Leaders Bring People Together

As I read and listen to the news, I get more and more worried about the increasing polarization of our society.  People seem to love or hate much more than ever.  From the national stage, I am amazed how so many people are vigorous supporters of one candidate, yet others express the same vigor with dislike for that candidate.  Even recent discussions in our own state’s legislative branches demonstrate significant polarization.  I just heard a legislator on the radio say that his caucus is very set on an issue that surveys show is against the will of the people in the state.  Even in my own community, we have polarization on too many issues.

I realize that news folk seek out responses from both ends of the spectrum on issues, but as I listen to talk shows or reports from the street, it seems to me that so many people have tunnel vision only looking at one aspect of an issue and not seeing the big picture.  Of course, some of the people who are put on camera appear to be missing something…, but so are people who look at a mountain and can only see a rock.

Those that know me can attest that I am far from Milquetoast on many matters that are important to me.  Really, I have the ability to express some passion.  But, I ask myself, what the heck is wrong with seeing all sides of an issue…the good, bad and the in-between?  When did we start to become a society of people who wear blinders?

Of course, our connectedness through social media has arguably been a part of pulling us further apart.  We now have so many forums for us to hold personal court.  Don’t get me wrong, I participate moderately in social media functions.  One of my favorite aspects of social media isn’t reading the idea that is expressed initially, it is digging into the many responses to the idea that is originally posted.  Every once in a while I actually see someone demonstrate some thinking and regard for what is expressed by others.  It still strikes me that so many people are much more interested in expressing their opinions first rather than trying to learn the opinions of others.  (My favorite Covey quote:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” comes to mind here!)

I am blessed to work in a great profession where there is a significant proportion of reasonable people compared to the rest of the world.  I will say though that even in education, we have those who are quick to judge.  The silent majority still rules in the end, but so many times the path is fraught with frustration.  More often than not, I am heartened to see people disagree AND understand and respect the opinions of those with which they disagree.  I really do love school people!

As a leader, I have found that getting to the point where the middle ground can be found on significant issues usually comes when we work deeply with BELIEFS.  Determining the best questions to wrestle with and facilitating a conversation where others are learning, reading and discovering all perspectives before cementing their own opinions often leads to products that are best for students and teachers.

Ask yourself when the last time was that you had a thorough conversation at the beliefs level with your colleagues.  If you are a leader, when is the last time you facilitated such a conversation?

If we want to bring people together, we must focus on developing shared beliefs.  We need to ask questions of significance that are difficult to answer; and we need to give people time to digest the thoughts and opinions of others.  In our ever increasing world of polarization, now more than ever we need to have a firm understanding of how to build consensus through developing shared beliefs

By the way, if you don’t want to bring people together, please don’t lead anything.  We already have too much of that in our world and we don’t need anymore.

The BEST Teachers…

Straight from John Hattie’s Visible Learning

When students were asked about their best teachers, the common attributes were teachers who built relationships with students (Batten & Girling-Butcher, 1981), teachers who helped students to have different and better strategies or processes to learn the subject (Pehkonen, 1992), and teachers who demonstrated a willingness to explain material and help students with their work (Sizemore, 1981).

In my humble opinion those are very LEARNER focused behaviors. When we focus on learners, our teaching becomes a solution, not an activity we perform every day. To help students learn, we must change our solutions.

While working on my laptop last night, my wife was channel hopping (she does that a lot). Stopping on the movie The Blind Side when the character playing Michael Oher was being tutored by character being played by Kathy Bates caused me to stop working and watch for a bit. During the scene I was watching, the actor playing Michael Oher looked at his tutor and said: “I don’t get it.” She replied: “YET, you don’t get it YET.”

So, I continued watching a bit even closing my laptop to save the battery. During another tutoring session, the tutor was working with Michael to find a topic for a paper he had to write. It was a very important paper as his future college scholarship rested on him getting a B or better on the single assignment. Kathy Bates’ character (sorry, I can’t remember her name in the movie) exhausted her ideas to motivate Michael, so she encouraged his father to step in. With a new approach and new ideas, they came up with a great topic to write about. The tutor never gave up and continued to find a new approach that would get through to help Michael learn.

Learning = (Teaching + Creativity) x Different Approach

Every Teacher MUST Answer This Question

In a recent conversation with several teachers, I asked the question: “Does teaching exist in the absence of learning?” This is the most essential question any teacher can ask of themselves. The answer, Yes, No, or somewhere in between, sets the boundaries of a teacher’s effectiveness.

