Leadership

They Even Have Jumper Cables


Paralyzing.  That’s how someone this week described the potential feeling of all there is to do as a building principal.  She is not paralyzed, but she knows the danger in ever trying to think about it all at once.

There is instructional leadership.  Math and reading small groups, data-driven decision-making, Professional Learning Communities.

There is parent and community engagement, social emotional learning, mental health supports.

There are Halloween parties and after school clubs and volleyball games and pep rallies.

There is student discipline, and there are student celebrations.

And then I was driving home from work this week, and I noticed one of our principals out in the parking lot helping to jump-start a car.  They even have jumper cables.

The role of building leader is enormous.  It can feel overwhelming if you let it.  The same could be said of most leadership roles.

So how are the great ones doing it?

A mentor shared an axiom with me this week. If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.  Prioritizing is essential in effective leadership.  The best leaders avoid feeling paralyzed by staying focused on a few key things.  Asking some important questions can help.

  • What should I be focusing on today, this week, this semester?
  • How will I keep the first things first?
  • Who can help me?

That last question is sometimes the hardest.  Delegating and asking for help does not come naturally to many people.  The same mentor once told me that if someone else can be doing something, they probably should be doing it.  Building leadership is a big job.  Surrounding yourself with talented and engaged people helps but only if you let them.  One of the most powerful things you can do as a principal or a leader of any kind is to recognize and develop the leadership skills in others.  Collaboration and shared decision-making is not only good for your climate and culture, it lightens your load.  The best leaders are not trying to do it all by themselves.

None of this is to say that other people in our schools and in your organizations are not also doing overwhelming work.  I’ll do a whole blog on what we ask our teachers to do everyday.  They are heroes, truly amazing!

But this week I have been overwhelmed by all of the things our principals are doing.  They are anything but paralyzed, and our students are all the better for their efforts.  I just wanted to say thank you!

The Org Chart

If you have ever worked for someone, and most of us have, you are likely familiar with the concept of an “organizational chart.”  It defines who reports to whom.  I could write an entire blog about how important it is for an organization to define who is taking responsibility for what.  Clearly defined goals and objectives, concrete action steps, and accountability are essential for success.  An idea is just an idea unless someone takes ownership for making it happen.

Assuming a leadership role, climbing higher on the org chart, is exhilarating.  You may have a stronger voice in decisions.  You may have more autonomy.

One thing I have learned over the years though from leaders I admire most is how narrow in scope the organizational chart really is.  It is about accountability and supervision.  It is about departmentalization and line of succession.  It is not in any way, shape or form about kindness or respect or doing what needs to be done in the moment.

The best leaders at every level are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work.  Principals are wiping off cafeteria tables at lunch and sweeping the floor between basketball games.  Servant leadership is a term thrown around frequently today.  True servant leaders are the ones who embrace every opportunity to serve the organization and the people within it.  Do you walk by the paper on the floor in the hallway?  Is picking it up someone else’s job?

The best leaders are kind and caring and respectful to everyone in the organization at every level.  They know the CEO’s name, and they know the name of every person on the custodial night crew.  Character is defined by what you do for and how you treat people who can do nothing to advance your career.  Do you truly demonstrate respect for everyone?

Leading is hard work, and the higher you are on the org chart, the more you have to be willing to accept responsibility.

But the organizational chart has nothing to do with how you treat people or how others treat you.  The best leaders understand that!

Move On

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  Day in and day out there are decisions that need to be made that impact the entire organization.  Many are small.  Some are big.  Many are easy.  Some are not.

It can be tempting to question yourself, to second guess your decision.  But honestly, there is not time for that.  The next decision awaits.

Reflection is important.  Learning from what happens is important.  The best leaders want to learn and grow.  I’d never advocate not paying attention to cause and effect.  I’d never advocate that we not reflect on our decisions and on their consequences.  But I’ve seen too many people lose their serenity obsessing about what they should have done.

You did what you did.  You made the best decision you knew to make in a given situation with the given information.  Move on.

When my daughter was young, she had a tendency to get what we called “stuck in the moment.”  (Imagine our joy when U2 released a song of the same name, and we could sing it to her in the car on trips.) She had trouble letting go of a disappointment or a frustration.  It could be a big issue or a very small issue, but for her it held on and robbed her of the joy in the next moment.  We talked about it a lot, and I think as a family we all learned over time to let go of things.

No, leadership is not for the faint of heart.  People will second guess you.  There’s never a shortage of armchair quarterbacks.  People will judge you.  There’s never a shortage of people who are sure they could do better.

But leaders are the ones who said, “Okay, I’ll make the decision.”  And there are not a lot of people willing to step into that seat.

