Tuesday, August 28, 2012

RIP Coach

In my July 20, 2012, post “Thoughts Prompted by a Tribute,” near the end I wrote:
Finally, Tanner’s gracious tribute reminds me of what I want my children to experience in school, why I willingly write those massive tuition checks each year. Yes, I want them well educated in the traditional sense. But more than anything, I want them spending their days being influenced by as many great teachers as possible. (And truly great ones are rare.) No matter what my children end up doing as adults, whatever they take from those relationships is what will serve them best.
Yesterday, some devastating news and people’s response to it reinforced this idea.
            Brian Rhoades, a long-time coach at my first school (Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade, LA), died in his sleep yesterday morning at age 53. When I heard, I went numb during the phone call. After hanging up, I burst into tears. More on that later in the post. First I want to talk about Brian and how he fits that excerpt cited above.
            A college basketball star who led the nation in rebounding one year, Brian stood 6’10”. You can imagine how intimidating and/or uncomfortable that could be to young people. But Brian was one of the warmest, kindest people, with an incredible smile and sparkling eyes. Usually he was singing, and if anyone looked at him strangely for that, he just smiled and sang a bit louder until you smiled back and maybe even joined in. Hugs, pats on the back, tousling of the hair—despite his size, his gentle touch made people feel his concern and love. His silly sense of humor also put people at ease. I recall one time the cross-country team was running in the state meet the first time. It was in Derry, LA. Naturally, everyone was very nervous and tense…until Brian told them “how great it is to run while you’re smelling fresh Derry air.”
            Reading the comments on the site where people can share their thoughts about Brian, I am struck by what people share. It’s all about very personal experiences at various events. Campouts. Christmas chapels. Cross-country meets. Class trips. Special projects. At each Brian connected with each student in a personal way. One tells of him staying with her when she was sick. Another talks of Brian working through middle school drama and angst with him, including family trouble. One boy recalls how Brian had a group building a bridge, apparently for no purpose, only for it to end up being part of a performance. Another talks about not knowing who was more nervous in 7th grade sex ed, the students or Brian. The common themes are role model and life lessons. And teaching with a genuine, massive, loudly beating heart.
            That’s part of why I’ve had such a strong reaction to Brian’s death. When I arrived in LA just out of college, even though he was just two years older than I, I could tell there was so much for me to learn from Brian. Not so much about teaching, but about life. He exuded a wisdom and perspective I couldn’t really fathom; and I learned that, beneath the laid-back persona, there was a really deep thinker who cared immensely. He welcomed me, embraced me, encouraged me, taught me, let me know when I messed up. Most of all, I appreciated how he took the right things seriously, but he also made sure that he—and those around him—enjoyed life. He was one of those teachers I hoped that I could become.
            I’m sure some of my response has to do with his being a contemporary, one of my first true colleagues. Maybe some of it is guilt.
            I hadn’t seen or talked with Brian for around 13 or 14 years, until this past March, when my family stopped by ESA on our way to New Orleans. As we had driven through Derry, I’d shared the joke about the air. And then we got to spend a really nice time with Brian at the school. He was his usual gracious self, and it was as if we’d just been talking the week before. Plus I saw he still had that same connection with kids. More than anything, I was simply glad Brian was still there. ESA always was an incredibly humane culture, one which he embodied and sustained as others moved on.
            Which brings me back to the excerpt above. I don’t know that people first chose to send kids to ESA because of Brian Rhoades. But I know he ended up being why so many are glad they did. And what he gave them will live on. As one person wrote, recently she was talking to her own child and thinking, “Now what would Coach Rhoades say?” He might just smile and sing. As my tears dry, I plan to do the same.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Say It Ain’t So, Lance