This is a question that many wrestle with as they have experienced students who were very difficult to teach or who were very resistant to learning. How can we make a student learn if they don’t want to? Perhaps the better question one can ask of themselves is: “What power do I have in motivating the most challenging student to learn?” How much power one believes they have is their level of self-efficacy. Webster tells us that self-efficacy is a person’s belief of their power or capacity to produce a desired effect; effectiveness. Fancy psychological research found self-efficacy as the foundation of human motivation and accomplishments. Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act or persevere in the face of difficulties.

Yep, that’s us. We are working with our colleagues to increase teacher effectiveness in the face of difficulties and motivation is certainly key. That, perhaps, is a rather large understatement! Can we motivate teachers to become more effective if they don’t believe that they can be?

I once heard a story about a swim coach who “taught” a group of children to swim; however, try as she might, one student just couldn’t learn and had to be saved by a lifeguard on the last day of class. Did that swim coach teach that child to swim? Can everyone learn to swim? Maybe there are great reasons why the child didn’t learn to swim. Perhaps he didn’t take baby swim class when he was 9 months old like other children and he is just too far behind to learn. Maybe he has a disability that doesn’t allow him to make the proper connections in his mind to control his limbs as well as other children. I don’t know, but to me it is clear that the student didn’t learn to swim.

So, if he didn’t learn to swim, was he taught to swim? Did teaching occur?

Well, to me the big question hinges on the definition of teaching. Is teaching simply providing all of the necessary information on a subject? Being a formal student for half of my lifetime has taught me at least one thing…that there are some very knowledgeable teachers/professors in this world who can’t teach worth a darn. Knowing your material doesn’t mean that you can teach it.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely figured out where I stand on the subject. For the most part, I believe that teaching does not exist without learning.  I get it, there are some students that you just can’t reach.  I will say that if you never give up and always try new strategies and tactics, at the end of the day you’ll earn my respect.  I’m not quite Yoda when he said: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”  Trying is important.

Do you believe that all students can learn? Search deep within yourself. If you truly believe this mantra, then you must also believe that you haven’t finished teaching if a student hasn’t learned enough…yet.

Solve a Problem Forever

In my many roles I have the fortune to interact with multiple school administrators. During my time with these great leaders, I strive to make connections and to find meaning for my own study of leadership. Recently, a theme has emerged that has wormed its way into the reoccurring conversations that I have with myself. The principle that I am calling “Solving a Problem Forever” (SPF) is one that I believe helps to set the very best leaders apart from the rest.

Have you ever said something like one of the following statements to yourself or to someone else?
“I can’t believe this is happening again.”
“This problem keeps coming up.”
“I am tired of always hearing this complaint.”

One simple example of when I experienced the need to SPF was when I was a building principal and I constantly received complaints about the drop off zone at our school. For some reason, more and more parents chose to drop their students off instead of having them ride the bus to school and this created some issues for those 300+ cars each morning. While few students were late to school, the amount of complaints I received made this a significant issue for me. It would have been easy to ignore this problem because it didn’t affect the school day much, but it did create nagging heartburn for my parents who wanted to get their children to school on time. And…I hate repeated complaints. To me, it became a cultural issue and one that I knew I needed to tackle.

So, to solve this problem, I first began by designing a set of protocols and listed them on one side of a page with the opposite side being a satellite view of our school with arrows and specific zones marked off. Knowing that developing these “rules” would not solve the problem forever, I knew that I needed to engage my teaching abilities. I made TV announcements talking to the students, sent home messages to parents, collaborated with our maintenance director to secure signage and curb paint AND I started the second semester greeting each car that entered our drop off zone with the new safety and procedural protocols. All of this solved the problem…but not forever. Knowing that the few people who think of themselves before others had the power to mess everything up, I began policing the drop off zone and assigned an additional staff person to do this on a regular basis. When a rare parent would choose to not support these new protocols, I approached their car and talked with them.

While the system wasn’t perfect, it did improve drop-off considerably. Cars no longer backed up onto the road and parents stopped complaining. I even received comments about how much they appreciated the new procedures and a few who noticed me addressing those who tried to skirt the system praised me and our school.