Listen and learn.  Reflect.  But in the end, make the best decision you can and move on.

Grace Under Pressure

We’ve had a bit of a week in Husker Nation.  After what can only be described as a series of disappointing games after a series of disappointing seasons, the Athletic Director has been fired.  Speculation is rampant as to the fate of the football coach.  As I watched the game this week, I could not help thinking how challenging it must be for everyone involved to play under that kind of pressure.

Stress and scrutiny lead to careless mistakes.  Anxiety leads to anxiety  leads to anxiety.  Most people are not at their best under pressure.

But some are.  And that can make all the difference.

Leadership is not easy. Many times in an organization there are hard choices and difficult tasks.  Leaders are willing to tackle those challenges without fear or hesitation.  The best leaders actually get better under pressure.

In difficult times, people look to their leaders for confidence and courage.  They rely on their leaders to be positive and decisive.  Grace under pressure is not a luxury for leaders; it is a necessity.

When times are tough, strong leaders are calm and consistent.  I’ve seen this first hand time and time again. The more challenging the obstacle, the more poised the leader.  I’ve been lucky to work for leaders who model this, and I am blessed to work with a leadership team who exemplify this.

Busy, difficult times call for positive and disciplined leadership.  As you lead this week, in your classrooms, your schools, your organizations, remember that others are looking to you.  You can be the reassuring presence that calms the waters and keeps people focused on the job at hand.

The Alphabet Game

Our favorite game on road trips is the alphabet game.  You can pass hours and hours playing.  The rules are simple: the first person to spot all 26 letters of the alphabet, in order, on signs or buildings or anything really outside of your own car, wins.  The games plays out in almost the same way every time.  You fly along from A to E and then pause for a few minutes on F.  You jump back in at G until you get stuck at J.  Q is the worst.  You cross your fingers and hope for a Dairy Queen or an Antique Shoppe.  You hit a bit of a snag at X, and the game almost always comes down to who spots the Pizza Hut first.

Some letters just aren’t used very often.

That doesn’t make them less important.

This week a friend asked me which letter of the alphabet is used the most.  It’s E.  Which is used the least?  Depending on the source, it varies between Q, Z, X, and J.  Does that make them less important?  Of course not.  One could argue it makes them more important.

We don’t have to use something often for it to have great value…emergency brakes, fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors.  We hope we don’t have to use them often, but they are essential for our well being.

I think the same is true in life.

Many times the people who say the most, who are seen the most, are the ones who get the most attention.

It’s football season.  I’ve been watching my share of high school and college games.  I am fascinated by the kickers.  Not a lot of glamour in that role.  Not a lot of time on the field.  But how many games have we already seen this year that were decided in the final seconds by a field goal?  The kicker is an essential role on any team.  Just because we do not call on player as often does not make then any less valuable.

Are you investing enough time in your special teams?

A game can be won or lost in a single play.  Every person, every position matters.  The last letter of the alphabet is as valuable as the first.

Every person on the team, in the cast, on the staff, in the community, plays a vital role.  At times you may be called on to take the lead.  You may be the person on the stage, the one who is used the most.  Other times you will play a supporting role.  You will be seen less.  At those times, your work is no less important.

Good leaders know this.  Good coaches, good administrators, good teachers know this.  The best leaders work to build relationships and develop skills in everyone on their team.  And the best team members do their best work at all times, not just when they are the star.  This week, whether you feel like the E or you feel like the Z, do your best to do your best!

Own Your Power

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I believe that there are certain fundamental truths in the world. I believe that having a relationship with someone is more powerful that having authority over them.  I believe that doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing is the most important thing we can do with our lives.  I believe that being a good person is more important than being a powerful person.  The people who I respect the most in this world are humble and kind to quote Tim McGraw.  They are also, in many cases, leaders at the highest level.  You can be both humble and powerful.  I see it everyday.

There is an inner struggle when you assume a leadership role, a battle between who you are and what you are required to do.  There are any number of decisions you have to make as a leader that have the potential to frustrate or upset others.  There are issues that divide people.  When your focus is on creating a positive culture and developing relationships, those issues can create fear.  How will your work impact that culture and those relationships?

But you cannot lead unless you own your power.

Strong leaders take the time to build the knowledge and skills necessary to run the team, the organization, or the company.  They start first by developing themselves.  They are lifelong learners who push themselves and challenge themselves to grow.  They have built relationships, and they seek out the people with whom they need to cultivate new relationships.  So when they do step into the role, they are ready to lead. And the organization needs them to lead.

But you cannot lead unless you own your power.

