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An AfterSchool Leadership Lesson

Friday, 23 August 2013 10:14

Over time, assumptions develop that paralyze thinking, slow growth, and stymie progress in any profession. Assumptions influence how afterschool professionals respond to what they do and how they do it. Because of that, when asked the more important question of why an afterschool programs exists, many people stumble and mumble a response. Those who lead best clearly understand their organization's mission and can succinctly explain WHY they (and the organization) do WHAT they do and HOW they do it. But all too often, we are first asked WHAT we do? We need to learn to reorder the questions, starting with WHY.


Again, if someone were to ask what happens in an afterschool program, most leaders can provide an adequate answer complete with examples. They describe program objectives, goals, outcomes, services, and job functions. Those are easy to identify. But when asked why an afterschool program exists, few leaders have practiced articulating a response. The WHY is the organization's mission, its purpose, and its core values. Why should someone care that an afterschool program exists? The better we can answer the WHY question, the better we can address the hows and whats. Inspirational leaders never lose focus of the WHY. Whys are beliefs. Hows are actions that realize those beliefs. Whats are the results of actions. An articulate WHY response always challenges the status quo.


Most afterschool leaders know HOW they do what they do. HOW responses describe the ways that services are provided and imply good processes, strategies, and standards of performance. The assumption is that the HOW sets the program apart, differentiating it from others with compelling evidence of effectiveness. Staff members within an afterschool program are often motivated to do the hows because of a series of carrots and sticks. Yet, the hows don't inspire loyalty or trust in a program any better than the what. When everyone clearly understands and buys into the core mission of WHY and afterschool program exists, the hows and the whats better begin to make sense.


WHAT an afterschool program does is the result of its HOW actions–how it creates services, a culture, and benefits for children, youth, and adults. People will know what a leader believes (and what afterschool programs accomplish) by observing the things that they say and do over time. Afterschool program leaders who can clearly articulate why they do their work and how they do it will sound authentic to their followers. These days, most everyone can differentiate when answers to questions are nothing more than politically correct. Inspirational afterschool leaders cannot be politically correct and be authentic. Leaders are authentic when everything they say and do is firmly based on what they actually believe. Authenticity matters.

Reorder the Questions

Great afterschool programs have a great WHY. Those programs acquire loyal patrons, partners, and skakeholders when their leaders stay focused on the WHY. It requires a clear vision to lead a great afterschool program. Leaders do not inspire when they chase new fads and veer from a steady course. Instead, they confuse. Energy and charisma are important, but clarity and authenticity are essential. Effective afterschool program leaders never waver from their WHY. They continuously challenge assumptions. They create programs where people want to work and loyalty is high.

When the WHY is clear, grant-funded programs succeed and their leader will find ways to make them sustainable. When the why, how, and what questions are conceived in the right order and properly balanced, people will want to work in afterschool programs, trust-levels will be high among all stakeholders, and positive outcomes will be prevalent. Because all staff members have influence, when they each understand and are taught how to articulate the relationships between the why, hows, and whats of the program, the final whats that emerge will make the program remarkable. When people really believe in what they do, and can explain WHY, everything they say will be authentic and believable.

Courtesy of the National AfterSchool Association.