Dr. Dilhani Uswatte is a mastermind of leadership, even if many of her “colleagues” are well under the age of ten.
As the current principal of Rocky Ridge Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama, Dr. Dil (as she likes to be called), has been an educator for nearly 25 years and was named a 2020 Nationally Distinguished Principal—the most recent of her many recognitions. She’s also renowned for encouraging innovation, collaboration, and inspiration within her local community and the world-at-large.
Though Dr. Dil’s passion is about shaping the next generation, her wisdom goes far beyond education. Her leadership insights hold immense value for anyone from aspiring teachers to Fortune 500 CEOs. After all, principals are the leaders of their own organizations and Dr. Dil leads hers with the power of positivity.
Why Mission Statements Matter
Dr. Dil’s school didn’t always have the culture that it’s now known for. In fact, it took time for her to fully understand the value of a strong core vision and mission statement.
“When I came into this position, I thought those words—mission and vision—were something you put on a piece of paper, hung up someplace…and you’re finished,” she remembers. “But three years into becoming a principal, I really started to realize that those statements have the impact, if done correctly, to steer the ship.”
With the realization that a cohesive mission could bring her team and their values together, she launched an initiative to rework what they currently had. “This led to conversations like, ‘How do we treat each other?’ and ‘What do we need to do to make sure that the climate is positive?,’” Dr. Dil says.
Questions like these led towards a central mission that emphasized supporting values like community, inclusivity, empathy, problem-solving, and collaboration—all traits they believed would mold tomorrow’s best global leaders. By constantly reflecting back on these values, the leadership team felt confident that they were steering students, teachers, administration, and support staff alike in the right direction.
Wanting to ensure that her team stayed true to these words, Dr. Dil formed a committee dedicated to upholding their new core mission and values. Armed with data points and talking points, the team meets monthly to discuss what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and strategizing about how they best support their collective vision far into the future.
Creating a Better Climate and Culture
Two words often come up in discussions about core values—climate and culture. “The climate is taking the temperature of what it’s like in school. You hope for it to be positive, warm, and friendly. But that’s not always the case.” Like in business, any leader wants to think that they’re fostering a great work environment. However, many don’t reflect enough on this critical inquiry.
“Then there’s the culture piece,” Dr. Dil says. “What do you implement every single day in your policies, procedures, and practices to tell the world who you are?” Once you pin down your ideal work culture, it’s time to devise the actions necessary to make it a reality.
She also emphasizes the importance of shared leadership when it comes to creating a healthy culture and organization overall. Everyone needs to get involved as advocates for the mission. With fresh ideas and different perspectives, inclusivity offers something that leaders alone can’t.
“As much as [leaders] would like to believe that we’ve got all of the answers, we don’t,” says Dr. Dil. “It’s going to take many minds coming together. Many conversations. Many trials and errors…then trying again.”
She wants leaders to encourage their teams to find solutions, take initiviate, and promote their mission as one rather than feel like only those in leadership positions can make decisions. This method might take more time, but she believes going forward together is always the best choice.
The Power of a Penny
“Take the time to inspire and be inspired. That’s the motto I like to live by,” Dr. Dil says. Clearly, she takes the act of inspiration very seriously. She also believes that for inspiration to make the biggest impact, we need intention. “If we do not take the time to be intentional with inspiring, there’s a problem,” she says.
Inspiration has become such a core part of Dr. Dil’s leadership that, after winning the prestigious Milken Educator Award, she was challenged by her colleagues to put her motto into greater action. She began strategizing small, easy ways to encourage people to integrate inspiration into their everyday life.
That’s when she thought of a penny—a simple item most people have lying around the house. Just the sight of a penny could remind people of the value of being inspired. “The idea was that every time someone saw a penny, they’d have the courage to be mindful and notice the great things happening around them,” Dr. Dil says.
Also, the exchanging of pennies can act as a meaningful symbol of acknowledgment and mutual respect. She encouraged everyone at her school to offer a penny to anyone who inspired them. She asked the penny giver to say to the receiver, “You have Penny Power. You inspired me. I hope you take this penny and pass it on to somebody else.” It’s like paying it forward with a focus on inspiration.
The day after launching the project, Dr. Dil and her team noticed something very special happening. “Children came into school with bags of pennies—hundreds of pennies,” she remembers. “It was so moving. They were giving them to teachers and telling their teachers how much they appreciated them. They were giving them out to their aides, to our custodians, to their parents. It was like a love fest!”
After seeing the impact, Dr. Dil she didn’t want it to stop at Rocky Ridge. She introduced the Penny Project into her local community as a way to encourage everyone to inspire and be inspired. She now hopes for it to spread even farther.
Though the Penny Project is new and some of its related initiatives are paused due to COVID, Dr. Dil says it’s already a success. “We’ve exceeded our goal of 1,000 pennies being either given or received. We call that Penny Power because we believe that both the giver and the receiver benefit from this exchange.”
Though Dr. Dil’s main “clients” are children, inspiration is vital to a positive, thriving work culture no matter the industry. Even if pennies aren’t the right symbol for your business, find your own way to encourage your team—and yourself—to inspire others and be inspired every single day.
The conversation with Dr. Dilhani Uswatte continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! You can also watch me chat with Dr. Dil on YouTube. Learn more about her leadership tips and insights, how she’s handling the COVID crisis as a principal, why leadership in business and education overlap, and more!
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