Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

Greatness is often in the smallest of details.

The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff”, is one that has stuck with me for a long time and something that I have honestly worked on a lot as a leader and a person.  The “small stuff” can get to you, and sometimes you have to let it go.

On the other hand though, sometimes you need to sweat the small stuff.

I was talking with a former superintendent, who was also an athlete, and he was discussing the sport of swimming.  He said that swimming was an amazing sport because it is about who can do the movements perfect, fastest.  Every little detail in swimming is crucial to success.

So I started to think about how I present and the slides I create.  There is a consistency in the font.  I prefer using Keynote because it allows me to better manipulate videos on when they start, and how quiet or loud they are.  The design process of creating the keynote is almost as important as the delivery, and it is something that I put a lot of focus on. Does it really matter if one slide is in “Georgia” font and the other is in “Times New Roman”? To me it does.

I love this quote on design from Steve Jobs on the things you might not even see:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Sometimes the small stuff is the difference between “good” and “great”.

So what about the small stuff in the terms of leadership?  At one point, the small stuff could be the thing that keeps you up at night.  You will sometimes have people upset with a decision, but if it is based on the focus of “what is best for kids”, then you will have to let it go, or else those “small things” will get to you.

But the “small stuff”, such as making sure you learn student names, go visit teachers, taking time to get to know your community, might seem like little things, but they are the small things that lead to excellence.  In no educational leadership competencies does it tell you that you need to go out of your way to know the names of all the students of your school.  But that seemingly overlooked idea can be all of the difference in your school.

I truly believe that if you are an educator, whether an administrator or teacher, that every single student or teacher you pass in the hallway, you acknowledge in some way, whether you teach them or not.  Going out of your way to talk to a student, might seem “small” to you, but it could be a world of difference to a student that day.  The “small stuff”, sometimes is the most important stuff we do; we have to learn when focusing on the little things will make all of the difference.

Greatness is often in the smallest of details.

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Blogging for Staff Professional Learning

I have been really thinking about the idea of using social media to make local impact, not just global.  It is easy to get caught up in the opportunity to connect with classrooms around the world, that we sometimes forget about the teacher across the hall.

A little realization I had this morning when I received a comment on my blog post, “Does Brainstorming Lead to Innovation?“, was how often we are not asked to really think and dissect  something before we get together at a staff.  Often, people are asked to read articles or excerpts, but how often are we asked to share our thoughts prior in some sort of open reflection? This makes all of us smarter, not just the person reflecting.

From the original post, John Spencer shared his thoughts by writing, “Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming“. Comments on the post shared subtle pushback, or alternatives as well.  What was important was the time to dissect, and actually share something that would be seen by others, ultimately helping people think more critically about their responses.

Clive Thompson

So what if we were to do this?

The week before (maybe more, maybe less) a professional learning opportunity, we had a school/staff blog that had an idea that was going to be discussed with staff.  People would be encouraged to write, create, write a comment on the original, or do whatever they wanted to respond, as long as it was linked back to the original.  This way, you are not limited to one person’s point of view, but are open to learning from others.  Would this not make for a much richer discussion that dives deeper into learning when we would actually connect face-to-face with one another?

My view on brainstorming has changed simply because people were willing to take the time and share their thoughts and ideas.  If you read them, not one of them challenged me, but challenged the ideas that were shared.  That’s the power of a blog.  What is important is to not only give people the opportunity to share their thoughts, but also give them time to create and connect their own learning.  Obviously, the hope for any professional learning is that this trickles down into the classroom with our students, and I think this could be a powerful way to really dive in deep to our own thinking, as well as the thinking of others, in our buildings and organizations.

Do the best leaders really just leave people alone?

Once you stop learning, you start

I often ask educators what qualities they like most in their administrator, and the following statement really makes me cringe:

They just leave me alone and let me do what I want.

