Friday, January 13, 2017

Not Knowing and Leadership

       While I believe it's inherently wrong, perhaps even harmful, to reduce education to a single overarching objective, I'm going to do so here for the sake of my argument, albeit with a caveat. That is, the objective I'm going to assert can play out in endless ways. It's the notion that a meaningful, purposeful education prepares one to lead. To lead by being who one is in whatever roles one plays. And just as we rethink what it means to be a leader, we need to rethink what it means to be educated and ready for that role.
       Last month I sent out the following Tweet:
When I saw it, I found myself recalling The idea of level 5 Leadership from Jim Collins' work in Good to Great, particularly the notions of modesty, looking out the window to apportion credit, and setting up successors for even greater success. Then a couple of days ago, I ran across a Fast Company blog post titled "Why Real Leaders Have Strong Egos and That's a Good Thing." The author, S. Chris Edmonds, writes, "In practice, 'having an ego' simply means understanding the worldview through which you act--in order to get your own needs met as well as the needs of others. And that, of course, is in every leader's job description." He contends this "takes discovering how you--uniquely--can support both yourself and other people to go through the same process, to 'self-actualize' in reaction to all the messiness of business and life."
       It's not the time-honored definition of a leader. I also suspect it's not one overtly taught in most schools, although we talk about developing leaders. I think that's because of what our culture--and, by extension, schools--defines as being educated. We use terms such as smart and knowledgeable, as if there is a clear and easily defined threshold, and one must present it with surety and gusto, even bravado. Many people draw a certain security from that, wanting to believe our leaders know just where we are going and how to get us there.
       But in such volatile times--the age of accelerations, as Friedman calls it--is that really what we need? Just as Edmonds points out many of misunderstand the concept of the ego and should reconsider its role in healthy human development, let's reconsider knowledge/education and its link to leadership. The second most important knowledge may be the continual realization of just what we don't know, individually or collectively. And the leaders we need may have the first most important--a sense of how to help us all figure things out together.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Re-Evolution as a Biped

       Since I tore my Achilles tendon on October 1, I have gone through a series of methods of mobility: two crutches, knee scooter, walking boot with two crutches, walking boot with one crutch, walking boot by itself. Sometimes I switch between modes depending on how far I have to go and how sore my ankle is. This past Sunday I showed up at church with just my boot, prompting a friend to gush, "You've re-evolved as a biped!"
       Yes, I have been very grateful to be back on my own two feet, even in limited fashion. The injury has been as brutal as I've always heard. Beyond the physical part, it's also been hard to know how much of a burden this has placed on other people and their generosity. Plus I can be a pretty self-absorbed patient. I am truly grateful for their kindness. And at moments I'm tempted to keep crutches with me because of the sympathy they can provoke. But I hope I'm never on them again, for the sake of myself and others.
       Currently I am learning how to walk again without any bracing or support. I mean that literally. I really didn't expect this part to come so slowly, although it makes sense given the nature of the injury and length of total bracing. I have to think about each step and stride, making sure I go heel-toe, aiming for equal paces, trying not to have any hitches or leg-drags. Forwards and backwards. On a treadmill and across the floor. I draw inspiration from recalling when my children learned to walk, how they were very tentative until it all clicked and they took off.
       Recently the experience has me considering teachers and some of what I suspect many of them have been feeling during this time of rapid change and the implications for schools. I suspect many feel as if they are having to learn to walk all over again. But while I'm striving to regain my normal and natural stride, in many ways they are being asked to develop entirely new gaits. Think about trying to rewire years of muscle memory and feeling as if you had to perform new motions flawlessly after just a few tries, if not sooner. While I still advocate change and want to see it occur faster, perhaps I have more empathy now.
       Of course, as with most things--and I may become dreadfully platitudinous here--conquering any challenge depends on our attitudes. At my physical therapy appointments, sometimes I see a guy who looks to be around twenty years old. He's lost his right arm, and he seems to be training other parts of his body to compensate. I've never spoken with him, and his eyes are distant. But he goes through his exercises with solid determination. It's trite to say this, but...yes, my injury has been a complete drag; yet I still have a complete right leg. I have the chance to rehab my injury and come back perhaps even stronger.
       As teachers and school learn to wend their ways through all the pathways of this emerging world, we have to embrace all the possibilities. Naturally some of those trigger fear. Look beyond that shroud, though, and it's gloriously exciting. After all, how many true chances do we ever have to re-evolve?

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Post-Election Challenge for Educators

       After the recent presidential election, as a school leader I felt the need to share some thoughts with faculty and staff. Their reaction has prompted me to post it here as well. I hope it provides some food for thought, a bit of comfort, and a ray of optimism:

