Leadership is a team sport. It is not about what one person does, but instead the cumulative actions of everyone in an organization. Sure, a leader has to make some pretty important decisions at times that might require bypassing consensus or collaboration, but those are few and far between when you look at the big picture. Success requires broad embracement of ideas where people are motivated to change because they want to, not necessarily because they are forced to. It’s both a two-way street and a give and takes relationship. Effective leaders rely on the expertise of others regardless of where they are in the organizational hierarchy. The best leaders surround themselves with intrinsically motivated individuals who will not only perform at a high level with little oversight but will also push the leader to reflect and grow continually. One of the most important decisions a leader can make is either through hiring new employees or placing current staff in a position to lead change even if he or she doesn’t have a specific title. Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Don’t ever think you have the best ideas or answers because you don’t. If you work with someone who thinks he or she does, then that person is not a leader. Leadership means we must be willing to check our pride at the door if leading change and success are the ultimate goals.
Always try to hire or surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. This should be the most natural part of a two-step process. The next step requires giving up some control and trust. It is this next step where great leaders get out of the way of people who have been empowered for their respective expertise. When I think back to my time as a principal, I tried hard to embody this. When a math position opened many years ago, I hired Kanchan Chellani. She didn’t tell me what to do per se, but little did she know that her actions did. Her ability to effectively implement and model flipped learning in a pedagogically-sound way sent the message to me as a leader that I needed to work better to support the rest of the math department in this area. Another great example was the hiring of Laura Fleming. I desperately needed an innovative leader in the library who could transform the space in a quick amount of time. She hit the ground running and had full control over her budget and the autonomy to make any decision related to the space that would benefit our learners. Successfully launching a makerspace was what she is known for, but her real impact was how she empowered learners regardless of labels and perceived abilities to find success in ways that they never had. Laura not only transformed the space but her actions and resolve helped to transform the entire learning culture of the school and ultimately the district. Her creation of a micro-credential platform came well before any companies began to monetize them and pushed our teachers to learn in different ways regardless of time or place. Being told what to do can come in many forms. Laura and Kanchan represented just two of the many teachers that I hired as a principal who indirectly told me what I should do through their actions. There were also may other teacher leaders, as well as members of my admin team, who were not only wicked smart but also leveraged the professional relationship they had with me to guide me in a better direction at times. Depending on others for guidance and wisdom is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it a definitive sign of strength. Effective leadership relies on making smart decisions. Make it easy on yourself. Hire or surround yourself with smart people, get out of their way, and don’t be afraid to let them “tell” you what to do. You need these people in your circle if you want to succeed as a leader.
"A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle." - James Keller The other day I headed out to run some errands. It is common practice for me to use this time listening to a variety of radio stations. If there is any talk between the disc jockeys (are they even still called this) or commercials I quickly press the tuning button to get some real music playing. As I fiddled around on this particular day, I couldn’t find anything in particular that piqued my listening interests. After searching and searching, I just settled on my favorite Houston station hoping that when a song began to permeate from the car speakers that it would be something I liked. Well since it was a weekday morning, dialogue between the on-air personalities persisted. I was about to change the station yet again out of frustration but the story they began to share caught my attention. Firefighters and first responders were sent to the home of a Florida man who had suffered a heart attack while laying new sod down on his property. As the man was being treated he kept carrying on about the fact that he had to finish the job as the grass would quickly dry up and die if it was not installed and watered. The firefighters and first responders were like “Come on dude, you just had a heart attack. Your life is more important than grass.” The man continued to carry on and eventually let it be known why he was so worried about getting the job done. Apparently, he had recently been warned by his local Home Owners Association (HOA) to fix his grass or suffer a fine. Being that my wife and I are part of an HOA we can attest to the fact that we get stupid letters threatening fines all the time. Who knew though that HOAs could stress people out to the point where they continue to worry even after suffering a heart attack? The firefighters and first responders were utterly dumbfounded during this ordeal but patiently worked to treat the man and desperately tried to get him into the ambulance. All he could still think about was getting the sod installed and avoiding the fine. Eventually, the man’s wife persuaded her husband to get in the ambulance as she assured him that her brother would come over and finish the job. The man who suffered the heart attack was finally on the way to the hospital to get real treatment. Now comes the good part. After getting the man to the hospital each firefighter and first responder went back to the man’s house and worked side by side with his brother-in-law until the job was done entirely. WOW! This selfless act is not only inspirational, but it also provides an opportunity for us to reflect on our purpose in life.
