Monday, May 7, 2018

Autodidactic Leadership Development

                The spring 2018 issue of Independent School magazine focused on leadership. As always, the articles highlighted the excellent work going on in many schools while prompting thoughts about ways to improve one’s own school. The story highlighted on the cover is “How Did You Learn to Be a Leader?” Naturally the question prompted some reflection.
                The question implies a professional development angle—or at least I jump to that conclusion because of how we often think of adults’ growth in schools. We assign mentors, talk about training, sit through workshops, attend conferences. Often it’s done in doses of varying sizes; sometimes it’s a single shot. I think this has been particularly true when it comes to leadership, particularly because the idea of distributed leadership is fairly new in most of our cultures. Unless someone were tapped as having leadership potential and quite intentionally mentored, or the person went to certain programs, I don’t think they received much leadership training.
                Even for those who received more extensive leadership training, it is limited. I don’t mean limited in its effectiveness or potential help. I mean limited in that it’s not enough. I assert that as one who has benefited greatly from attentive mentors and quality workshops. I also say this because I’ve come to believe everyone is ultimately responsible for their own development. Optimal learning requires some degree of autodidactic impulse.
                If you accept my premise, you’re likely wondering what are some practices that can enhance one’s leadership training. I’m going to offer some ideas, but with the caveat that you need to design an intentional program per your own needs.

  • Observation—Even if you have a fantastic mentor, that person can teach you only so much because of both human and practical limitations. To augment the mentoring, you can use other people as quasi-mentors without their even being aware through observation. Watch people you both admire and question as leaders. Study where they shine and where they misstep. Pay attention to not just large moments, but also the little things.
  •  Read—Neurological studies have shown the brain lights up during reading the same way it does when we dream. That’s fitting, as one of the main things a leader must do is dream. Reading can help inspire those dreams through the sort of extensive exposure we cannot gain any other way. In a more immediate sense, reading allows for another form of mentoring as you encounter unique situations and people/characters. Also, extend your leadership reading beyond the typical leadership books. Many are much too simplistic. Instead, read history, biography, memoir, autobiography, fiction, poetry, social sciences, hard sciences—anything that is going to extend your learning.
  •  Self-Awareness—We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But how aware of them are we? How much do we accept them? Work on them? Leaders need people who will challenge them, whether regarding ideas or behavior. Professional coaches, good friends, therapists—each can play a vital role in a leader’s development by prompting deeper reflection about one’s personal qualities and how they affect relationships on every level. Also, the point is not to change your essential core. It’s about growing as a person so you can grow as a leader.
  • Proactivity—You may be given clear opportunities to develop your leadership. It may be some sort of position, the chance to run a project, to serve as a peer-evaluator. It could be just about anything. The key is to take the chance and make the most of it. Even if you have this chance—and especially if you don’t—it’s vital to be pro-active and seek opportunities to exercise leadership. Perhaps you see a need and have some ideas on how to address it. Perhaps you foster greater collaboration among colleagues. Whatever it is, show that you are committed to helping your institution improve.

                 These are just some ideas, ones which have served me well. They may or may not help you. Despite what often seems like popular belief, leadership isn’t limited to a certain type of person. In fact, studies have shown that often the most effective leaders for long-term success do not fit the stereotypical image.  Effective leadership often comes down to being a particular type of person in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose, all in alignment.
                Finally, no matter what type of person you are, reflect deeply and honestly about why you want to lead.  Yes, most leaders feel called in some regard. The question is why. If it’s about pumping up your ego, think some more. The best leadership is about some higher meaning and purpose. It’s about moving towards some ideal. Thus, in a way this entire post becomes somewhat ironic given its focus on the self. Great leaders learn to shrink themselves so that others may grow.


Monday, April 23, 2018

In Search of Excellence

     I've stolen the title of this post from the classic Tom Peters work. I've been thinking about this idea because he recently published his fantastic The Excellence Dividend, which pulls together myriad points from his long career. If you've read this blog and followed my Twitter feed, you know my thoughts on the excellence dividend of education are clear: when one's endless learning becomes part of a life with distinct meaning and purpose. I hope, to use Tom's standard, that provokes a bit of a "Wow!" response.
     I'm more interested in pondering here why completing that search proves so elusive. Reasons abound, ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical. I think the latter are the more suppressive ones in that we tend not to think of education in such idealistic terms. Instead, we focus on the utilitarian, the practical. Then the process becomes rather mechanical, overly reliant on systems and measurement. We somewhat de-humanize what should be the most human of endeavors.
     Ironically, or perhaps paradoxically, even when people share my philosophical position, true academic excellence becomes even more difficult. It's because we have to cede most of the time-honored forms of control. We have to rethink the markers of short- and long-term success. We have to trust.
     But it's even more complicated than that. For an education to be truly responsive, it must evolve continually, responding to the vagaries of human nature and culture. Yes, certain questions and topics possess an eternal quality; yet we must consider them in the light of the emerging world. There lies little value in examining the past without using it to figure out the present and shape the future.
     Even then, the challenge remains great because excellence ultimately will mean something different for each individual. It demands the ultimate differentiation. It insists we react, reflect, readjust...over and over and over.  It changes as each student changes. It changes as the teacher changes.
     At its best, it also remains an ongoing search, a quest for a mythical grail. Certainly it is that noble.