So Lance Armstrong has given up his fight against all the doping accusations. 
This makes me sad. I desperately want to believe that Lance didn’t cheat as part of his remarkable story. He says this is not an admission of guilt, just that he is worn out by the “witch hunt,” the “nonsense,” and the “toll on his family.” He believes he cannot win in an unfair fight. I can understand that, particularly since he is the most drug-tested person in history. Of course, many people will ask, “Why now?” There will be the conclusion some sort of deal is being struck because the anti-doping agency finally has the goods on Lance. Maybe so.
But that’s not what depresses me. During my life I’ve seen plenty of heroes fall because of their human flaws. I understand that’s the power of classical tragedy, and that in modern tragedy all humans (not just the “great” ones) have our flaws that bring us down.
What really makes me sad is how blasé people seem to feel about this. Similarly, while I care, I have to admit I’ll be disappointed but not surprised if he did cheat. I had discussed this with several people throughout the saga, and many simply assume he cheated. Indeed, they would be much more shocked to learn that he hadn’t than that he had. After all, cycling is a sport in which illegal doping has gone on for years, with amphetamines used heavily before that. We’ve seen the prevalence of PEDs in many other sports. Just this week two major league baseball players received fifty-game suspensions for illegal use of testosterone. Much of the commentary I’ve heard on one focused not on the act, but on the ludicrous attempt to cover it up by creating a fake website. I worry that we accept, even expect, cheating to be part of sport now.
By extension, then, what do children come to internalize as normative behavior? That holds true in many aspects of their lives, particularly since they haven’t developed their filters yet. I’m not suggesting that we have to express outrage at every turn.  I just hope we are talking about cases like this with our children in ways they can begin to understand.
That’s why I want Lance to be clean. I yearn for champions who inspire. I love to tell kids, “Look at what this guy did. Listen to his story. It’s incredible! You don’t have to cheat or take shortcuts.” Now I have more doubt in Lance than I had before.  And if he really is clean, then I want him to keep fighting, just like he did/does against cancer, no matter how much the struggle beats him down. Because that’s another lesson we have to try to teach young people: that when you truly believe you’ve done the right thing, you keep on fighting the good fight.
I believe it was Charles Barkley who said professional athletes should not be given the responsibility of being role models (or something along those lines). That reminds me of celebrities who complain about a lack of privacy. In both cases, it simply comes with the territory, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly. That’s why, even with all the good he has done through LiveStrong—maybe even more so because of that—one of my first thoughts upon seeing today’s headline was, “Say it ain’t so, Lance.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Missing a Sign

Right alongside Highway 175 on the eastern edge of Seagoville, TX, there is a federal penitentiary. Low security, nothing like the prisons in Huntsville and certainly no Alcatraz. Yet it's still rather imposing, with guard towers and fences topped by concertina wire that could shred anyone stupid enough to try scaling out.

By one of the entrances to the prison, near the entrance to a park, used to be a sign: "Welcome to Seagoville, Land of Opportunity!"

The last time I drove through the town, I was disappointed to see the longstanding sign was gone, replaced by a generic one. I always found the old sign a great reminder that meeting any challenge can depend on one's perspective.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Final Frontier

     My guess is that almost none, if any, of you ever have heard of Brushy Creek, TX. It's about halfway between Athens and Palestine, about 8 miles after you turn off the main highway in Poyner and 110 miles southeast of Dallas. I have no idea what the population is; seldom have I seen another person there other than the people with me. There are some houses and two churches there. As far as I know, the closest Brushy Creek ever came to any sort of fame was when some pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia landed near there in the 2003 disaster.
     My wife's family has a place in Brushy Creek, a very comfortable ranch-style house in the middle of 90 acres of deep pine woods. It's as remote as it sounds, a wonderful place to escape from the craziness of Metroplex life and to lessen the nature-deficit disorder.
     I spent this past weekend there, a final retreat before school begins. I had toiled hard and planned well so I wouldn't have any busy work to do; I wanted the rest and deep-thought-free time that begins the moment I enter the property.
     This trip was different. Very different. For the first time, I had just too strong a cell phone signal. I didn't realize it until, just a few minutes after we arrive, I heard the chime that accompanies an incoming email. I didn't give it much thought, as the signal has been fleeting for about a year. But then the emails started coming in more regularly; then a text. I ignored them...for a while. I finally just turned off the phone.
    This certainly didn't ruin the weekend, and I spent only seconds fretting about it. I could even see some advantages, such as added safety when we were tromping around the woods or if we needed help during one of the frequent power outages. Besides, it's not as if we totally cut ourselves off there, as there is a satellite dish. (The trip also coincides with opening of the European soccer season, and my son and I enjoy many games.)
     But I still have felt a tinge of sadness from this. I am bothered that I had to make the extra effort to disconnect; AT&T felt like an intruder into my personal Eden. People could reach into my world without invitation. I imagine the battles with my children when I tell them no staring into screens when we are in Brushy Creek.
     We all need places like Brushy Creek, literally and metaphorically. Places that allow us look inward and think about the essence of being human; and, at the same time, almost force us to look outward and ponder our place in the larger universe. Deep, sustained reflection. The kind that doesn't happen when you're clicking from item to item.
     I knew this day would come. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Next trip, I'll turn off the phone before I unlock the gate.