Leaders know that to solve a problem forever usually takes time…sometimes a lot of time. While it is impossible to solve every problem you have at a “forever” level, it is important that you work to SPF every chance that you get. Because there are so many issues that need to be managed, it can be easy to allow problems to continue because you don’t have the time to solve them; but don’t let that be an excuse. Many times the large investment up front provides more time over the course of the year as the multitude of having to “deal with something” diminishes.

Additionally, not only does SPF usually require significant time, it usually also requires dealing with issues at a fundamental level. Having difficult conversations, following up with those you are serving, and developing shared expectations that are best for students, will always pay into your time bank. When you are able to have conversations at a fundamental and foundational level, you build trust and confidence…or rather, leadership capital. When you solve a problem forever, you affect your culture and that influences other areas of your leadership.

Serve

Uncle Lloyd

One definition of “serve” is: to devote (part of) one’s life or efforts to, as of countries, institutions, or ideas. I’ve had many great examples of service in my life. Growing up in a small town with many relatives was a blessing. Of the 6 great aunts and uncles who lived in Bicknell when I was growing up, those closest to me were my Great Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd. Aunt Ginny passed away in 2010. I just attended the funeral of my Uncle Lloyd a couple of weeks ago. We celebrated 103 years of life with our wonderful Uncle Lloyd!

I can remember before my Aunt Ginny passed a time when we took our son to visit her and Uncle Lloyd so that he could hear some of Uncle Lloyd’s stories from when he served in World War II. Uncle Lloyd was a mailman in the Navy. He wasn’t involved in fighting, but he did hit the beach at Iwo Jima after everything settled down. While stories of intense battles were not told, Uncle Lloyd did share stories of service.

I never knew my Uncle Lloyd as a Navy serviceman, but I did know him as a Great Uncle (and great doesn’t refer to the fact that he is my Mom’s uncle.) He was a man of great character who was kind, giving, and very humorous. I never knew my grandfathers, but I had a great one in Uncle Lloyd. He sought opportunities to spend time with me and I can remember one short road trip to Spencer where he and I memorized all of the small towns between Bicknell and Spencer (Edwardsport, Westphalia, Sandborn, Marco, Beehunter, Lyons, Switz City, Worthington…my memory fades from here.)

Uncle Lloyd was always there for me. Many times I had projects to accomplish and my mother would send me down the street (two blocks) to get help from Uncle Lloyd. Every time I showed up at their back door, both Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Ginny were happy to see me and even happier to help me with my new project. I can remember the times when they provided more than their time. On more than one occasion, Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd would take me and my siblings to Grundman’s Shoes in Vincennes to make sure that we had working shoes on our feet. They even paid for my piano lessons.

While I have many great memories of both my Great Aunt and Uncle, my favorites were those of my Uncle’s humor. Uncle Lloyd always had a joke to share and Aunt Ginny was always a wonderful audience leading us in laughing (even though she had heard the joke a few times already.) I can vividly remember one picnic at my Grandmother’s house (which was two blocks in the other direction from my house) where Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Ginny arrived on their bicycles decorated in crepe paper and balloons. We could see them coming down the street and they were laughing the entire way!

I have been blessed to have many wonderful people in my life to teach me important lessons. When it comes to service, my prime exemplar is my Uncle Lloyd. From serving his country, to serving his family and friends, he is the example of giving of oneself that I strive to come close to each day. You see, Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd never had any children of their own. Their nieces and nephews, great nieces and great nephews were their children. The stories I told above are only a small sampling of stories about Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd. I have heard the same stories from my mother’s siblings and cousins (my aunts and uncles). With my Grandmother having 7 brothers and sisters, Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd were never short on nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews. As the matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a special decades-long deal with Grundman’s Shoes because I know that my Mother and her cousins took many a trip there with Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd when they were children.

Thanks for letting me ramble a bit about a couple of my exemplars. In a world where people seem to be more self-centered and self-serving, it is good to be reminded of those who have provided so much to so many people.

Deepak Chopra said: “Everyone has a purpose in life…a unique gift or special talent to give to others. And when we blend this unique talent with service to others we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals.”

Teachers are uniquely blessed in that we get to utilize our talent AND we get to do it while serving others…and we get paid! What a great life we have. While I’ll never reach the level of my Great Uncle Lloyd, I can only hope that there is a student or two out there that I have had that will count me as an exemplar.