Don’t pursue perfection. Pursue growth. One area where there are continuous opportunities for growth is selflessness. Pulled from an article titled How The Power of Selflessness Can Transform Our Lives here is was what we could learn and take away from partaking in this act.
"Selflessness means we act without thought for how we will profit or be rewarded. If we give help to others but expect recognition or the favor to be returned, this is not a selfless action. True selflessness means we would do the action, even if it were never known to anyone else. Selflessness means we identify with others. Our service to others is not an act of condescending charity; our action is motivated by a feeling of oneness. We help others because we identify with their problems and their suffering. Selflessness is its own reward."
Random acts of kindness will not just make you feel good, but also those who you help out. To create a better world for our learners and ourselves, we need to begin by modeling it at the individual level. In the words of Aesop, "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." Below are some more of my thoughts:
Conversations on effective leadership are varied although they focus more or less on the same general points, yet in different contexts. One saying revolves around the notion that the buck stops with the leader. This is true in the case of important decisions that have to be made because that is just the nature of certain positions. Gathering input from a variety of stakeholder groups is vital if the goal is to initiate and sustain transformative change. Abusing authority, not listening, or going at it alone will not lead to embracement of new ideas and strategies to move a learning culture forward. I remember as a principal in 2010 my pursuit of a tool that I wanted to purchase to improve communications with parents and students. A focus on growth in this area was central to our overall goal of building better relationships. Even though I had been using Twitter for over a year by this time to do just this, the embracement by my staff as a whole just wasn’t where I wanted it to be. This new tool seemed like the perfect solution to help scale efforts to accomplish this goal. The premise was simple. My staff would be able to streamline communications with parents and students alike, and there would be an expectation to use the service each day. I was so excited about the possibilities and couldn’t wait to present it to my staff and get their approval. Now I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty about the functionality of the tool. That is not the point of this post. What I want to discuss is how my staff reacted. I thought this was a slam dunk going into the meeting. In my mind, the majority was going to celebrate the fact that I was investing in a tool that would significantly support them all. Then reality slapped me right in the face. I would say that at least half of them were entirely against the adoption of this tool. I’m not going to lie. I was a bit uneasy with some of the adverse reactions that were shared. Instead of reacting myself, I listened and took notes focusing on legitimate concerns. A few of the gripes were ridiculous, but many of the comments were valid. Instead of just listening and then making the decision to move forward because I thought it was best, I wrapped up the meeting by telling my staff that I would reflect on the conversation we had as a group. It was also reiterated that I appreciated their feedback. If you truly listen to anyone you then take the time to reflect on what was said. I went back to my notes from the meeting and compared the concerns my staff raised to the positives that I saw. It was a tough decision. In the end, it came down to making a decision that would best serve everyone, including parents and students.
In the end, I decided that adopting a communications tool for all my staff to use daily was not in the best interests of the school. Upon reflection, I saw validity in many of their points as well as alternatives to still achieve the outlined goal. To successfully lead change across schools, districts, and systems we must not rush to judgment if the situation does not require it. Getting into the habit of listening, reflecting, and then deciding goes a long way towards creating a culture of trust and empowerment. By improving our listening skills, we can become better communicators in our respective positions while simultaneously building better relationships with students, colleagues, and other stakeholders. Taking the time to reflect before, and even after, decisions lead to improved performance. How one indicates is a personal decision, but it is something that must become a part of routine practice across all aspects of leadership. There is nothing easy about leading change. Sometimes it requires taking a deep breath or gaining the perspective of others to avoid making a rash decision. Always keep in mind that leadership is not about what is best for one person, but instead the collective. When it comes to leadership.....Listen intently, spend time reflecting, then make the best decision. Below are some more of my thoughts:
More and more schools are either installing or improving WiFi networks in schools. We still have a long way to go in many places, but the increase in access provides kids with an array of innovative learning opportunities that continue to evolve. With a pedagogy first, technology second if appropriate, approach to instructional design, educators can begin to support and enhance lessons with an array of tools. Sites like Common Sense Education and edshelf make it easy to find the right alignment to the right instructional strategy. However, if a well-designed assessment is in place, then the natural course of action is to allow learners to select the best tool for the task. Even though the cost of mobile devices has gone down, considerable purchasing challenges persist. With that being said I do want to share a pretty cool and practical idea I stumbled upon during one of my coaching visits with Wells Elementary School. As I was conducting some learning walks with the admin team I noticed some kindergarten students in Deborah Weckerly’s class engaged in blended learning activities using smartphones. As a successful Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) campus, I wouldn’t have been surprised if in fact some of the students were learning with devices that they had brought in from home. Knowing though that it is never safe to assume, I asked Deborah if the kids were using their own devices. She laughed and said no in a way that affirmed the apparent observation that these students were kindergarteners. I was then left wondering why I even assumed that they might have brought devices to school. Since the kids weren’t bringing in the devices, I inquired as to how they made it into the classroom. Deborah then showed me a basket that had at least five devices in it at the time but held a total of eight or so when full. She then explained that over the years she had asked her family and friends to donate older smartphones for use in her class instead of trading them in for cash or towards an upgrade. I thought this was a genius idea! She now had enough devices connected to the district’s secure WiFi network to support individual or station-rotation blended learning.