Friday, August 17, 2012

On Tweeting

A few weeks back I posted “To Tweet or Not to Tweet?” It finished, “I still haven’t made up my mind, but I’m close. I guess it’s like swimming, and you have to go ahead and jump in. You could follow me @crottymark to see if and when I take the plunge.” Well, I wouldn’t describe it as an all-out plunge, but I have begun to send out some Tweets. Look to the right and you’ll note a Twitter feed and a link to become a follower. I’m starting to understand the whole appeal.
In that post I also outlined my misgivings. I’m going to insert the list, with each item following by some updated thoughts in italics.
·         I don’t want my tweets to be all about me and/or self-promotion, i.e. links to my blog posts (although those are okay provided they are not the total)

I haven’t fallen into this trap at all. In fact, I’ve mainly done promoting of other people’s work. One time I almost sent out a Tweet when a person wrote about an idea I had posted on a year or so ago, but I refrained. It just felt too self-serving and even mean-spirited.

·         People don’t need my status updates. Besides, I have enough trouble keeping up with myself.

I sort of violated this one once, but it was in the right spirit. I wrote that I had commented on someone else’s blog because I wanted to draw some attention to the fabulous piece on bicycling by Jonathan Martin.

·         I don’t want to be an overtweeter, sending out multiple ones every day.

I think my maximum has been three, and I usually do two. Sometimes none. I’ve also changed my song on this one a bit. I don’t want to send out multiple tweets a day, but some people I follow do so; and since they are good, I don’t mind.

·         I often write to figure things out, and I can see myself thinking through an essay to try to arrive at a worthwhile tweet.

I still struggle with this one a bit, but I’m coming to see a Tweet as a brief insertion into a much larger conversation.

·         The character limit intimidates me. I have to adopt Tom Peters’ idea that it increases rhetorical discipline.

This has been easier than I thought, particularly thanks to the url shortening feature in TweetDeck. I grow a bit frustrated when I would like to share quotations…and I cringe when I resort to removing letters from words.

·         The entire endeavor strikes me as potentially overwhelming.

I’m just very disciplined about how often I check. As I said a few years to someone who saw me ignoring my BlackBerry as it kept buzzing, “I control the Blackberry; it doesn’t control me.”

·         Sending out tweets just doesn’t feel like me.
Contrary to what I expected, it does feel like me. I tend to listen and think carefully, then speak briefly. I also like to just put things out there for people to consider.
            Beyond that, I’ve discovered a few other things. I’ve written a few times that thoughtful followership can be just as important as good leadership. This principle certainly holds true in the Twitter-sphere. I used to grow very frustrated with Twitter because I felt I received little useful information. But then I began to follow a few different people whose work I know and respect, and I decided to follow a few of the people they were, cutting out the ones who frustrated me. Revolutionary, right? Anyway, now I find the stream of information more refreshing and nourishing. That whole PLN idea really works, and I’m excited how Twitter is adding a new dimension to mine.
            I’ve also been reminded of how generous good people can be, as people have welcomed me, replied to Tweets, re-Tweeted. It creates a really nice vibe within the network. That, of course, again means you are linked to the right folks.
            I’ve also realized what an ego I can have. Whenever I gain a new follower, receive a mention, am re-Tweeted, I feel that tiny surge of importance and pump of self-esteem. Then after a while I head over to the blog, and if views went up afterwards…three hips and a hooray! Seriously, it does bring a degree of gratification to know that what you’re laying out there for people seems to matter.
            Any disappointments? Just one. Early on I replied to a Tweet by legendary management guru Tom Peters. Alas, no response. (And it was a great point.) Maybe it’s just as well. Imagine how my ego might have swelled then.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More about People than Machines