First of all, I understand the needs for both trust and autonomy and how it is essential to motivation, but there is also a larger purpose to what we do in schools.  If we truly believe that schools are greater as a group than simply individuals, simply “leaving people alone” is probably not the best approach.

I think about the best leaders that I have ever had, and how they have balanced this approach of trust and autonomy, while providing strong mentorship.  This is not necessarily in telling you things to do, but often by pushing your thinking and abilities through asking questions, and challenging perceptions, without micro-managing.  I have always craved mentorship in whatever role that I have taken, and find that I do much better when I have someone who is pushing me in my work.  I love the idea that “if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” (often attributed to Michael Dell).  We only get better when we find those that truly elevate us.  Leaders are meant to unleash talent, not control it.

If you think that you have outgrown leadership, what are you doing to continue that growth? Books and blogs are great to push your thinking, but in my opinion, they never beat the conversations you can have others.  Great leaders not only create spaces where they challenge your thinking, but they encourage you to do the same with themselves.  That is part of what makes them great leaders.

Early on in my career, I remember asking my mentor teacher what I needed to do to meet the highest standards of my internship.  She would give me space to make my own mistakes, but she was also always there to not only encourage me, but to ask questions, and push thinking as well.  It was such a great experience that I can’t imagine doing it another way.

I love the following quote:

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Albert Einstein

If we just want our leaders to “get out of the way”, it may suggest that we are either not really open to learning or perhaps, we might be in the wrong room. Neither situation is beneficial to our own development.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

My idea of a leader or an administrator when I was starting early on in my career, was that they were “all knowing”, like some type of “Wizard of Oz” figure.  What I realized was that not only was this not possible, but something is actually lost when we do not feel comfortable to say “I don’t know”.  I have noticed some administrators, when told of a new idea, feel the need to say, “I thought of that a long time ago”, are playing a game where they feel the need to always assert their status as “leader”, when in fact, it actually disconnects.

Think of the difference between saying, “I had already thought of that idea”, as opposed to, “I never thought of that…that is a really great idea”.  Essentially you are not only giving power over (which some are afraid of losing), but you are showing value in the ideas of others.

With a lot of things that I have found myself thinking about, I am not as much “black or white”, as I am somewhere in the middle of grey.  Lately, I have more questions than answers, but the point is that I am trying to understand new and complicated ideas. “Not knowing” is part of this journey.

This post was inspired by Dean Shareski’s latest blog posts on having conversations, where he keeps using the word “trust”, which is needed to really go deeper into our own learning.  This tweet nicely summarizes some of my thoughts on the topic:

Think of that student that is in your class, that tells you something, to which you respond, “I did not know that! Thanks for sharing that with me.” Once they realize they were able to teach something new to the person of “authority” in the room, it creates a much more powerful dynamic in the relationship.  Adults are no different, especially when they feel they can teach the “expert” something that they didn’t know.  To gain trust, we have to give up power.

Empathy is crucial in developing the innovator’s mindset, and that takes listening, and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint, while being able and open to learn from them as well.  It is not about who can shout the loudest, but often who can listen best. Being open to learning from others, is crucial to our own development.

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Being able to say, “I don’t know” and being willing to be able to go find out, is much more conducive to building relationships than “I already knew that”.  Great leaders often show vulnerability, which in turn, helps develop teams that feel their contributions are not only valued, but necessary. Learning organizations value learning together over learning from one. Saying “I don’t know”, is crucial to not only our own curiosity, but shows an authenticity that helps to build relationships with those that we serve.

 

Are you willing to take the hit?

I was recently listening to a Seth Godin podcasts regarding “Startups“, and it reminded me of something earlier in my life. Having grown up playing any sport I could try at a young age, I at one time played baseball. It was not my favorite sport nor was I particularly any good, but it was something to do in the summer. Like most young kids, it started with TeeBall, and then a coach throwing, followed by kids allowing to pitch.

