A Giant Cup of I’m the Boss

It’s back to school time and after a summer of graduate school, I’ve had a few days to reflect on what I do. There are things about being a leader at which I think I am quite good. I love being around the kids. They keep me young. Mentoring teachers to be the best they can be is a challenge that I enjoy. Reading about new trends and researching ideas for better schools and classrooms is kind of my nerdy hobby that I partake in through many different outlets like Twitter, Diigo and Scoop.it. Taking all of those ideas into the practical world of the school is rewarding for me. 

There is one thing that I don’t think that I’m cut out for naturally and it causes me stress and anxiety. It is my professional goal for this year. This will come as a surprise to people that think that leadership is all about power. The one thing that is difficult for me is being the boss!

I’m not a fan of people looking up to me because of my position. I would prefer that people judge me and respect me based on my record and how I treat them or their child. I don’t want false respect that is triggered by my leadership role. I intend to prove to people that they can trust me and that I have earned their respect.

No matter, sometimes you have to be the guy that makes the tough decisions, you sometimes have to be the guy who tells people that aren’t doing a good job, you are going to be the guy who loses friends because of your decisions and you are going to have to be the guy that enforces the rules even when you don’t like the rules.

Those of you who know me well will understand why those things are difficult for me. We can talk about shared leadership or transformational leadership. We can talk about Theory X and Theory Y. We can go on and on about leadership in the 21st Century and the benefits of situational leadership. But in the end, one leadership trait never goes away. Some days you have to be the boss. Some days you have to switch into your big boy pants, enforce the rules and make the tough calls. That is the part of my job that I like the least.

In our school we have some fantastic teachers, we have some average teachers and we have some teachers who should move on. I enjoy mentoring teachers but there is a point where some teachers are not cut out for the job. They know it and I know it and sometimes you have to be the guy that tells everyone where the bear shits in the buckwheat.

So my goal for this year is to be more open to making the tough calls. To be the guy who is honest about the performance of teachers and staff. Be the man to make the difficult call to a parent who is also a friend or acquaintance and tel them what their kid is up to. 

It’s time to be the boss.

Industrial Age vs. Information Age, Part 2

From the time of the one room schoolhouse until the very recent past, walls have played a significant role in education buildings. Walls were built between classrooms with the intention of keeping everyone out. Other teachers were not invited into the classroom to assist or just to take a look. Doors were shut as a matter of course. Principals and superintendents knocked on the door to acknowledge their presence. Parents did not have an open invitation to visit neither the school nor the classroom. Although this has changed over the last few decades, it hasn’t really gone far enough. Parents are accepted as volunteers but very rarely as equals. Classrooms are co-taught but it is the rare that both teachers share the role of expert. Principals and superintendents visit more regularly but are still seen as observers not participants. The 21st Century superintendent will need to eliminate walls that constrict education. Not necessarily physical walls but virtual walls that keep the teachers and students in and the rest of the world out. As the world becomes more of a digitally connected society, superintendents will have to model and reinforce practices that create “thin walls” or “flatten” classrooms. This fundamentally open classroom should be a priority of superintendents who wish to address the challenges facing today’s students. Teachers need to begin to look for the experts in their surroundings and tap into their expertise. Administrators need to become a part of the educational experience so that students and teachers see them as contributors and not guests.

In all of this flattening and thinning, the Fantasyland superintendent should have several roles. He or she should be the leader through exemplification. As teachers and students begin to develop personal learning networks, superintendents should assist and support through their own personal learning networks. The days of not “friending” or “following” people who work with you or students are over. Superintendents need to model appropriate virtual behavior so that all of the stakeholders can see. As teachers begin to learn side by side with students, superintendents will need to be cheerleaders for their efforts. It won’t be easy for teachers to give up control of their classrooms so administrators will have to show their support for the challenges that they undertake. Superintendents will also have to serve as pitchmen for their schools. In the financial state that public education is currently experiencing and the negative connotations that sometimes go with our professions, superintendents will have to sing the praises of changes in the district while staying grounded in the data that supports technology efforts and keeping a close eye on the purse strings.

One concept that will most assuredly have to go in the 21st Century classroom is the idea of standardized testing to prove achievement centered around a finite set of standards in a limited array of subjects. Assessment, as we progress through this century, will have to change to encompass a new type of learning, a type of learning where calculators and computers as well as smartphones and tablets are part of the equation and the solution. Assessments will have to be able to gauge creativity and connectedness along with real world problem solving and leadership skills. As a superintendent in this generation of education, a priority will be placed on assuring that our teachers and our students are assessed on the skills that matter to this generation of employers and the next. The superintendent will have to be an advocate for assessments and standards that do not limit the education that our students receive or limit their post secondary opportunities. This means that a superintendent will have to be connected to the world as well as the classroom, an advocate for real reform in the global community and at home and a master diplomat when dealing with politicians and leaders of industry.

Red Shirt or Brown Pants Problems

There was a treasure ship on its way back to port.