The best leaders are good people who are willing to do what is necessary to move the organization forward.  They have moved past the fear that others might not like them.  They are willing to make decisions and to own the consequences.  They share the credit, and they take the blame.  And people respond well to them.  We want strong leaders who are knowledgeable and decisive.  We want leaders who will take responsibility and have the difficult conversations.  The best leaders do not necessarily enjoy conflict, but they do not shy away from it.

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I am a leader.  I am blessed to be in a position where I get to voice my opinion, influence decisions, and help determine the vision for our district.  There are so many people in our schools and communities who assume leadership roles, big and small, every day.  To do our jobs well, we have to be willing to own our power.

When you are coaching the football team or the baseball team, own the decisions you make about playing time.  When parents question the length of your practice or the position you assigned their child, stand up for your choices.  Don’t hesitate when you are explaining those decisions to players or parents.  You know the skills and the talents of your players.

When you are serving as Troop Leader or President of the Neighborhood Association, be decisive.  Own the choices you make.  You are in that role for a reason.  You do not have to fear explaining the decisions you’ve made.  You are the leader.

And when you assume a job as a school leader, do it with confidence. You have prepared, and you will continue to learn. There will be any number of things about which you are not self-assured.  Do them anyway.  People need leaders who are willing to lead.

There is  nothing shameful in owning your power, the best leaders do it with ease.  You can, and should, be humble and kind.  And you can, and should, own your power as a leader.

 

Lead Where You Are

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I have a friend who retired after a long career as a middle school social studies teacher.  She was one of those people who taught us all what it means to engage students.  Her classroom looked different every day.  One day the desks were in a huge circle to facilitate a whole class discussion, and the next they were arranged like the legislature to reenact a debate about the Bill of Rights.  She used formative assessment before we knew what that term meant.  And she taught me as much as anyone about good instruction.

I have another friend who has a gift for connecting with students.  Almost weekly a former student would come back to see her to tell her how much she meant to them.  During passing period, the students would hang out in her room to talk.  Before and after school there were always kids in her room for extra help.  While they were dissecting sentences or talking about The Outsiders, they would almost always also be telling her about their soccer games or dance recitals, their babysitting jobs and their trips over winter break.  She built relationships, and she taught me as much as anyone about the importance of connecting with students.

Neither of those friends had “official” leadership titles.  They were not department heads or assistant principals.  They were not curriculum facilitators or district administrators.  But make no mistake, they were two of the most influential leaders in my life.

The President came to Omaha a week and a half ago.  Before addressing a crowd at Baxter Arena, he stopped at the home of a high school English teacher.  She had written him a letter, and she had made an impact on his thoughts and his feelings.  A high school English teacher in Omaha, Nebraska had provided leadership to the leader of the free world.

Leadership is not a title.

Everyday we have the opportunity to impact the lives of our family, our friends, and our co-workers.  We can model positivity and strong work ethic.  We can do our jobs well, and we can treat each other with kindness and compassion.  In education we can build relationships with students from whatever seat on the bus we sit.

Every one of those interactions may serve as an example for others.  And every time we have the opportunity to witness those things, we can learn and grow and become better people.

We are all leaders.  We all share the responsibility for teaching our children, and we all share the responsibility for making our world a better place.

I get to watch the leaders in our district work every day.  They are kind and caring, smart and insightful, strategic and student-focused.    They are administrators and teachers, parents and students, and I am proud to be among them.

Leadership is not a title.  Lead from where you are!

 

 

Who You Are Matters

Everything you have ever wanted, is sitting on the other side of fear.

Leadership is not easy.

There is risk and vulnerability in taking on the challenge of leading…in your classroom, in your department, in your building.  Anyone who has ever led a project or a group of people knows this.

Stepping into a more “official” leadership position requires a willingness to risk judgement, disapproval, and failure.  It is daunting, and it is immeasurably gratifying.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Shane Lopez (@hopemonger) speak eloquently this week about creating hope for students.  What resonated with me though was what he shared about creating hope for the staff members in our care.  There is research from Gallup around hope that helps identify what we need from our leaders.

Who we are matters!

People want a leader they can trust.  You will almost always hear the word “integrity” used when describing the leaders people most admire.  It is comforting to know that the person you are following, the person making decisions that impact you daily, has a strong moral compass.  We want leaders who are also good people.

We need to trust that our leaders are honest and ethical.  In education we also want people who are good role models.

There is something reassuring about knowing that if you say you will do something , you will.  The best leaders have amazing follow-through.  We trust that they will make good plans and see those plans through to fruition.

People want a leader who creates stability.  Who you are today is who you will be tomorrow.  Who you are with me is who you will be with others.  The core beliefs of our organization will be the same from day to day, year to year.

