Unexpected Leadership Lessons

“Life presents us a multitude of lessons…we can choose to spend our time lamenting our current situation and miss the learning…or we can choose to reflect, grow, and stretch ourselves.  And come out the other side the better for it.”

Monumental, eventful days that change us don’t usually begin that way…very often it is quite the opposite.  They begin just like any other day.  They catch us by surprise.

Yesterday, in a small way, was one of those days…

Like any other morning, autopilot and routines got the day rolling.  Lunches packed.  Homework checked.  In the car and off to school and work.  A short drive filled with small talk and well-wishes on the day to come.  Discussions that drifted into quiet reflections.  Pondering.  A red light.  Waiting our turn…

Quiet reflections abruptly wiped away.  A screech.  An impact.  Rear-ended.  The daily routine quickly dismissed.  Facing a very different morning.  What began as just another drive to school had suddenly turned into something quite different, and unexpected.   Actually, very unexpected…the impact, the accident, arrived with little to no warning.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.  Nerves frazzled.  A little stunned.  Yet, everyone was able to walk away.

Back to impact.  First.  My son.  Hurt?  Injured?  Scared?  Quick confirmation.  “I’m okay, Dad.”  Next.  The other driver?  The accident?  The vehicles?   Check.  Now the process.  Names. Numbers.  Insurance.  Calls to be made.  Claim forms to be filled out.  On and on.  And a son that still needed to get to school…

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t pause when unfortunate events grace our doorstep.  It keeps chugging along.  Tenacious.  Ticking.  Pulling us back into the routine.  School and work still called.  Onward.  Feeling fortunate.  Thankful.  The physical checked off.  The emotional?  Appeared positive.  Acceptable.  All seemed well.  “I love you, have a great day at school.”

Yet, what our exteriors seldom show is the depth, the impressions that life’s events can have on us.  And while his words, his expression, his exterior gave the “all is well” signs…the impact left an impression.  Not physical.  Emotional.  A different kind of impression.

An imprint of the impact wasn’t fully realized till the end of the day.  Reliving the moment with Mom.  Unloading the impression.  Deflating the imprint.  Raw.  Open.  Reflective.

Which, upon reflection, provides a strong leadership lesson to heed…

Very often, leaders blind side those they lead.  Hitting them with unexpected changes.  Initiatives.  Plans.  New directions.  Leaving them reeling.  Grasping.  No context.  No frontloading.  No mental model to wrap their head around. Just impact.  Unexpected.  Jarring.  Abrupt.

Leaders must be aware that their actions, their words, their impact, their leadership leaves an impression, an imprint.  Either positive or negative.  An imprint just the same.  And when leaders refuse to acknowledge that, to reflect…their leadership is very much like the car crash.  Abrupt.  Unexpected.  Unwelcomed.

Strong, authentic leaders understand that impact…on those they lead, on their organization.  Reflective.  Monitoring that impact.  Influence.  Relationships.  Filling that impact, that impression.  Empathy.  Compassion.  Accountable.

Less crashing.  More coaching.

Ultimately, we will determine the impact, the impression, the imprint we will leave.

A lesson worth heeding…

The Opportunity Gap

“An idea does not amount to much unless it turns into an action, a change.  Otherwise, it just remains, hanging motionless, a possibility never realized.”

Much has been uncovered in recent years around the knowing-doing gaps that exist in our organizations.  And it is not just the existence of these gaps that is concerning, but our very ability to recognize, understand, and still rationalize them away.  Arguing ineffectually to the variety of obstacles that impede our ability to implement…even when we know it is the best thing to do, for our people and our organization.  A recognition that we continue to avoid and minimize daily.

While this can be a quite troublesome..it is not the only gap that exists in our organizations.  We create other gaps that defeat and stall momentum.  Gaps that disengage those we value most from the processes that transform and push our organizations forward.

Opportunity Gaps…an organizational plague which can be just as frustrating and paralyzing as our knowing-doing gaps.

Opportunity Gaps exist in that territory between where an idea unfolds itself and an achievable action is considered.  It is the space where we explore the possibilities.  Where an idea can grow and take shape.  Where the possibility is realized and an action is initiated…for disruption and growth.  To change forward…

For no matter how great an idea or an opportunity…it does not exist unless there is action.  Until we invest in movement towards the idea, the gap will remain between what is and what could be.