For many learning activities, it’s not the device that matters but instead what learners can do with access to an array of interactives accessible on the Web. I can relate to this as well. As my wife was preparing to upgrade her iPhone, she asked me if I wanted to as well. I thought about this briefly until settling on just inheriting her older 6 Plus. For what I use my smartphone for all I needed was a right amount of storage and the ability to access the Internet for the few apps that I depend on regularly. Innovative educators like Deborah Weckerly are always looking for ways to improve the learning experience for kids. Regardless of your position, think about reaching out to your family and friends to acquire mobile devices before they are ready to upgrade. These tools can then be used as part of pedagogically sound blended learning or used to support BYOT initiatives where students forget to bring their device or do not have one of their own. In the end, it is essential to always look for ways to improve access and ensure equity so that all learners are provided with a relevant and challenging learning experience. For more mobile learning resources check out this Pinterest board.
Imagine if only everything went as planned in life. If this was the case, I am not sure that there would be any lengthy discussion on a growth vs. fixed mindset. As we are all acutely aware, even if you diligently take into account many potential variables, things might not still work out. When this happens, it is not only frustrating, but it also impacts our psyche resulting in apprehension to try something new or different in the future. The saying what gets planned gets done still holds water to some extent. However, the outcome might be impacted in a way that motivation to continue to innovate is tempered or even drowned. Planning aside, there is another inhibitory element lurking in every organizational culture including education, and that is excuses. We all face challenges in the professional workplace such as not enough time, lack of funds, socioeconomics, limited support, too many initiatives or mandates, lack of collaboration, naysayers, and antagonists, to list a few. Now I am not saying that anything contained in the previous sentence is not a legit challenge. They most certainly are, and we have to work even harder and more diligently to find workable solutions to overcome them. My concern is when challenges that will always be present in some form or another morph into excuses. It is excuses that hold us back. So why is it a part of human nature to make excuses? I like this summary provided by Forever Conscious:
There are times when we may find ourselves in the midst of a life crisis, experiencing issues with employment or with money, with health, or relationships. No matter what the situation, using it as an “excuse” can only last so long. Eventually, these excuses become habits and patterns that may forever hold us back if we don’t address them. The most common reason we use excuses, however, is when there is some programming in our subconscious mind that makes us feel that we are not good enough, or not smart enough, or not talented enough to have what it is we want. It is through this line of thinking that we start viewing these external situations or events as excuses for why we can’t do what we want to do.
What struck me about the summary above is that if we continue to make excuses, they can become a habit. This can prohibit us from developing a growth mindset and instead keep it in a perpetually fixed state. To overcome this potential trap, we must either find or further expand our purpose as it relates to what we do. In the words of comedian Michael Junior, “When you know your why, your what has more impact, because you are walking in or towards your purpose.”
With a firm grasp on our purpose, it is easier to approach challenges with a “what if” attitude instead of “yeah but” disposition. The former is what epitomizes a growth mindset and provides the needed motivation to move innovative change forward even if the desired outcome is not guaranteed. Think about how important this shift in thinking is when it comes to helping our learners find success. All kids have greatness hidden inside of them. It is the calling of all educators to help them find and unleash it. A “what if” approach looks beyond any challenges to assist kids that need it the most. It also helps to unlock our potential and hidden talents. Celebrate where you are and what you have accomplished, but never become complacent. The pursuit of being where you ultimately need and want to be is a never-ending journey. We need to focus on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts” to help get our learners and ourselves to the desired destination.