About halfway there, it was approached by a pirate, skull and crossbones waving in the breeze! “Captain, captain, what do we do?” asked the first mate. “First mate,” said the captain, “go to my cabin, open my sea chest, and bring me my red shirt.” The first mate did so. Wearing his bright red shirt, the captain exhorted his crew to fight. So inspiring was he, in fact, that the pirate ship was repelled without casualties.

A few days later, the ship was again approached, this time by two pirate sloops! “Captain, captain, what should we do?” “First mate, bring me my red shirt!” The crew, emboldened by their fearless captain, fought heroically, and managed to defeat both boarding parties, though they took many casualties. That night, the survivors had a great celebration. The first mate asked the captain the secret of his bright red shirt.

“It’s simple, first mate. If I am wounded, the blood does not show, and the crew continues to fight without fear.”

A week passed, and they were nearing their home port, when suddenly the lookout cried that ten ships of the enemy’s armada were approaching! “Captain, captain, we’re in terrible trouble, what do we do?” The first mate looked expectantly at the miracle worker. Pale with fear, the captain commanded, “First mate…. bring me my brown pants!”

I thought of this joke the other day when thinking about issues that we as leaders face on a daily basis.  It made me think of the principal that I used to work for who wore a white shirt everyday.  EVERY-STINKIN-DAY!  For him, dress down day meant wearing a patterned shirt.  Anyway, that was the everyday business attire for him and I would propose that as the captain, the white shirt was appropriate for most occasions.  For this message then lets categorize everyday problems as “White Shirt” problems.  Those are the things that you are expecting to occur fairly regularly.  You may not wake up in the morning expecting them but when they do, you realize that they are part of your job and you just try to keep your white shirt clean.

Red shirt problems then are the problems where you need to protect someone else.  You need to hide a little bit of the blood, deflect a few bullets, from your tribe.  Figurative blood and bullets of course.  These are the issues that take bravery to overcome.  The “never-let’em-see-you sweat” problems. One of the assistant principal jobs I had required me to be a buffer between the upper administration and the staff on a number of occasions.  I would take the heat and for the most part the staff never knew it or I would be the go between with the staff and the principal.  I’d pull on my red shirt and advocate for them when necessary.   These don’t occur all that often but when they do you assure your people that everything is going to be fine and you labor through it.  You take the shots because that’s what great leaders do.

Brown pant problems, on the other hand, occur very infrequently.  I would categorize these problems as things that you can’t really keep from the tribe.  If you are breaking out the brown pants too often then something is systemically wrong in your organization.  If your company is going bankrupt, if massive layoffs are on the forefront, if a hostile takeover is about to take place; if the building is on fire.  Those are brown pant problems.  The biggies!  I would surmise that even the greatest leaders have a pair of brown pants somewhere.  The best probably never need to use them.

The reason for this post though is not to explain the types of problems but to help put things into perspective.  Don’t bring out the brown pants everyday!  A late employee is not a brown pant problem.  A phone call from your boss to meet him in his office is not a brown pant problem – usually.  Five people calling off for work does not precipitate donning the red shirt nor does a call from the distributor telling you your shipment is late.  Live in the white shirt as much as possible – figuratively of course because I don’t even own a red shirt! Use the skills that you have to solve these kinds of problems as a matter of course.  Don’t make white shirt problems into red shirt problems and save the brown pants to go with the brown jacket.  Of course no one would be caught dead in a brown suit but that’s another post altogether.

Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

I spent part of my teaching career teaching experiential education.  Pretty hardcore teaching assignment.  Emotionally disturbed teenagers in a wilderness setting.  More important than teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic we were trying to teach them to survive in the world despite their disabilities.  To be part of a community.  The lessons that I learned in those years follow me always.  One in particular goal that we had in those classrooms was to get students to function as a team.  We staged the process as forming, storming, norming and performing.  As teenage boys needed to learn to live and work together, all groups of people need to learn these skills.  And all groups that hope to perform at the highest levels must go through the stages.

I am thinking about these four stages as they apply to making changes in organizations.  Most of us are given a group to lead.  That group is already formed without our input.  They know each other and have already established a hierarchy among themselves.  The expectations have been established and their day to day lives are good if not extraordinary. The team has already gone through the stages and is performing.

At this point we have two choices as leaders.  The easy choice is to be satisfied with OK.  To not upset the proverbial apple cart. We are talking, after all, about a team that is doing “good enough.”  The other choice is to expect more.  To push the storm. To bring about a new norm.  The first choice obviously shows a lack of courage.  Choice number two, while more difficult, is the choice that a strong leader will make every time.

In my mind what is important is that the storm is the right storm and that the storm is worth the payoff in performance.  You gotta be right!  A group probably won’t survive too many storms.  If you push a storm for the wrong reasons or you create the wrong storm you risk losing the people that will shine brightest in the new performance.