August is “Connected Educator” month; and, as part of that, Dr. Scott McLeod has organized Leadership Day 2012. On this day he is challenging educational leaders to “blog about whatever you like related to effective school technology leadership: successes, challenges, reflections, needs, wants, resources, ideas, etc.” Fittingly enough, today many of my faculty are spending the day in a workshop that is part of our move to becoming a 1:1 iPad school. Others did it in the spring; others will do it tomorrow. It’s the start of a year-long preparation program.
The easy way out here would be to re-post a piece from August 5, 2011: “Questions for Tech Leaders.” Re-reading it, I think the issues remain quite important and merit deep consideration. Much of the piece also stresses what not to do, with only a few suggestions for positive action. So here I’d like to offer a few suggestions. Some will be a bit repetitive from the earlier post, but some will be new.
·         Most importantly, practice what you preach. If you want your teachers to blog or to have student blog, you should blog. Let people know what new tech-related things you are trying.
·         Similarly, take some public chances with this. For example, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about deciding whether or not to begin Tweeting. I’ve sent some out tweets, and soon I’ll write a reflection on this move.
·         Whatever moves you make regarding technology, tie them to larger ideals, to mission, to that eternal notion that education can improve lives.
·         Linked to that idea, articulate clearly and frequently why you are advocating moves with technology. I talk often about student empowerment through technology, a notion that covers many paths.
·         Remember that strong teachers are hard-working people who care deeply about their craft. (If you have some who aren’t, why?) When advocating things, treat people respectfully and empathetically. Think hard about what all this technology-infused instruction signals to them. And call it professional development or growth, not “training.” To me, that suggests they are like puppies that may get popped with a rolled-up newspaper if they make a mistake.
·         Provide time for the work to occur—for people to learn about the technology, to discuss implications with colleagues, to experiment with students, to reflect upon the experiences. It slows down the transformation, but you’ll be better prepared for the big moment and better off in the long run.
·         Make oodles and oodles of materials available for people. You never know what is going to light that spark for any certain individual.
·         Encourage and celebrate, even what you may consider baby steps.
·         Don’t dilute the process. Schools are such busy places, and people want them to do more and more. For this to work, it has to be the priority. Some other things can wait.
·         From the very beginning, involve as many people as you can in the process. Our 1:1 task force has grown and grown as more people have become excited. This builds momentum, and it helps spread the work.
Those are my tips. I’ll close with this observation from reviewing the list: Aren’t these pretty solid guidelines for leadership in general? Once again, it's more about people than machines.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reading, Writing, Guilt, Fear