Leading frequently requires difficult decisions and conversations.  It is important to create a safe environment where you can tackle those challenges while building and maintaining positive relationships.  A stable leader does this.

People want a leader who is compassionate.  Dr. Lopez went so far as to call this love.  Engaging communities feel like a family.  The staff celebrates together.  The staff mourns together.  The staff shows up for each other.

This was an emotional week for many reasons.  There were some exciting celebrations, some scary family challenges,  and a difficult anniversary.  Such is life.  The real world rarely stops interfering as we try to teach or lead or live.  Compassionate leaders recognize that we are all traveling a sometimes fun, sometimes challenging path.  They listen to our stories.  They ask about our families.  They respect that we have good days and bad days, and they make the bad days easier.

Our schools are our work families.  It should not take a crisis for us to tell each other how we feel.  We do not say “I love you” enough in this world.

Finally, people want a leader who creates hope.  Gallup defines hope as “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so”.   In education, what more could we want?  We teach to touch the future!

As a leader (and we are all leading in some area of our life), who we are matters.  Seek to be someone that others would want to follow.

Seeing Through Every Lens

imageIt’s easy to be an arm-chair quarterback.  I am often guilty of it myself.  After the play, when everything has gone wrong, I am sure I would have made a different call.  I know exactly what would have worked.  Or so I think.

In sports, in politics, in education, people frequently think they know precisely what the coach or the leader should have done.  Sports commentators fill entire programs with what the calls should have been.  There is never a shortage of pundits willing to critique the decisions of politicians, and there are always plenty of people in an organization sure they know what plan would have been better.

More often than not though, we have nowhere near all of the necessary information to make an informed decision.  It’s how the system works.  Transparency, openness, and, of course, the media allow us to know some of what’s going on almost all of the time.  But we rarely know all of it.

Leadership is about gathering all of the information, seeking to understand all sides of the issue, and then making the sometimes difficult decisions.

I was in an intense discussion last week about a discipline infraction and the appropriate consequences. It brought back some emotions tied to a difficult and very public discipline issue I had to address a few years ago.  Some in my community disagreed with a decision we made in the building, and the discussion made its way to the media. I was reminded again that everyone sees things through his/her own lens.  Leaders seek to see through every lens.

Leadership involves making important decisions that are often controversial.  In most cases, those on the outside will know only a fraction of what the leader knows.

Effective leaders have background information and experience others do not have.  They have had the conversations with people on all sides of the issue.  They understand the impact on the organization as well as any legal ramifications.  They know the strengths of their team and what is possible at any given time.  We need to trust that they are seeing things that we are not.

Now I am not suggesting that we should never question the decisions our leaders make.  I am a fan of discourse.  I think debates and disagreements are a necessary part of making the best decisions.  I consider myself lucky to live in a society where I can openly share an opposing viewpoint.

But public discourse and personal attacks are not the same thing.   The next time you share an opinion about a coach, or a politician, or an educational leader, ask yourself if you are contributing to the conversation or just passing judgement.

Never Underestimate the Power of Apologizing

 

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I feel so lucky to be learning and working in education today.  There has been what can only be called a shift in…philosophy?  attitude? We are becoming relational.  We’ve been talking about relationships for awhile now. We recognize that the relationship between teacher and student impacts achievement.  We know that colleagues are more engaged when they have a best friend at work.   We are starting to genuinely value the power of relationships in our professional success.

In the past, there seemed to be an underlying message that power was the key to success.  The person most able to control others, appear dominant, and exert authority was also the one most likely to be promoted.   I don’t think that is our reality anymore…at least not in education.  More and more the person with the best people skills is the one who is promoted. Emotional intelligence is no longer a nice-to-have; it is the most important thing to have.

People underestimate the need for human connections- especially in moments of great tension, stress, or anger.

As a building administrator, I was always amazed at the power of an apology. So often when someone was angry (a student, a parent, a staff member), the first thing I would say was, “I’m sorry that happened.”  It was not an admission of guilt on anyone’s part.  It did not acknowledge that the person was sharing an entirely accurate account of the events.  It was simply a statement that I was, in fact, sorry for the situation that was causing them pain.  And I was sorry.

In almost every case, that, at least in some part, would defuse the situation. People need to know that others are listening. It calmed the situation and made it possible to explore the issue with less emotional charge.  This was not only true when I was mediating a situation in which I was not directly involved.  It was true when I was the one who had done something, not done something, or said something that made someone upset. I made (and continue to make) plenty of mistakes as a leader.  When that happens, I always try to start with, “I’m sorry.”

I do not feel like I am less effective, less in control, less in charge when I apologize.  In fact, I feel like I am being a better leader and a better model.