In my experience I have experienced examples of both types of leadership:  people who have created bad storms and people who created no storms.  Both instances I categorize as poor leadership.  Neither one of them improves the performance.  I have also experienced leaders who created storms that at the time seemed senseless but in the end produced a much more high functioning team.  Effectively separating the wheat from the chaff.  Expediting the new norm.  Furthermore, I have seen teams that functioned at amazingly high levels despite the belief that the leadership appeared detached.  In fact the leadership was trusting and challenging. Patiently waiting for the great performance.

So tomorrow I set out to create well informed storms.  To create a new norm.  To strive for a great performance.  Please join me.

Led by a Dog

This afternoon, Fletcher and I went for a hike along the Appalachian Trail.  When your only companion has a canine brain, you think a lot.  On this trip I couldn’t help but to begin thinking about leadership and the lessons that I could learn from my furry friend.  Not all of them are lessons, some of them are things that I always knew or believed but were revived by today’s experience:

1.  Starting takes Courage – Fletcher was a rookie AT hiker and this wasn’t the easiest of hikes.  He was very tentative crossing the railroad tracks to the trail head.  Once he got a good sniff of the trail he was good to go.  We need to remember that we need this courage not only to begin to lead but most of us need courage every day.  We are charged with some tough tasks. Some days I pray for courage and some days I just bull my neck and take their best shots.  The important thing is to start.

2.  Sometimes its OK to follow – My travelling companion was very cool on single track.  He would pull me through clearings at a brisk pace.  He was also very adept at finding the trail through some rocky terrain.  I had hiked this section numerous times and knew how I wanted to go but there were times when it was more interesting and rewarding to see how he would conquer the trail.  One of my basic beliefs about leadership is that you have to surround yourself with the best people and trust them to make decisions.  I work with some tremendous teachers and I learn as much from them as hopefully they learn from me.  They are leaders.  My hope is that I give them the tools that they need and them let them lead me.

4.  You have to be trustworthy in times of trouble – At times Fletcher would get very skittish.  He’s a bit of a nervous dog.  At these times he would walk so close to my ankles that I was afraid he wasn’t there because there was no pull on the leash.  His trust was in me to get him to a place were he felt safe.  This is not always the easiest thing to do.  A leader has to build trust in the good times in order to be trusted in the hard times.  Let them walk behind you if they need to until they trust themselves enough to walk beside you.

5.  Sometimes you have to lead with a short leash – On this particular section of the AT the terrain is scattered with large limestone boulders and fields of smaller limestone rocks.  Anyone who has hiked through Pennsylvania knows what I mean.  Through-hikes have cursed it as the most miserable section from Maine to Georgia.  The white trail markers are the only things that indicate that there is any trail at all.  Basically you are walking boulder to boulder from one blaze to the next.  Through some of these sections I had Fletch on a three foot leash.  Not as punishment but as added guidance.  When people who you lead are struggling they need to be on a shorter leash.  You need to interact with them more frequently.  You need to guide them through the pain.  This is difficult because its so much more rewarding to interact with the people who are blazing the trail. Remember, they have already earned the longer leash or the ability to run free.

6.  If no one is following you, are you the leader? – Probably not.  Fletcher had this odd habit of looking back to make sure that I was following him.  Specifically he would turn his head after he traversed a typically difficult stretch of trail.  Almost as if to say, “Are you going to make it?”  When things get rough in your organization you need to make sure that you haven’t lost your followers.  In particular the core group of people who you trust and who trust you.  Those people are your disciples.  They will make sure the others aren’t far behind.  If you lose them you are leading no one.  Consider the opinions and thoughts of these people when you make plans to weather the storm.  They’ll bring the coffee.

7.  Leave the path sometimes – It is a cardinal rule of hiking to “Leave no Trace.”  Not only does this mean cleaning up after yourself but it also means to stay in the trail in order to protect the living things that survive just off the trail.  I always hike this way.  The pooch at the end of my leash didn’t always like this tenet.  He had a penchant for jumping on the huge, limestone boulders.  It looked like fun but I knew my knees couldn’t take it.  On the trail it is important to stay the course.  In our work it is sometimes important to go in another way.  Take a chance on something that you believe in.  Go against the status quo.  Great leaders know when to hold strong to the path and when to take a chance.

8.  You can’t cross a chasm in two small steps – Fletcher knows this.  When he came to a portion of the trail where it was rock to rock he would debate in his little canine brain the distance and decide whether to jump or to step down and back up again.  These decisions are the big decisions that leaders must deal with.  The distance across the chasm  can be calculated by how far we are already behind everyone else and how important is it that we catch up or go ahead.  Sometimes you have to take the leap and sometimes a step will get you there.

Funny how a walk in the woods with a dog can bring up all these thoughts.  Funny how when your mind has nothing else to do but smell fresh air and take in the scenery how clear your thoughts are. My ninth lesson would be that:  whatever it is that you do for relaxation, for mind clearing, for thinking without distraction, make a date with yourself to do it as often as possible.