As I got older, I remember one pitcher who threw so fast, yet so wild. Nights before the game against his team, I would stay up all night worried about getting hit hard by a pitch, like I saw so many others going through. I remember thinking, “I really don’t like this sport that much to get hit in the head”, and at the end of the season, I quit.

Godin used the analogy about his own childhood in Buffalo playing hockey, and he described three ideas that stick out to him if you are going to be successful.

It helps if you know what to do.
Are you able to do it?
Do you care enough to get hit?

To be successful, we know that it takes hard work and to develop skill in any area, but we rarely mention and focus on the “hits” that we could take. Every time I write a blog post, I’m vulnerable to criticism and pushback, but I want to develop in what I do because I am passionate about my work.

I watch young Vine celebrities with millions of followers, get criticized often simply because they make videos. Brandon Bowen talked about some of the taunts he received about his weight, and he simply said “I just block out the haters”, and continued to do what he loves.  I am sure that it is something that sticks with him, but not to the point where he would quit.

Anything worth doing is going to be risky and open to criticism. Sometimes justified and sometimes simply because of  schadenfreude. But I love the following saying:

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That’s why I have never really focused on celebrating “failure”, but on grit and resiliency, as on any journey you will take a couple of hits, and fall a few times, but as the movie character Rocky famously said,

“But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits…”

Sometimes we have to realize that some of the hits we have taken are not worth it, not because we are weak, but maybe it’s just not something we love. Sometimes quitting shows more bravery than continuing to do something you don’t love. But if you truly are passionate about something, don’t let falling down keep you from getting back up to do what you love.

The “Sponge” Factor

I learned a lot from my days as a basketball referee.  Although the environment was quite collaborative, as great referees work as a team on the court, there was also a lot of competition in the field.  The best referees would get higher level games, based on their consistent performance in games.

One of the things that I found interesting was the half time feedback referees would receive from evaluators.  Having between 10-15 minutes during a break in the next half, there was no time to mince words.  Evaluators could often be blunt and sometimes brutal in their feedback.  They needed you to correct your work now, and they didn’t have time for you to embrace their feedback.  The feedback given was not to be mean or harsh, but to make you better.

The interesting thing about this is that you could have two refs in a game, with one perhaps being a better quality at the beginning than the other, but what the evaluators would look at was not how good you were at the beginning, but how teachable you were by the end.  If feedback was given in the first half, they expected you to implement in the second.  Sometimes it wouldn’t work for a referee, but what the evaluators looked for was the willingness to take feedback and give the learning a shot.  You may not have been perfect in your first try, but your willingness to learn would surely improve your performance as a referee.  The ability to be a “sponge” was crucial.

This “sponge” factor is crucial for educators.  I have often said that I am much more comfortable working with a teacher that is willing to learn and grow than one who thinks that they have “mastered” teaching.  Things will change in education and society, and one that is not willing to evolve in their practice, will eventually become irrelevant.  It may not be next year or the following year, but it will come eventually.  The person that is willing to continuously learn and evolve will always stay relevant.  Yet there are people in all fields, that will totally listen to feedback, nod their head in agreement, and go back to what they have always done.  There is a difference between “hearing” or being “open” to feedback.

As educators are currently interviewing for positions, one of the questions that I have asked in interviews before was, “Tell me an area where you received feedback, and what did you do to improve.”  This question promotes a vulnerability that is needed to be an educator that we are not  a “know-it-all” but that we are willing to learn.  This willingness to embrace turnaround learning is crucial to growth, which is not only being open to feedback, but doing something because of the feedback you have received.

Change will happen regardless of our own personal growth. Are we open to your own evolution?

Cloned Leadership

In my first interview for a position as an assistant principal, I remember talking to the principal and thinking that we couldn’t be any more different. We actually argued in the interview, and I walked away accepting of the fact that I wouldn’t be getting the job anytime soon.

A few days later I was hired by that same principal and it forever changed my thinking.