Yet, we often fail to recognize our Opportunity Gaps.  When we decline to acknowledge and consider the ideas and input of those we lead…when we fail to move on those ideas and input…we create organizational Opportunity Gaps.  And for that, we often fail to move forward.  We fail to increase capacity.  We fail to grow.

For ideas serve as opportunities…opportunities to disrupt ourselves and our organizations for the better.  However, so often we de-value an idea before it has even had a chance to be explored.  Thereby, disengaging the creative process.

Which is why we have to gauge our effectiveness in facing our Opportunity Gaps

To better determine an organization’s struggle with and level of Opportunity Gaps…we can view the organization from one of three stages (as viewed from the life cycle of a butterfly);

  • Cocoon:  At this level the organization and the people within remain insulated…from new learnings, new ideas, new opportunities.  They are content in their current, level of functioning.  These organizations often find themselves blindsided and unprepared, lacking the ability and agility to survive any type of disruption.  An unwillingness to be aware has left them completely unprepared.  They often find themselves extinct, before they can come to terms with change.
  • Caterpillar:  At this level, awareness exists, but it is minimal and change is slow.  There is some acceptance to considering new ideas and opportunities, however any type of implementation and action is often excruciatingly slow.  They often realize the disruption is coming, however they are moving too slowly to avoid it, or create the necessary changes that will allow them to survive it.  So they find themselves falling farther and farther behind, slowly losing relevance.
  • Butterfly:  At this level, we often find the inquiry-oriented, learning organization.  They work diligently to stay open to new possibilities and ideas, willing to implement and disrupt themselves to remain relevant.  Ideas and possibilities come to fruition much more quickly.  There is an air of innovation, as experimentation and trial and error are accepted practices.  Learning, growth, and forward momentum flow from and within the organization.

In the end, each organization has a choice.  We can insulate ourselves and hope that what we know and do will be sufficient.  We can choose to serve as slow-movers, risk adverse, always making the safe choice that does little more than to keep the organization on its current course.  Or you can choose to fly like the butterfly.  To be the trend-setter, the disrupter, the risk-taker.

Either way, the choice is yours…a choice that no organization can avoid.  For how long can we determine to remain both risk-and idea-adverse, and remain relevant in our disruptive, volatile, knowledge-centered society?

Overcoming The Status Quo…

“Every day we negotiate the level of hypocrisy we will tolerate.”  Rick Wormeli

There is a deep level of reflective power in that statement.  Yet, it can be difficult to acknowledge and internalize.  As leaders, it makes us wince…considering.  For everyone else, it turns us inward, reflective.  For it is as much a life consideration, as it is a leadership reflection.  For it affects all facets of life.

And yet, each day we walk into our organizations and wrestle with that very concept.   What we can and will take on…or won’t.  What we will and won’t allow.  What we are willing to address…or dismiss.  What we will seek out and what we will fail to notice.  Issues of…

Alignment.  Trust.  Vision.  Values.  Communication.  Traditions.  Stories.  Behaviors.  Structures.  Rituals.  Routines.  Beliefs.  Practices…

And for better or worse, the bottom line is that responsibility of what we will or won’t tolerate rests on the shoulders of leadership.  A burden we must bear.  For when we sign up to lead, we enlist in the effort to bring change, and with change comes conflict.  And conflict is never easy.  However, one does not come without the other.

And while it is not fair to surmise that a leader can change everything and be everywhere at all times.  They do have to determine what they will and won’t stand for…as a leader and as an organization.  And they have to convey that message with clarity across the organization.  At all levels.

And yes, sometimes it is very difficult to turn over that rock and peek under to see what lies beneath.  Even when every inch of your inner voice is screaming, “Let it alone”.  But, that is what a leader does…it is who they are.  They face the brutal truths of their circumstances.

Courageous leaders refuse to leave any rock unturned.  They understand the cost of turning that rock over…and they also acknowledge the price they may pay for avoiding it.  Leadership is cast in the courage to turn that rock over…to face those issues lying underneath and on the other side…the Traditions, the Stories, Behaviors, Structures, Rituals, Routines, Beliefs, and Practices that are a entrenched deeply in the organization’s culture.  The foundation that firmly roots them in the status quo.

However, that is also where change is realized…where the seeds of excellence are sown.  And each day, the more we wrestle with and face…the stronger we grow as leaders and the better our organizations are for it.

