Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

May 2, 2018

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

It is my strong belief that the overwhelming majority of people want to do well in their work. Even when people are assigned duties they would rather not have or take on responsibilities that are not their first choice of roles, they have a desire to excel or, at least, to perform competently in those positions. To be clear, I am not writing about the critical, “Other Duties as Assigned” roles that we all must share. These are necessary parts of the work on which we collaborate. No, I am writing about those “other” things, the extra ones. The ones we do for more money (which we need) or to complete contracts.

In the work we do in schools, we are, more often than we in administration might like to admit, are asked by higher-ups to take on work that we would not seek out on our own. Often this occurs when we are new in our positions or new to our schools.

“Hey, do you want to make a little more money? Will you coordinate the magazine sale?”

“We want to fill out your contract and parking lot supervisor is available. Can you do it?”

“Well, even though you don’t know anything about tennis, we need a JV coach. Will that work for you?”

The answer to questions like this is typically, “Of course! Bring it on!”

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

The Competency Trap is a two-fold problem. First, those people charged with doing what they do not wish more often than not do great at those roles. Because they are valuable employees who care about the work they do, they accomplish what they are assigned. Most positions like this in schools are cyclic; they are needed each year. The person doing the work can become strongly associated with it. He is the Blood Drive person. She is the Bake Sale Coordinator. Look at what a good job she does. Once we are associated with work we do competently and well it can be difficult to change roles or to leave the work behind even if we wish to.

The second problem lies with administration. Again, the positions we are considering here are not the most desirable or prestigious in our schools. When administrators fill them, they are likely check off the box, happily. That is done. Move on to the next issue. When those doing the work do it well, why would an administrator consider a change? When people meet or exceed expectation and, at the end of the day or the term, when they have done a good job in the role, it becomes difficult to reassign the work. And if can feel unnecessary, even when the person doing the work requests a change.

This, then, is the Competency Trap, and the responsibility for getting out of it falls almost entirely on the administrator or supervisor. We want people to complete good work in the roles they take on, certainly. We do not wish to create a disincentive for good work. When we assign roles and lock people into them without periodic review in which they are the most important participants, the Competency Trap can be in play. We must allow people to express how they are connecting with what they are doing and how valuable (and valued) they feel in the work. If we do not, problems and frustrations will, inevitably, arise.

There are jobs in our schools that are not entirely appealing, but the work must be done. Some of it may feel like drudgery. Some of it may not challenge. We may get placed into positions we would not choose for ourselves for all kinds of reasons. That is the nature of our shared enterprise and that is fine. But, when administration does not pay attention to those in less desirable positions and when people feel stuck in these kinds of jobs and these duties become inextricably linked to their professional personas, the Competency Trap has sprung, and leaders must break out of it for the good of those they lead.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 18 – Avengers Forever!

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 18

Avengers Forever!

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


This past week, acclaimed director James Cameron opined about the upcoming film Avengers: Infinity War “I’m hoping we’ll start getting Avenger fatigue here pretty soon. Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell.” Perhaps he is correct. Perhaps a break in the two-to-three Avengers movie a year cycle would serve the movie creating and going public well.

Perhaps. But, well, no. Sorry, Mr. Cameron. I think you are missing the point here.

If you have read even one of these Superheroic Leadership blogs, you know that I do not agree with Cameron on this count. Bring it on, I say. Give me more quality superhero films. Give me more Avengers movies. Give me more stories of people united by faith fighting for a higher cause.

I have not yet seen Avengers: Infinity War. If you are reading this blog the day it is published (Thursday, April 26), rest assured that problem will be corrected by this evening. Since the movie has not even opened at the time of this writing, I cannot say whether or not it is any good (I suspect it is). I cannot say whether or not I will like it (I suspect I will). I cannot say what it is about (but I can guess).

Avengers: Infinity War follows the story told in Captain America: Civil War which featured a fractured Avengers team, split down ideological and emotional lines, fighting with one another and broken apart. Clearly, the find a way to put their differences behind them and come together to battle a greater evil in the upcoming flick.

