paves the way for leadership and learning

In the book, The Art of Happiness at Work, (Dalai Lama, Cutler, 2009) the obvious conclusion to happy versus unhappy is clearly stated: “Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people.” Now, how do I get to that happy place?

Happy people outperform unhappy people. Climate and culture have a profound impact on teacher and student performance. Leadership has a profound impact on climate and culture. If the leadership possibilities are exponential, then so are the promises of happy people and success. Climate equals morale. Culture, on the other hand, is what you can get people to do. When people believe in themselves, they will achieve more than they thought possible.

Walk into any school for the first time. How should you feel? When you enter your building, do you get the WOW Factor, that distinctive appeal? You can feel the climate of an organization immediately. If it’s positive, you will get that magical “Ta-Da” moment. It can be tangible and scream off the walls, or it can be that optimistic sensation that fills your heart.

As a lead learner, that positive feeling gets reinforced when a parent walks up to you at the end of Back to School Night and excitedly proclaims, “I’m so glad my daughter is here. All of the teachers said at one point in their presentations, I love my job.” You want every parent and child to take this excitement with them on a daily basis.

Small gestures of positive climate and culture add up. Send a thank you note to a colleague, a parent, or a student. Make positive phone calls home. Greet your students. Know their names. Show up at events. Become a part of the community. Take a moment each day to make a connection or build a relationship through authentic conversation.

This can happen anywhere on campus: the cafeteria, at a student’s locker, walking around the building before or after school, or asking teachers if they need anything. When you take the time to know something personal about the students and staff and faculty, you can make someone’s day. It always sends the message, “I care about you.”

Maybe it does not seem like much at first. Take an old trophy from the closet, use some masking tape to personalize a message, then present it to a teacher with fanfare in front of their students. This simple gesture paves miles of positivity. Leaders can provide that, at no cost, every single day with deliberate, caring actions. People who feel good about themselves will take the extra steps.

One year, the students, staff, and faculty started to paint the walls and the bathrooms with murals and quotes. It gave everyone ownership in the environment of the building. We even came up with a tile project where the students could leave a legacy of peace, hope, love, and acceptance. Wow! That really took off and connected not only the students but the community as well. No one could walk by the “Wall of Acceptance” without stopping to read the inscriptions and admire the artwork.

Uniting under a common theme for the year can be another meaningful way to promote a positive climate for everyone in the school. Under this year’s theme of “Grit,” students in each grade level are recognized monthly for displaying positive characteristics that are associated with grit. There are thousands of ways to celebrate students, staff, and faculty. When you take the time to carry them out, you promote connections that communicate expectations for everyone in a positive manner.

There is a strong correlation between gratitude and happiness. People with more gratitude are naturally happier. You can chalk it up to another common sense theory or a review of the literature will have you come away with the same conclusion. According to Harvard Health Publications (2016), by Harvard Medical School, positive psychology research indicates, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.”

One goal of any organization should be to develop more leaders. Organizations must stop perpetuating the “follower model.” Providing students, staff, and faculty with a variety of opportunities to jump on board the “LeaderShip” is pivotal. Leadership cannot be shared and leaders cannot be developed without a “ship” to get on.

Seek out the advice of your staff and faculty, provide opportunities for leaders to explore their potential, and involve students in decision making. An environment rich with leadership pathways will find more stakeholders navigating their way from followership to leadership.


Dalai Lama, Cutler, H., The art of happiness at work (2009). Eastern Press, Norwalk.

Giving thanks can make you happier.
giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier, downloaded November 21, 2016.

Rudnesky, F., 50 great things leaders do: let’s get fired up! (2017). Jostens, Minneapolis.