Seek First to Understand…All Stories

I learned years ago that the source of a person’s anger is usually due to their story not matching up with reality.  Simple, but still a great thought when trying to understand why someone has “feelings” about an issue.  What do I mean by a “story”?  Well, a person’s story is their version of what reality should be.  Of course, that story doesn’t always match reality.  Let me share an example.

The Parker’s go to movies VERY early.  We leave home at least 45 minutes before the show starts taking a leisurely drive to the theatre and arriving in our seats with a drink and a small snack that we plan to consume before the movie starts.  Then, we play on our phones while waiting for the previews to begin.  Yes, typically we are the first people in the theatre.  The story we play in our heads is that there is no need to rush; cashiers are quick as lines are short, and we get to sit in a seat that we prefer with very little hassle and without inconveniencing others.

In contrast, some folks must leave their homes when the movie is advertised to start, wait in a long line for a ticket, purchase 27 different snacks and drinks from the concessions, and then find their seat (usually right in front of us) 5 minutes after the movie starts thereby missing all of the valuable previews and an opportunity for the perfect seat.  They also talk for 5 more minutes as they pass their snacks around (that doesn’t bother me or anything…).  I imagine that the “late” arrivers are quite content with all of this.  Their story is that they got to a movie in time to see the “good stuff” and they are thankful that there were awesome seats right in front of this other family.  If we traded movie going procedures, the Parkers and the late arrivers would both likely have anxiety attacks.

Now, we strive to control our reality by leaving extra-early for movies.  Sometimes, reality doesn’t play out that way as we are not always able to leave at a preferred time.  Those times, when we are not able to leave early, we speed to the theater turning into the parking lot on two wheels.  I shove Pam out the door with a credit card, and I park the car and run in to catch her punching the self-serve ticket machine with vigor.  We still get to watch the previews, but we were rushed and we do not like to be rushed.  This situation may not make us angry, but we certainly are not happy because reality did not match our story of what traveling to a movie should be like.

Just like our movie going experience, when we are faced with situations that make us unhappy, we all have an opportunity to make a choice.  Either we can change our story, or we can change reality by leaving early for a movie.  In making a decision to change reality, one must weigh the level of emotion experienced with the effort that it would take to change that reality.  If something does not bother us much, and changing reality is arduous, then we are likely to change our expectations…our story.  In contrast, if something garners a great deal of emotion, we are more likely to put forth effort to change reality.  The amount of effort that we are willing to expend to affect change directly corresponds to the strength of our emotions or feelings.  That is the premise of why I like to work with passionate people. Passionate people WORK to change reality.

Of course, this principle applies when leading others.  I’ve often found that when working with someone who has “feelings” it is good to work very hard to try to understand their point of view by imagining their story for myself.  Why do they feel the way that they do?  What is their story and how is it different from mine or from reality?  I try to be empathetic and follow Steven Covey’s 5th principal:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is also a great way to deal with conflict or expectations not being met.  When the person with whom you are conversing truly feels that you understand why they feel the way that they do, you can usually be more successful when getting your own point across; and, perhaps your point will be even clearer to you when you have full understanding of all of the important “stories”.

As leaders, we must always strive to realize the stories that people have.  Remember, their story is a version of what reality should be.  Through understanding all of the related stories, we have the best chance to determine whether we need to change reality by leading others to implement a new program or procedure, or whether we need to communicate differently to help change the stories that cause people angst.

Characteristic of an Exceptional Leader

I’ve been a fan of Steven Covey since I first read his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His explanation of the four quadrants of time management and the choices we make in how we spend our time has long been a tenet of my leadership beliefs. I am a firm believer in Quadrant 2! For those who have not had the pleasure to read the book, or his book First Things First, I strongly suggest that studying Dr. Covey is a leadership staple. I have found that the very best leaders focus on behaviors that are important, but not urgent. Covey lists examples of activities in each quadrant.

Covey Quadrants

As you can see, focusing on behaviors that are in “Quadrant 2” are preferred.  What activites will you do today and tomorrow that are Quadrant 2 activities?

I believe that the very best leaders build a climate of cooperation and a strong culture of shared beliefs.  How do they do it?  They spend plenty of time in Quadrant 2.

Attached is an eight day audit.  Download the document and track your activities for the next eight work days and see where you spend your time.  Good luck!

Covey Quadrants Audit