When leaders are authentic, transparent, diligent, persistent, and act with clarity, foresight, integrity…these issues remain at the forefront and receive the attention that is necessary for an organization to move forward.  Which is the courage of leadership.  For it is when we are diligent, persistent, and deeply invested in our organization and those we serve, we are able to overcome these obstacles.  From which we are free to create an environment of excellence.

Feedback It Forward

“The intentions of our feedback serve to amplify the engagement or disengagement of the listener from the process.” 

Sitting in a recent meeting, progress on the agenda was being slowly overwhelmed in reaction to the level and frequency of feedback in the room.  It was becoming rather disconcerting and abrasive.  What started as a low buzz was turning into a raucous and piercing blare.  However, the disturbing feedback was not emanating from the attendees…rather, the annoying sound was deriving its volume from a disconnect between the microphones and the public announcement system in the room.  Funny, that two technical tools built to work in unison, can create such discord and wreak audible havoc.

And yet, we can create the same level of discord and havoc in our own organizations when we are not clear on what feedback is for and why we are using it.  When we are not clear on the goal and purpose of the feedback, we very often miss the mark and do more harm than good…

Feedback finds its effectiveness as much in the intention, as it does in the actuality of what is being said.  Meaning that there has to be clarity behind the observation offered.  Clarity in the intention of what you are trying to achieve.  When clarity does not exist, discord, chaos, and confusion are often not far behind.  Leaving what was initially used as a learning tool, as an obstacle and hindrance to ongoing learning and growth.  Which is why feedback must be a reflective and intentional process.  If it is to be effective and influential…for both sides.

Otherwise, if our feedback does not match our actions, lacks integrity to our intentions, or sends the wrong message to the listener…it be can be a distractor, or even an outright negative.

Feedback is often already met with avoidance because it has historically been provided only when negative behaviors or concerns about performance are observed or exist.  And even then, it is often provided in a staggered and awkward fashion.  Not very effective for supporting a continuum of learning and growth across an organization…or as a process that many want to engage in whole-heartedly.  And for those reasons, feedback often fails to create forward momentum.  It fails to hit its target.  To feed forward.

Feedback is most effective when it provides direction on how to move forward effectively…the learning for how to grow and improve.  According to Grant Wiggins, “The term feedback is often used to describe all kinds of comments made after the fact, including advice, praise, and evaluation.  But none of these are feedback, strictly speaking.”  “Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.” 

And unfortunately, when feedback fails to feed forward towards a goal, and when the intentions are found to be lacking…it ends up sounding very much like the feedback emanating from the public announcement system…an unwelcome, noisy racket to be deflected and/or tuned out.

As leaders…this becomes an arena for improvement, especially for the critical nature and importance of this strategy.  For, if we are to create and sustain ongoing learning and growth within our institutions and organizations, we need to be able to provide feedback that feeds forward.  That initiates growth and next steps towards a goal.  Otherwise, we become stagnant.  Stale.  Allowing organizational growth and learning to slowly recede and fade.

We need to acknowledge that people don’t crave evaluations or advice…however, they do crave feedback.  People want feedback related to their progress.  They want to know how they are doing.  They want to know how to be better, to learn and grow.  We all do.  It is human nature.  Understanding how to create and provide that feedback for those you lead is the best way to grow and improve your organization…from the inside out.  It is not just about assessing progress.  It is providing a continuum of progress that leads people forward.

And according to Grant Wiggins, there are seven keys to remember for making feedback effective, it needs to be”Goal-Referenced.  Tangible and Transparent.  Actionable.  User-Friendly.  Timely.  Ongoing.  Consistent.”  “Seven keys” that speak to the process being reflective and intentional on the part of the leader.

Remember, feedback has the power to engage or disengage.  To push people forward or drive them to check out.  It is often in the delivery.  It is all in the intention.  It is all in the purpose.  All of which must be transparent…as each of those will ultimately be perceived and ascertained by the listener, the receiver.

So determine before starting…what is your goal?  What is your purpose?  What is your feedback intended to achieve?  Start there and the chances of being successful and feeding growth and learning forward will most likely be realized.

 “All effective and engaging learning experiences provide frequent and meaningful feedback.  Without feedback on whether or not one is getting closer to a goal, progress is unlikely.”  -Unknown

References/Resources

Wiggins, Grant.  (2012)  Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.  ASCD Educational Leadership.  September Volume 70, Number 1, pgs. 10-16.

The Modern Day Multilingual Principal

“One of the most difficult organization’s to lead and create deep change within is education and school…since everyone has been through it, everyone believes they know best on how it should be done and look.”