Dear St. John’s,

            Obviously the recent Presidential election has triggered strong reactions across our nation. Naturally, that holds true for many at St. John’s, a school full of passionate, thoughtful people who hold diverse perspectives.
            At such times, people experience myriad emotions, all valid and needing to be worked through. Doing so may take some of us a long time. Perhaps like me you find yourself swinging wildly across a gamut of feelings while groping to make sense of it all.  If your candidate lost, you may be angry and despairing. If your candidate won, you may feel joyful and misjudged. You may wonder about people you have considered colleagues and friends. Whatever the case, we must not let recent events divide us. Always we should uphold our fifth tenet of Episcopal education to be “an inclusive community where the dignity of every human being is respected.” Such respect begins with striving to understand. If we don’t, we tend to demonize.
            Even before the campaign, our nation was beginning to fracture, mainly because of fear. We live in what’s been called “the age of anxiety.” Depending on our particular circumstances, we tremble with fears real and imagined. They are personal, often intense. Fear can overwhelm everything else. It causes that fight-or-flight reflex. It lurks in the reptilian, most primal stem of our brains.
            We have evolved far beyond that. We can rise to our better nature, to evoke our higher angels. We can gather our courage and tap into the unique human spirit comprised of heart, mind, and soul. It allows for rationality and empathy and forgiveness and compassion and love. It urges us to seek unity in an ongoing search for the ideal, with hope a shining beacon.
            Such optimism propels our individual and collective mission as educators.  The challenge of this historical moment is how we seize it to become better educators in all aspects of our lives.  To educate shares its etymology with educe, meaning “to bring out something latent.”  Our ultimate calling is to educe that which is potentially awesome, not only in our students but also in ourselves, in each other, and in our nation. I urge that we strengthen our resolve to do just that. Thus we will foster the safety and healing and love our world needs, now and in the future.
            In the meantime, if you wish to talk about this or anything else, as always I’m here for you.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Leadership Reminders From a Torn Achilles

       One of my favorite songs by Lou Reed is "Sick of You." I'm sure I'm thinking of it right now because after almost four weeks, I'm absolutely sick of dealing with things having to do with my ruptured Achilles tendon. In the song Reed gives a long list of cultural issues that disgust him; and I could do the same about my situation, but I try never to be a whiner. Instead, I try to keep in mind one particular lyric from the song: "They say the bad makes the good / and there's something to be learned / in every human experience." Adopting that mindset, I've been strongly reminded of three key leadership ideals in the form of metaphors.

  • We frequently hear about the idea of leaning into discomfort. When one is truly leading, as much joy as there can be, there is always a degree of discomfort. Because of the heavy boot I wear 24 hours a day and the need to keep my foot elevated, I'm always in some physical discomfort, and I twist myself into some yoga-like positions seeking relief. It comes to varying degrees and lasts only for a while. But I have to endure it as part of my treatment.
  • I've had to cede some control, even beyond not being able to drive when I never like being a passenger. I know it's weird, but I enjoy cleaning the kitchen and loading the dishwasher, mainly because those tasks are among the few things in my life that have a definite completion and satisfaction point. Plus I like to load things in the dishwasher a certain way. (I know what you're thinking...) But now other people are putting stuff in there, in places I wouldn't. Lo and behold, the stuff is coming out just as clean.
  • It's a daily reminder to take the long view, let the process unfold, and celebrate the little victories along the way. I've been told total recovery is six months before I can resume full activity. Yet I was thrilled when I could once again wiggle my toes after about two weeks. Still, I have to learn not to push things. At my first post-surgery check, the doctor said I had twice as much flexibility as usual at that point and I may get in a walking boot sooner than planned. Being the over-achiever, I asked if there were any exercises I could do to ensure that happening. The doctor smiled and simply said, "No. Let things heal."
       The Achilles tendon, of course, is named after the great Greek hero Achilles, who slay Hector outside the gates of Troy. He was invulnerable except for that one small spot in his heel, and he eventually died from a wound caused by an arrow. From that we have the term Achilles' heel, meaning a person's weak spot.
       And we all have them, just as we have our strengths. The challenge lies not in ignoring or even trying to eliminate our weaknesses. That's impossible--and I'd say even undesirable, as they are part of what makes us human. What really matters is how we cope with them, particularly in times of high stress. If we do that right, not only do we survive the situation, but we can learn and grow from it and become even stronger, as people and as leaders. I hope this post serves as a reminder of that, just in a much less physically painful way than I got it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Independent Schools We Need--Now More Than Ever

        The current presidential campaign, particularly in the past few weeks, has many schools wondering how to respond. They're wondering about the trickle-down effect, from kids' behavior prompted by poor adult modelling to topics in civics classes. The worry may increase after tomorrow night's debate. It's understandable, and some schools have suffered quite unsavory incidents. Plenty of resources and guidance exists in various places, so I don't intend to offer much in the way of specific here (no "top ten ways to deal with political nonsense"). It's not my real point. Besides, I suspect the answer lies in some things that have always been true about proper behavior and great education. And while the angst is genuine in the immediate, I hope it also prompts some larger reflection, especially for independent schools.
       As part of that reflection, first we have to acknowledge that this is not a new problem, suddenly roaring into existence the past few weeks or even few months. It's existed throughout the campaign. In fact, it's become politics as normal for a long time. I wrote about it last January in this piece and in another post linked within it three years before that. Our political system has become one of anger and divisiveness, with black-and-white thinking spurring hard-line action. Meanwhile, the populace likes to throw stones at politicians. But cultures, like individuals, reap what they sow. The whole thing feels like too many Internet fora come to life. In a way, in their past independent schools have been a part of the problem, given the status many held as bastions of privilege, ensconced on our glorious campuses and blissfully ignoring social issues.
       But in our modern manifestations, that is no longer the case. In times such as the current one, the best thing we can do for ourselves, along with the families and students we serve, is to re-emphasize and commit to what independent schools are supposed to be about. Yes, our missions play out in different ways within particular cultures; and the work is exceptionally complex and ethereal. But we can distill it to three key qualities:

  • earnest, dogged intellectualism within the context of holistic human development;
  • critical examination of topics via rational discourse;
  • humane, civil behavior guided by a firm ethical underpinning.
They are those things so missing from the campaign and often from our culture. So it's not the time for us to be blindly partisan, but to live up to our names and be independent. We have to resist the larger culture so our students can grow up to be the ones to improve it.