                I’m trying to decide if I should feel guilty about a recent development in my reading habits. For about the past year, I’ve noticed myself doing more of two things. I very seldom used to simply skim things, trying to pull out only the essential gist. Now I do so quite regularly. That one doesn’t trouble me too much; in fact, it’s probably a pretty essential skill in developing better filters as the information cascades over us faster and faster. The other development nags at me. If I am not enjoying a book, I find myself racing through it so I can finish. Sometimes, I am loath to admit, I don’t even bother finishing.
                Many people may see this as no big deal. I also could rationalize this in many ways. I’m busier than ever, and there is more to choose from than ever, so I need to be more selective. After all, with so many books and so little time, we have to be choosy. Plus there are now blogs and Twitter streams to follow, websites to browse, and on-line reviews to check before deciding to purchase anything. I wish I could argue that as my mind has developed, I have become much more discerning as a critic. I’m certainly quicker to say something is not very good and thus not worth my time.
                That never used to happen. I had a personal rule: if I started a book, I was going to finish it. Why? Out of respect for the author.
                Like many young people who grew up reading a great deal and later majored in English, I imagined myself becoming a writer. I would even call myself a “writer” in certain circumstances. And I was writing, sort of. Fragments of stories, even a few finished short tales. I had notebooks full of ideas and character sketches. I published a few brief reviews of things. For my classes I wrote very creative grammar tests and even a textbook. Later on I published a few longer articles through the years. Now I try mightily to keep this blog evolving in interesting ways.
                But to write a book…that strikes me as so incredibly daunting. I’ve been told that this blog has the seeds of a book, and that may be true; I can’t see it. The sustained effort, the massive combination of breadth and depth, the linear development, the stylistic fine-tuning—these things and so much more have to go into it. As legendary sportswriter Red Smith said in response to a question about the demands of producing a daily column: “Writing is easy. You just slice open a vein and bleed.”
                So that’s where my guilt comes in. I don’t feel right being overly critical, literally dismissive, of someone who does something that I can’t see myself ever accomplishing. I’ve dreamed about it, thought about it, made tentative stabs at it…but I’ve never truly gone for it. The reasons are numerous, and they share a common denominator—fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of starvation. Fear of discovering a lack of talent. All part of our lizard brain.
                As a school leader, an educator, and a parent, I think one of the most crucial things I can do is try to help people confront fear and move through it. True growth requires genuine and honest introspection, and that demands courage. The criticism—bad and good—must, to a degree, turn inward.
                One reason I like writing this blog is because I feel a twinge of fear about each post. But I have to put myself out there. It somewhat justifies my criticism of some writers.  And perhaps someday I can write that book; maybe the seeds in the blog will sprout and blossom. The idea still scares me, but I have hope.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wholesome Madness and Leadership

    Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
Emily Dickinson, #620

                Early last spring I had lunch with another head of school to get some advice. I was struggling with one of the thorniest issues I have faced. To quote Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, “squeaky bum time” had arrived. The entire scenario had me wondering in ways I hadn’t before about whether I even wanted to lead a school. (n.b. The situation ended as well as it could have, and I love being a head of school.)
                The conversation helped immensely. As usually happens, we also talked about other challenges of the role and shared some war stories. Towards the end he said, “The things we do, we have to be crazy.” In such conversations people often make such off-hand comments, sort of a hybrid between self-deprecation and venting. But it draws attention to the rather ludicrous way some of us choose to put ourselves in stressful leadership positions, whether in independent schools or any field. I believe we are called rather than crazy. But a book I recently read suggests perhaps some craziness is actually desirable.
                In A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness, Nassir Ghaemi posits:

Most of us make a basic and reasonable assumption about sanity: we think it produces good results, and we believe that insanity is a problem. This book argues that in at least one vitally important circumstance insanity produces good results and sanity is a problem. In times of crisis, we may be better off being led by mentally ill leaders than by mentally normal ones. (2)

Not exactly conventional wisdom. Ghaemi bases his logic on one key premise: “Four key elements of some mental illnesses—mania and depression—appear to promote crisis leadership: realism, resilience, empathy, and creativity” (3). Without diving too deeply into the sea of psychology, where I surely would drown, or providing more than historical references you can explore on your own, I will summarize Ghaemi’s ideas for each element:

o   Creativity has been a buzzword for a few years now, bandied in various ways. Ghaemi asserts meaningful creativity in leadership means not just coming up with solutions, but also having identified the right problems to solve. True creativity involves integrative complexity. Often it is preceded by the classic manic symptom of a flight of ideas preceding a breakthrough moment. Ghaemi cites Sherman’s strategy and tactics in the Civil War and Ted Turner’s work in building the CNN empire.
o   Realism includes not just a clear sense of circumstances, but an accurate assessment of control over one’s environment. Philosopher Karl Jaspers argued that response to failure often determines the person we become, and Ghaemi says that early failures “inoculate against future illusion” (52). Examples are Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
o   Empathy has been proven a neuro-biological fact, and it occurs when we recognize the “inescapable web of interdependence” (80). When depressed, “one knows the truth of empathy—that our fundamental similarities make us feel similarly—more viscerally and painfully than normal people do” (75). Per Ghaemi, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King suffered early bouts of severe depression, even attempting suicide.
o   Resilience is the “minds’ vaccine” (112) and comes from the “steeling effect of trauma” (120). The ultimate effect of an experience is not really what happens to us; instead, how we feel about it that makes it seriously negative or harmful. Ghaemi says the hyperthymic personality has “an innate immunity to trauma” (122), as exhibited by Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Certainly we crave these qualities in all our leaders. No doubt they become even more essential during crises. So Ghaemi’s thesis makes perfect sense. But it prompts me to wonder about leadership in normal times, particularly the implications for leaders who haven’t suffered any sort of mental health issues. What are the potential downsides? Ghaemi writes:

…the typical non-crisis leader is idealistic, a bit too optimistic about the world and himself; he is insensitive to suffering, having not suffered much himself. Often he comes from a privileged background and has not been tested by adversity; he thinks himself better than others and fails to see what he has in common with them. His past has served him well, and he seeks to preserve it; he doesn’t acclimate well to novelty. (2)

Later in the book, he adds,

The homoclite does not fail often, and when he does, he learns little. If he fails too much, he disintegrates rather than grows from the experience. Rarely having been tested in his youth, he hasn’t had a chance to develop the resilience that might see him through later hardships. Having suffered little, he can’t empathize with those who do. Having lived a secure life, he cannot recognize and react to hazards. (229)

If we recall our Greek myths, we see the perfect recipe for hubris when enough of any of these ingredients enters the mix.
                Of course, in either case we are talking about extremes. Yet it does point to a certain irony. When we look for leaders, we tend to look for those who seem to have it all together, who project a reassuring confidence. At times it seems we imagine someone superhuman swooping in to solve basic human problems. And schools are, at their essence, very human places. That’s why I grow nervous when I hear people moving into leadership roles declare what changes they plan to make before they have spent much, if any, truly meaningful time in their new school. How can one really know what needs to be done? How it should be done? How can a new leader be totally sure he or she is the person to make it happen, particularly as a lone ranger? One thing we should learn from superheroes is that they usually have a very distinct skill set…and also a definite weakness.
                Similarly, with so many schools now stressing leadership for students, we often make the same mistake. Who usually is tapped or elected as the student leader? Identified as growing into a leader? The young person who shines in everything. But there are no guarantees. Examples abound of people who soared throughout school, only to crash later; and of people who struggled through school, then succeeded fabulously.
I don’t know of many leadership programs that stress creativity, realism, empathy, and resilience. Certainly in the programs I’ve done, they are suggested amidst the various profiles and processes and reflections. We’re told all about emotional intelligence and communications strategies and meeting methodologies; we ponder the nuances of case studies and engage in role plays and jump into team-building exercises. Outside of those programs we read all sorts of prose promising to make us better leaders. However, as Marcus Buckingham writes in the June 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, “Virtually every corporate and academic leadership development program is founded on the same model—we can call it the formulaic model. It tries to collect all the various approaches to leadership, shaves off the weird outliers, and packages the rest into a formula” (“Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm,” 90). He add, “Even in firms where leadership development is a priority, the content served up is generic—it shows little understanding of you“ (90).
Buckingham’s comment cuts to the chase. All the study helps, and leaders must avail themselves of anything which can help them grow more effective. But reading Ghaemi’s book drives home an eternal truth: effective leadership depends on having certain human qualities. And each of those is needed to a different degree in various situations. Are you the right person in the right place at the right point in time for the right purpose? No matter what, to improve as a leader, first one must improve as a person. That may involve working with an executive coach…or perhaps even a psychotherapist.
                Which returns us to the original question prompted by that lunch conversation and Ghaemi’s book: Do you have to be crazy? Probably a bit so, at least in the loosest use of the term. And perhaps in the most extreme of situations. Still, I don’t know that I’d willingly suffer what I imagine to be the utter despair of mental illness to become a better leader. I wonder, however, if Emily Dickinson wasn’t right when she wrote, “A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King” (#1333).

Cross-posted on Introit blog.