Changing the culture of a school and be a very traumatic and difficult proposition.  Especially when trying to implement anything that is different or cutting edge.  Whether that be technology, strategies, structures, systems, or the environment.

But why?

An easy answer to the difficulty of the change in school comes in two parts; time and stakeholders.  Both of which are formidable in their own right.  However, they are two points that school leaders must face if they are going to create change and move our schools forward.

Let’s tackle time, first.  Very few, if any, organizations have employees who enter the profession with at least thirteen years of experience.  Thirteen years of ingraining practices and ideas of how school should be done.  Let alone, the other stakeholders that have most likely received those very same thirteen years of experience.  All of which make it very difficult to tackle issues of change around classroom environment, grading, homework, and/or infusing technology when people have a very set ideal on how school should look and be.  Neither easy or quick to overcome.

Second, very few, if any, other organizations have as many stakeholders that schools and school leaders are beholden too.  Most organizations and businesses have employees, customers, and investors.  And their product.  Three to four tiers of focus and input.

Whereas, schools and educational organizations respond to an ever-expanding range of stakeholders and input…which would include, but not be limited to:  students, parents, teachers, the community, district office, board of education, county offices of education, and city, state and federal agencies.  Just to name a few.

Not an easy task.  Rather, quite a formidable proposition on a daily basis.

Which is why it is crucial for a modern day principal to be multilingual.  Let’s look at ten of the different forms of discourse that a principal must be able to enact and employ, daily:

  • Leader:  A principal has to be able to lead change and serve as a change agent for their school. This requires a principal to understand and express the path forward with clarity.
  • Vision:  A vital job of the principal is to articulate and paint a picture of the future.  Of where the school is and where they want to go, and what they want to become…one that focuses everyone on that goal.
  • Community:  A principal has to be able to communicate effectively with the community; students, parents, and the variety of other stakeholders.  Creating wider alignment by bringing understanding to the mission, vision, and goals of the school.
  • Political:  The principal has to be able to understand their audience.  Whether that be the district office, the city, county, state, and federal officials, or the board of education.  Knowing your audience is crucial.
  • Instruction:  A principal has to be able to not only understand instruction and curriculum, but relay that understanding and the mission-critical goals as the instructional leader of the school.  To a variety of different audiences.
  • Evaluator:  A principal’s role also requires them to evaluate the work and progress of those within the school, both in a certificated and classified capacity.  Both verbally and in writing.  No easy task.
  • Statistician:  Today’s principal has to have a strong understanding of data and how to effectively utilize that data to support progress and next steps.  Including how to effectively relay that data to promote progress.
  • Business:  Like any organization, a school has fiscal responsibilities, which fall under the role of the principal.  Requiring the principal to have a strong understanding of budgets.  Principals have to create sound decisions around the use of their resources.  A principal has the responsibility to articulate the use of those funds to a variety of stakeholders.
  • Coach:  The principal is the coach.  They have to be able to inspire and support those they lead.  Motivation.  Feedback.  Support.  All very necessary for a successful principal.
  • Innovator:  Not only does the principal have to articulate the vision, they need to keep the pulse on those innovative strategies and technologies that might serve their school and school community well.  To be able to discuss and share what is on the horizon and how to possibly implement those innovations for the betterment of students and learning.

Just a few examples of why a modern day principal needs to be multilingual.  Their discourse must continually match their audience, which is no easy feat or task.  It takes skillful leadership.  Which is why…

Today’s principal must be equipped with an extensive leadership tool belt to meet the demands of their position.  One that requires great capacity for their ever-expanding roles and duties.

And while those duties and roles may be extensive, the rewards of serving and supporting such a vast array of stakeholders remains without compare.

The Elegant And The Dump Truck

“But without constraints, you have no forcing function, which makes you think deeply to simplify – and to innovate.”  -from Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators

To make something truly elegant, in form, function, and design, is an incredibly difficult matter.  It requires time, perseverance, pride of workmanship, and a real depth of understanding.  And very often, it requires issues of complexity being whittled down into their simplest form…to the very essence of their being.  It requires real artistry.

Whether that design resides in the environment, your offering, or your delivery and approach…a certain elegance should flow through your work at each of these levels.  In all that you do.  An authentic and honest appreciation and joy for the work should reverberate outward.