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Quick Thought on #Leadership

     During a conversation a few days ago, I was asked to talk about a leader who had influenced me. The question threw me for a moment, mainly because I'm fortunate to have many people I could have cited. I settled on one, and after sharing some qualities and anecdotes, I concluded by saying, "What ultimately has stayed with me was how he carried himself with such an air of integrity."
     Yes, I mean integrity in the way we often use the word, meaning ethical, essentially good. But I meant more than that. I also was referring to a sense of wholeness, the way in which the disparate parts of something add up to a distinct and discernable unit true unto itself. That requires a genuineness; it radiates from an inner core.
     Meanwhile, I regularly see Tweets about different formulas for leadership, whether in books or workshops or videos. I don't dismiss them at all; in fact, I have tapped into them for my entire career. But they don't least not by themselves. Leadership is not a series of steps to follow. It is not a persona one can throw on like a cloak. All those experiences must be part of continual growth, reflected upon and rejected or internalized gradually as we sculpt ourselves. Becoming a stronger leader does not mean being/becoming a certain type of person. It means becoming the best possible person. Your best self. One others want to follow in some sense.
     This essential truth can be lost in our culture, particularly in schools.We can become so caught up in producing the best academic, the best athlete, the best artists, the best student council president--usually per some sharp criteria--that we forget we should be about helping each person develop. That's going to mean different things for each. It also means that each person has the potential to become a leader in some fashion, in some circumstances, if we allow for the possibility.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Making the Right Choice about Student Choice

     For the past few years, I keep thinking that I'm going to learn some things about physics. Such as gain some basic understandings. I didn't have to take physics in high school or college, and I'm quite aware of this gap in my knowledge.Sometimes I even feel rather embarrassed about it. After all, I am the head of a school. Yet, despite my best intentions--I've even held copies of Physics for Dummies in bookstores--I haven't pursued this study.
     I'm not sure why. Perhaps the motivation isn't strong enough. Perhaps there's too much else to learn. Perhaps other things hold more appeal. Perhaps I fear I won't grasp the material. Most likely it's some combination of all these factors.
     At the same time, such a pursuit would fit my preferred way of learning. I've always leaned towards autodidactism. As a young soccer player, I read the few coaching guides available in this country at the time over and over, analyzed broadcasts from Europe on the local PBS affiliates and then ran into the yard to practice new moves, and studied the history of the sport. Whenever I became interested in a topic or certain author, I checked out all the small local library had. In college the syllabi served mainly as springboards for my own exploration. My favorite academic experience was the independent study that led to my senior thesis, during which my advisor encouraged me to dive into any rabbit hole I spotted.
     This introductory reflection is a means of moving towards a larger point. It's an issue that I've been struggling with for quite a while, and it was captured in a Tweet in my stream this morning.
The article to which the Tweet refers makes many fine points, but my dilemma reaches further than the content versus skills debate. For me, that's an easy one: emphasize skills. I believe this holds not matter hat the course or age of the student. Things become murkier when you consider the idea of student choice, whether within a course or a full curriculum. I'm certainly no adherent to the dictates of cultural literacy as promoted by the E.D. Hirsch's of the world, and I've constantly called for more student choice. But that choice has to be guided to a certain degree. After all, someone should have realized that a basic grasp of physics is part of being wholly educated. Not necessarily a whole course, but a primer of sorts. As much as I want to give students greater and greater autonomy and thus perhaps thus see more relevance and draw inspiration from their learning, doing so begs questions which give me some pause. When does a student have enough perspective and maturity to make these decisions? What key pieces of knowledge can build the scaffold to facilitate such autonomy? Isn't this more of a pedagogical issue than a curricular issue, in that we need to give much more emphasize on how we often teach things? Is what matters really a debate between content and skills, or should it be more about a mindset regarding learning? While wisdom is what ultimately matters more--and always has, not just in this age of Google--isn't some knowledge (perhaps even common knowledge) worth having in our brains and not just at our fingertips?
       Someone reading this, particularly if they've read my other work or heard me speak, may wonder if I'm becoming more of an educational conservative or traditionalist because of the caution expressed in here. But I'm not yelling at any progressives to get off my lawn. Actually, I'm hoping my questions are ones they ask themselves. In doing so, they can better address legitimate concerns and maybe convert some skeptics. Maybe not. No matter what, though, our asking better and harder questions about our work can only befit our students. That must be our choice.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Off to #NAISAC 2018--A Different Approach

     The 2018 NAIS Annual Conference begins Wednesday in Atlanta. Every year I write a post about my hopes going into the conference, and they've remained fairly similar for the past few years. But this year I'm taking a different approach to my conference experience. That's a bit ironic and/or coincidental as, while I haven't spent much time in Atlanta, but it was the location of the very first one of these I attended, some time back in the 1980s.
     Like any conference, this one depends almost entirely on the people attending and presenting. For me NAIS is usually a great time to catch up with people I've known a long time, perhaps used to work with, whether over a meal or when we happen to bump into each other. I hope some of that still happens.
     But my real goal this year is to strengthen some loose connections and make some new ones. Perhaps they will be people I know only through social media; maybe they will be people I know only through reputation or role. It was kind of magical when I met some actual flesh-and-blood folks I knew mainly through Twitter the last couple of years. I've already scheduled time with several folks, and I hope to encounter some others. If I see a familiar name on an ID badge, I may even fight through my shyness and go up to that person.
     It feels strange--and rather un-conference-like--to be planning my NAIS experience this way. Usually I've studied the program and struggled with choosing which sessions to attend. Following on Twitter while there, I'll rue missing certain ones. Yet I suspect I will gain much more.