Were we more alike than I had initially thought? Yes and no. We both wanted what was best for kids, but our beliefs on how to get there had differed in many ways. That’s actually why I was hired in the first place. Our diversity and willingness to embrace the differences of one another ensured that we did not create an environment of “cloned leadership”; leaders hiring people that simply think and act like they do . Some people felt more comfortable talking to me as the assistant principal, and some felt more comfortable talking to him as well. We supported each other always, but our differences helped more people to connect with us in the building.

When I became a principal, my first action was to hire someone who I knew would disagree with me yet wanted to ensure we had the wellbeing of students driving their decision-making. My constant pursuit of the best answer, as opposed to my answer, made this hire crucial. When you hire someone who you know will challenge you, it can become extremely frustrating, yet it is crucial to growth. If someone doesn’t push our thinking and beliefs, how do we become better?

Yet I still observe many leaders that are looking for “yes” people; they simply agree with one another and challenges, although encouraged, don’t happen. Divergent thinking is crucial to innovation, yet too many leaders hire clones of themselves. When you have two (or more) administrators that aren’t willing to challenge one another, it often creates a culture where others don’t feel comfortable challenging ideas either, as there seems to be only one acceptable way forward.

I still believe that the best thing I ever did as a principal was to ensure that my first hire would be someone who challenged my thinking and would not always agree with me. It’s unfortunate that too many organizations take the opposite approach. Discomfort and challenge is crucial (and necessary) to achieve growth.

Fitting Into the Same Standardized Hole

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Albert Einstein

I was having a really interesting conversation with a parent about technology and the thought that it is leading to the decline of intelligence.  She shared with me her belief that many students struggled with reading and writing because of a dependence of use on things such as spell check, and that kids just didn’t seem as “smart” as we were in our youth.  Then she asked me about where she could learn more about this idea, and I simply said “Twitter”.  She responded that she had no idea how to use it, to which I asked her, “Do you think some kids could show you?”  Obviously she responded with the answer “yes”, to which I replied, “to some of those kids, they would think you are the dumb one.”

I didn’t say this to berate her in any manner, but to challenge her thinking that sometimes we base someone’s intelligence on the information we value, not necessarily on what they value and/or know.  To the person that can fix my car, I see them as a genius.  I honestly don’t know if they finished high school or what their grades were, but looking at them as someone who is expert in an area that I have no clue.  Because you know something that I don’t doesn’t make me less intelligent, and vice versa.  We all have different strengths and knowledge, but the question we should focus on is how do we tap into people, instead of trying to fit different shaped pegs into a single standardized hole?

That’s why I look to people like Chris Wejr, who not only focus on developing strengths into students, but also in staff.  Staff that are recognized and encouraged to develop their strengths, also treat their students with the same regard.  So instead of focusing on what people don’t know, schools would benefit from focusing on what they do know and helping them develop those strengths as long with their weaknesses.

It is easy to constantly focus on what is lacking, but it also loses people along the way who do not feel valued.  Knowing and tapping into someone’s strengths often leads to the confidence and competence to learn in other areas.  As learners, we are individuals, and should always be treated as such.

There Should Be More than One “Lead Learner”

(Note…based on the first few comments I wanted to update the post to reflect my VERY strong belief that principals/superintendents should model their learning.  It has been updated below and I appreciate the pushback that helped me to communicate my thoughts!)

The term “Lead Learner” has been one that has been thrown around a lot by superintendents, principals, and other people at the top of the traditional hierarchy, mostly in reference to themselves.  As a principal, I actually used the term referring to myself in a blog post I wrote in January 2011, and am not sure where I heard it, or just used it on a whim.  What I do know now though is that I am reluctant to using the term when talking about a principal or superintendent, and I rarely (if ever) have heard someone else call their principal or superintendent the “lead learner”.  Does that say something about the term?