This trope has been a part of Avengers stories in the comic books going back decades. Conflict fuels narrative and comic writers have gone to the well of breaking up the team only to bring it back together many, many times. In fact, one of the most famous Avengers stories of the past 20 years was an arc entitled “Avengers: Disassembled,” a play on the “Avengers Assemble!” battle cry. The catch to this story along with all the others that have scattered the team to the four winds (including, I have no doubt, Avengers: Infinity War) is that the team always comes back together.

This, of course, is what good teams do. Banded together by a belief in common goals, a good team relies on those goals and their mission to unite them. They may not always agree. They may not always see eye-to-eye. They may fight among themselves. They may even break apart, for a time. But good teams come back together. They work through disagreement. They find common ground in the truths that bind them.

Perhaps the Avengers have something to teach us about disagreement and resolution…

Avengers Assemble!

Teach & Serve II, No. 34 – Leadering: Humbling Oneself

Teach & Serve II, No. 34 – Leadering:  Humbling Oneself

March 29, 2017

No one deserves leadership. It is not some God-given right. Leadership is a privilege. It is a responsibility. It is to be entered into humbly or not at all.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across.

These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering?”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
  3. Honing Communication Skills
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

The entire world argues against this one. The trappings. The offices. The desks. The stipends and releases from other responsibilities. The desire to be called “boss.” The feeling one gets when told: “Yes, it’s you. YOU are the woman. YOU are the man. YOU are the leader.”

YOU.

The perks of leadership are as enticing as they are numerous. Being in charge. Being in the know. Being top dog. When we are surrounded by these kinds of things, it can be very difficult to remain humble.

Look, society assumes (this has actually been proven in studies) that the quarterback of a football team is the most beautiful player on the team. The most handsome. Beyond everything else the leader of the football receives, he also is the best looking? Are you kidding me?  But we believe this. On some level (at least the football level) we believe that are leaders are not only deserving of trappings, they are better looking than we are, too!

Therefore, in the leadering that leads up to actual leadership, potential leaders must engage in things at which they are not accomplished. They must try this at which they will fail. They must find those areas of their lives in which they are interested and need to grow. Leadering in this area means striving. It means reaching. It means missing the mark and refocusing. It means being told you are not good enough and you have to improve.

No one deserves leadership. It is not some God-given right. Leadership is a privilege. It is a responsibility. It is to be entered into humbly or not at all.

I learned this in many, many hard ways. I learned to grow into the role. I developed an awareness that humility was one of the key traits of effective leadership.

It took time.

One cannot fake humbleness. Those we lead see through false humility like looking through a window pane.

When leadering, those who wish to come into these sorts of roles should identify a mentor, someone who knows more, who has a deeper connection to humility and who can challenge. The best mentors show us who they are rather than tell us. They compel us to be better as we watch them and learn from their examples. When we apprentice at the feet of powerful mentors, we learn, very quickly, that the best mentors did not strive to become mentors at all.

They just tried to lead well.

Without exception, the best and most inspiring leaders find strength in their own humility. They humble themselves to the role.

Our leadering activities must teach us to do so as well.

The genuinely humble leader is a leader more readily followed.

Teach & Serve II, No. 33 – Leadering: Achieving Balance and Blend

Teach & Serve II, No. 33 – Leadering:  Achieving Balance and Blend

March 22, 2017

… the idea that we must find balance in our work and home lives… is obviously very important. If we are all about work, we have pressures weighing on us from home. If we are all about home, our work life suffers. This is not rocket science.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across.

These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering?”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
  3. Honing Communication Skills
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

Of the seven leadering activities I have identified that potential leaders can undertake in their development, achieving balance and blend may be the hardest, especially because something like finding balance takes time, and potential leaders, when they are younger, do not typically have a lot of time to spend on doing much but what they have to do.

I like the concept of balance – the idea that we must find balance in our work and home lives. It is obviously very important to mental and emotional health that balance is struck. If we are all about work, we have pressures weighing on us from home. If we are all about home, our work life suffers. This is not rocket science.

When I heard DeWitt Jones, photographer for National Geographic talk about balance and blend, I was really taken by his words. Balance is good, but it implies a 50/50 ratio. Blend, on the other hand, leaves room for liquidity, room for dynamism, room for flow.

