Lead AND Get Out of the Way (24/365)

many sheep jammed together

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

So much of last night’s EduCon Educator Panel has me thinking, and I’ll likely be reflecting on it for the next few weeks. One thing, though, was still sticking to my brain pretty tightly when I woke up this morning.

When the panelists were asked what stands in the way of nurturing and encouraging curiosity in their schools and school systems, there was a reference to whatever level or levels of the systems were above them. This won’t be surprising to anyone who’s tried to elicit or spark change in education.

The Feds, the State, the District, the Principal, the Department Chair, the Teacher – each is invoked as the obstruction, preventing the change and the doing of the work. Each level in the hierarchy points to those running the level above as the reason they can’t get done what they want to get done.

What came through in the conversation last night is the recognition that someone is pointing at you in that hierarchy and shining light on the ways in which you are the obstruction to getting things done.

In each of the examples of effective nurturing of curiosity in their educational spaces the panelists offered last night, the move to create that example was preceded by two questions.

In what ways am I an obstruction to someone else’s good idea?
How do I get out of the way?

In thinking through how she could help her district team open up professional development as opportunities for teachers to activate their own sense of wonder, Rafranz could easily have pointed to the office and educators a few rungs up the ladder and said, “Here are the dozen institutional policies that are holding back.” Instead, she considered the policies and elements of culture for which she was responsible and found a way to get out of the way of those pointing up at her as the reason they couldn’t do or try X.

The best leaders I’ve followed have done this. They’ve acted as a filter between those above them who were handing down requirements and administrative mandates. They weighed each against the likelihood it would get in the way of those for whom they were responsible being able to do their work. This filtering had the dual effect of giving us have more space to be creative in our practice and ensuring us when something was brought to us from the higher ups it actually necessitated our attention.

It had a third effect as well. It modeled for us the importance of asking, “Whose obstruction am I, and how can I get out of their way?”

Leading from the Back

This piece from Ed Batista has me thinking about the kinds if leaders we need in the classroom. Batista’s point is well taken. Those who rise to leadership roles in organizations where their former contributions were aligned to separate skill sets n-ed to put those skills to the side to contemplate their role as leaders in the organization. They don’t need to be the craftsmen of the shop any longer. They are crafting new things.

Something similar can be said in the classroom. When I was teaching English to middle and high school students, my role shifted. I was no longer primarily to be learning about literature, writing, and reading the way I had been in K-12 or during my time in university.

Instead, I needed to understand what it took to help my students surpass me in learning about words and their uses and powers. My job, like the leaders xxx describes, was to step off the shop floor and start thinking about setting a vision for the space toward which all my students could work and in which they could all see their success.

This is not to say I stopped reading, writing, speaking and listening. I did those things, but they were not my primary roles.

In the math classroom, math teachers should still be curious about math, but the goal should be to make way for their students to surpass them as students of mathematics while they, the teachers, learn the new leadership skills key to teaching and fostering high-quality learning environments.

It might be easy to read the above as a suggestion that teachers relinquish the content areas they claim as specialties. This is not my intent anymore than I would suggest organizational leaders outside of education begin to neglect whatever domains in which their organizations specialize.

We must remain historians, musicians, scientists, etc. We must focus, though, on making way for our students to be better learners of any and all of those subjects than we are.

Image via Leo Reynolds

Things I Know 282 of 365: Perhaps our strength can overpower our weakness

Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.

– Emily Post

As a teacher, I learned alongside my students. As the youngest faculty member in my first school, this was a mindset I brought with me fresh from my undergrad program. To most of the more veteran teachers, I was seen as idealistic and cute. My two years in that school were full of many “Yeah, but” scenarios.

Those weren’t the only voices I heard. Three other teachers, folks who had been in the classroom more than a decade each, saw something of value in my want to learn with and from my kids. Often and informally, I found myself in conversations with them about what we were asking students to do and why. When we saw things the same way, it helped build my sense of craft. When we disagreed, it led me to ask myself why I was making the choices I was making and if there was a better way. There usually was.

In that school, my community with those three other teachers was the counterculture.

The school ran on a mix of the Landlord & Tenant and General & Soldiers leadership archetypes as described by Quigley and Baghai in their discussion of their book As One. The power sat at the top and we did as we were told. In some areas such as curriculum design, there were multilevel hierarchies. For the most part, control existed at the top, and you got access by find a path to the top.

Quigley and Baghai’s 8 Leadership Archetypes:

  • The Landlord & Tenants pairing is based on landlords’ top-down driven strategy and power: they control access to highly valuable or scarce resources.
  • The Community Organizer & Volunteers archetype sits on the emergent axis, meaning that the power for setting direction emerges bottom-up from the volunteers and not top-down from the community organizer.
  • The Conductor & Orchestra pairing is based on highly scripted and clearly defined roles that focus on precision and efficiency in execution as defined by the conductor. The orchestra members, who have similar backgrounds, need to be fully trained to comply with the requirements of the job and, therefore, must be carefully selected to ensure they fit the strict culture and scripted tasks.
  • The Producer & Creative Team pairing is typically about producers providing their creative team with the freedom to do their best work and reach their natural potential. This pairing is led by legendary, charismatic producers who bring together a team of highly inventive and skilled independent individuals to achieve the producers’ objective.
  • The General & Soldiers pairing has a command-and-control-type culture combined with a multilevel hierarchy organized around the general’s clear and compelling mission. Soldiers’ activities focus on clearly defined and scripted tasks.
  • The Architect & Builders pairing focuses on the creative collaboration between groups of diverse builders that have been recruited by visionary architects to bring a seemingly impossible dream to life.
  • The Captain & Sports Team pairing operates with minimal hierarchy and acts like a single cohesive and dynamic organism, adapting to new strategies and challenges with great agility as they appear.
  • The Senator & Citizens pairing is based on a strong sense of responsibility to abide by the values or constitution of the community, which have been outlined by the senators.
What strikes me as odd, though, was the fact our principal avoided 9 of the 10 most common leadership shortcomings as described by Zenger and Folkman. That 10%, though, was enough to lock down the culture of the school. While there were pockets of innovative thinking occurring around the campus, little of that innovation ever grew to scale because teachers didn’t know how to get to the top of the structure. Once there, and in spite the clear vision and direction of the school, a rift of language existed between both sides in building understanding of how the innovation could help move the school in that direction or achieve our vision.

Zenger and Folkman’s 10 Most Common Leadership Shortcomings:

  1. Lack energy & enthusiasm
  2. Accept their own mediocre performance
  3. Lack clear vision & direction
  4. Have poor judgment
  5. Don’t collaborate
  6. Don’t walk to walk (violate their own standards for behavior/performance)
  7. Resist new ideas
  8. Don’t learn from mistakes
  9. Lack interpersonal skills
  10. Fail to develop others

And while I know Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie outline a decent path for leading adaptive work in their 1997 article “The work of Leadership,”  I’m left wondering if there’s an inverse to Zenger and Folkman’s work listing the 10 necessary qualities of a leader. If my evaluation of my principal is correct, and it took only 1 of 10 shortcomings to stunt the school’s growth, are their qualities of leaders that would balance out that shortcoming if applied?

For example, if a principle is “accepting of their own mediocre performance,” could extreme charisma and deep knowledge of pedagogy negate that shortcoming?

Every leader studied by Zenger and Folkman possessed at least one of the Top 10. If we assume this is true of all leaders, then shouldn’t it be true that those leaders who motivate fiercely adaptive organizations such as those Heifetz and Laurie describe to move forward and grow also possess at least one of those shortcomings? And if this is the case, what balances the equation?

Perhaps we don’t need to eliminate shortcomings. We need only make certain the strengths run longer than the weaknesses.

Things I Know 214 of 365: I’ve been thinking of two superintendents

Whatever you are, be a good one.

– Abraham Lincoln

In the span of a few weeks, two superintendents have popped up on my radar.

The first was out-going School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman.

Over the last few contentious years, Dr. Ackerman has pushed some drastic reforms in Philly schools, ruffling more than a few feathers. As was reportedly the case in her former tenures as the head of schools in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, Dr. Ackerman chose to push rather than negotiate.

Her unwillingness to collect political capital meant hers was quickly spent like so many of the district’s budget dollars, and the city’s School Reform Commission moved to buy out Dr. Ackerman’s contract.

The cost was $905,000 made up of $500,000 in district funds and $405,000 in private sector donations. According to her contract, more money was due Dr. Ackerman, but she gave it back to the district with an earmark for the Promise Academies she spearheaded over the last few years.

The second superintendent I’ve been paying attention to has been Larry Powell, the head of Fresno, CA schools.

Powell, who will be retiring at the end of the 2015 school year asked his school board if he could retire for a day and then be hired back at a salary of $31,000 per year. In turn, Powell will give back the “$288,241 in salary and benefits for the next three and a half years of his term.”

It all adds up to about $800,000 and TheRoot.com reports Powell’s move is designed to ensure programs he’s started in the district survive past his retirement.

Talking to The Root, Powell said, “My wife and I asked ourselves ‘What can we do that might restore confidence in government?’”

These two superintendents paint different pictures of public service for me.

When I first read about Powell’s move, I posted the story to twitter and Facebook, prompting Gary to reply, “All government services may be replaced with charity.”

His point is well taken. Powell’s move could be perceived as a tip of the hat to a privatization or de-democratization of services for the public good.

I see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think that’s what this is.

Powell’s move to return $800,000 he would otherwise be earning while serving the remainder of his term stirs strong cognitive dissonance as Dr. Ackerman receives $905,000 to leave the School District of Philadelphia.

My initial reaction to the news of Dr. Ackerman’s buy-out was a knee-jerk, “She should donate the money to the district.”

After all, Philadelphia schools have been slashing at budgets to make up for a $640+ million shortfall. This has meant huge difficulties in maintaining (forget about improving) the education of the city’s children.

This reaction was tempered as I realized the intense difficulties I would have trying to convince myself to give up nearly $1 million.

It occurs to me, though, that I am not the leader of a school district who made decisions that (rightly or wrongly) led to some of that district’s darkest financial hours.

I understand the money here is rightly Dr. Ackerman’s. It is the end result of contract negotiations and money to which she is entitled.

Still, as she leaves, I cannot help but think of the teachers’ salaries she is taking with her.