I do however, understand why it is being used so often though.  Principals, superintendents, and other traditional “bosses” see their roles changing, and see this as part of flattening the organization, or at least that is how I saw it when I first used it.  I wanted to model that I was a learner just like everyone else in my school, and, as Chris Kennedy would say,  I wanted to be “elbows deep in learning” with them.  The reality though is that the term still refers to one person being in an authority position, and for me now, evokes the ideas that the principal is seen as the “holder of all knowledge”.  This was not how my school worked at all.  There were not only people who knew a lot more than me in many areas, but they were also more passionate about going deeper in the topic.  I was definitely not the “lead learner” in many areas, nor did I want to be.  If you think about it, in any school a “lead learner” could be in any area, and can be any person, and is often our own students.  In a culture where “everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner”, the term “lead learner” could and should be applied to many.

The role of principal is evolving, but I also know that some people need the principal to be the principal.  There is a point where people need to know that in tough situations, they can count on someone to back them up and be there for them.  I had many principals step in for me when I didn’t know what to do, or supported me in tough situations.  I didn’t need them to be the “lead learner”, I needed them to be the principal.  Great leaders don’t get consensus on all decisions, but sometimes have to make the tough ones on their own.  This comes as part of the role and sometimes it is important to know who to go to when there is a struggle.

The title does not necessarily make the role, only how you do it.  

Yet words mean something and if we are truly to create a culture where all people can step up and explore their passions and we believe that everyone has the potential to lead and bring out their best, the term “lead learner” should never be reserved for one person.

Should the principal/superintendent still openly share their learning?  Absolutely.  With technology now, that is easier than ever, but note I used the term “model” their learning.  Administrators have been learning forever but it was hard to communicate and share their learning on an ongoing basis.  That being said, there is a difference between a “leader that learns” and a “lead learner”, as one creates the notion that there is a “top learner”, where we should create an environment that in organizations, both inside and outside, learning by all is essential to success.

Drown or swim?

As always, it is an honour to work with schools and school boards to share my learning with them, and in return, learn from their ideas as well.  I always encourage push-back in my sessions because I want to create an atmosphere where we all get better, including myself.  The challenges are crucial to our development as learning organizations.

Recently, I worked with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and we talked about changing learning and learning environments. What was really special about this day was that there were several high school students in the room as part of the day.  During the first part of the morning, I went and talked to the students and asked them on their thoughts about different things (should teachers use twitter with them, ideas on snapchat, what their learning looks like) and the conversation was so amazingly rich.  As I talked to them, I shared some of the ideas that I was going to present on, but asked them to think critically about what I shared and challenge me after in front of the group.  If I am talking about opportunities for students in learning, it is imperative that I ask them about their opinions and pushback.

What was really inspiring to me was one of the students talked about how it wasn’t really a great idea to use Twitter with students before I talked.  By the end though, she was advocating it’s use to her teachers, because she had seen used in a different way.  I was almost in tears listening to her as she was open to learning and new ideas, and then advocated for herself for something new.

Another amazing moment was when a student advocated that we spend more time on “life” and less time on school (I almost cheered out loud!).  The analogy that he used for the idea of social media was pretty profound.  He said (paraphrased),

“Social media is like water because it is everywhere in our life.  We can ignore it and watch kids drown, or we can teach kids how to swim.  Which way are you going to go?”

Wow.

I was deeply moved by this experience and I thought to myself, why do we not do this more?  We are talking so much about “what is best for kids”, without any kids in the room.  Innovation has no age barrier, and it is important we not only bring them into the conversation, but tap into their brilliance.  How often are we asking kids to be a part of our workshops or “talks”, and not only telling them to be a part of the conversation, but openly telling them to challenge us?  This should be the norm, not the exception.

If any of those students are reading this post, I just want to thank you for your inspiration and ideas.  I hope you know how much your words were appreciated.

(P.S. Here is my #30SecondReflection on the day below.  I am wanting to do this more to push my own learning.)