Adding that touch of elegance to what you do, what you provide, to its form, function, and design is the outward projection of a person’s love for their work.  For what they do and provide.

Which is why taking something from the complex to the simple is real artistry.  Often the most complex process of all.  Requiring deep understanding of what you are doing and what you are trying to provide.  According to Jonathan Ive…“Simplicity isn’t just a visual style.  It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter.  It involves digging through the depth of the complexity.  To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.”

Which means that simplicity is never simple.  It is often a convoluted and difficult process of trial and error to take something down to its very essence, to its very core.  As Jonathan Ive further expounds…“Different and new is relatively easy.  Doing something that’s genuinely better is very hard.”

Which is why design has garnered such importance in recent times.  In all that we do.  Especially in transforming from your current reality to the vision.  Creating and leading change is more than just implementing new initiatives, ideas, technology…it requires a deep understanding of what is being implemented and how.  Which is the elegance.  Whittling the complex down to its essence, its core.  Or as Jonathan Ive asserts…“Making the solution seem so completely inevitable and obvious, so uncontrived and natural – it’s so hard.”

The reality we have to face is that we live in a time where the information pipeline comes at full blast.  A virtual downpour of data.  Opened wide and always aimed at us.  As leaders we have to be aware that we are not turning that same pipeline on our people.  Avoiding the information and data dump truck.

Leadership, then, is not only about creating elegance and simplicity in the form and function of what we provide…it is also understanding and acknowledging what we need to stop doing.  What we need to take off the plate to allow those we lead to focus on the essential, the important…that which provides the greatest value towards the vision.

Rather than the urgent, the short-term, and reactionary.

Which is incredibly prevalent in leadership at this very moment.  Very often we choose the dump truck over creating elegant simplicity.  Which convolutes and overwhelms.  Hiding the essential, the critical goals.  Distorting any form of alignment across the institution and organization.

And when leaders are reactionary to the plethora of initiatives and mandates…when our work is hurried and surface-level…when we focus on short-term over long-term…we circumvent elegant simplicity and real clarity.  Choosing a dump truck approach that buries any organization in clutter and disorder.  Spending our time doing everything, rather than the right thing.

Which requires doing different.  Or as Jonathan Ive discusses…“The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured.  You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

It is this approach to your leadership that will eventually determine if the most important and essential goals of your institution and organization are understood and met.  And your leadership will determine the clarity of these goals and how able your people are to move forward effectively.

You have to consider whether those you lead welcome you in for the clarity you provide to the vision and goals of the organization…Or do they run for cover as they hear the “beep, beep, beep” of your dump truck backing up to bury them in a heap of clutter.

Welcome your thoughts?  Ideas?

(This post is just a few of the thoughts rattling around in my head as we wrestle with implementation of the Common Core State Standards.)

Which Direction Is Your Compass Pointing?

“A leaders perspective is often an organization’s destiny…how are you shaping and creating that perspective?

Each one of us has a leadership compass within us.  A navigational point from which we derive our direction and next steps.  Our points of reference.  Up.  Down.  Across.  Within.  All of which are necessary, yet seldom do we see all utilized.

Rather, we have a tendency to lean in to those directions that we find favorable…while searching out alternative, less adverse routes when our leadership compass points us in a more challenging

However, if we are going to have true influence as a leader, we have to be able to lead where the compass is pointing.

Yet, we struggle with and avoid a crucial direction for which we seldom think we have any influence – Up.

We fail to realize that we have a responsibility to influence Up.  We have a responsibility to our leaders and to our organization.  When we influence Up, we are showing that we value the organization, the leaders, and those within.

Unfortunately, many leaders spend less time focusing their energy Up than they do complaining and venting frustrations about what is occurring above.  The decisions made.  The direction taken.  The vision created.

It is when we realize that we have the ability, opportunity, and responsibility to influence Up…that we begin to find a way past those obstacles.  We begin to push our influence out.

And not only do we realize our responsibility and role in influencing Up…but we acknowledge that we ourselves need to open to the influence of others in our organization.  A realization that serves as a catalyst for creating trust.  A catalyst for empowering others.  A catalyst to create leaders within the organization.

However, it requires a reflective, responsive, even humble leader that can be open to the influence of others.  But, think of how much more ground you can cover when you are willing to lead and be led.

Which begs the question…Who are influencing?  And who are you allowing and empowering to influence you?

(A special thank you to Diamond Six and Mike Breen for the inspiration for this post)