In any case, a leadering activity that will truly assist potential leaders is finding the balance and blend they will need to have in their own leadership life. As they progress toward leadership positions, discovering when enough-is-enough in terms of work, taking time out for recreation and family and fun, setting appropriate boundaries for themselves and in consultation with their employers is leadering at its best. Learning from those experiences will make them stronger leaders when they assume those kinds of positions.

When I was conducting interviews for the high school at which I worked, I would ask candidates how they would say “no” to me when I asked them to do too much. It was a difficult question, I bet, and many likely thought it was a trick question. I do not, frankly, remember, in all the interviews I did, anyone knocking that question out of the park, but I asked it for a reason. I wanted candidates to know that it is okay to say “that’s too much, I have a life” beyond the job.

Leaders who exemplify balance and blend in their own lives illustrate to those they lead that having balance and blend is not only okay, it is desirable. It is critical.

Find the balance. Find the blend. Use your leadering to help you do so.

Teach & Serve II, No. 32 – Leadering: Exercising Authority Appropriately

Teach & Serve II, No. 32 – Leadering: Exercising Authority Appropriately

March 15, 2017

Leading from authority can get a bad rap and that is because many leaders use this mode as their primary one. When leaders exercise authority inappropriately or too frequently, positive results are rare. This does not mean that leaders should completely resist leading with authority. That, too, would be a problem.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across.

These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering?”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
  3. Honing Communication Skills
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

In my reading about leadership, I tend to gravitate towards those writers and researchers who begin with the premise that a leader can operate out of many different places, that a leader can be collaborative, consultative, authoritative and so forth, in any given circumstance. But, those writers who most appeal to me lean towards (or fully embrace) the idea that leading from authority is the mode in which leaders ought to act most infrequently. There are better ways to lead.

I agree with this. However, in every leadership journey, there are times when a leader must act from a position of authority. The leader, without much consultation or collaboration, must decide or act quickly and confidently. The leader must keep a counsel of one – herself – and move forward. If one is a teacher, administrator or leader long enough, the opportunity (perhaps a better word here might be necessity) to act from authority will arise. How leaders handle these necessities illustrates much about how they view leadership overall.

Good teachers, leaders and administrators know how to appropriately exercise authority.

To become facile at using authority, one must practice doing so.

As potential leaders engage in leadering, they must consider when and how to lead from authority. To discern which situations call for authoritative leadership and to be ready to act in that manner, potential leaders can and should reflect on what they see around them.

When taking on positions of leadership and acting in them, teachers and administrators can visualize the ramifications of their decisions before they make them. What are the results of making a particular decision authoritatively versus utilizing another manner of leadership? What are the effects on those being led? This type of analysis can be invaluable in leadering. It can and should yield great insight.

Additionally, there are examples in our professional lives of when those who lead us have acted authoritatively. How did those scenarios play out? What might have happened if the leader had confronted them with a different style of leadership?

An important leadering activity in this area is discussion. When a situation has played out, a potential leader who talks with the players involved, who asks the principal or teacher or administrator why they acted from authority and what the results of that action were can learn much about how he or she will lead.

Leading from authority can get a bad rap and that is because many leaders use this mode as their primary one. When leaders exercise authority inappropriately or too frequently, positive results are rare. This does not mean that leaders should completely resist leading with authority. That, too, would be a problem. Rather, in leadering, potential leaders should note when leading from authority is the exact right way to proceed. Realizing that exercising authority appropriately is good leadership is another important piece of leadering.

 

Teach & Serve II, No. 31 – Leadering: Honing Communication Skills

Teach & Serve II, No. 31 – Leadering: Honing Communication Skills

March 8, 2017

It is difficult to overestimate how important communication skills are for a leader. A leader who is an effective communicator has such an advantage over a leader who is an ineffective one.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across. These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering.”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
  3. HONING COMMUNICATION SKILLS
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

It is difficult to overestimate how important communication skills are for a leader. A leader who is an effective communicator has such an advantage over a leader who is an ineffective one. Those leaders who write and speak with purpose and clarity are much more likely to inspire their students and staffs than those who cannot. Deciding whether one is a good or bad communicator should be one of the primary goals of any team interview candidates for leadership positions. Hiring leaders and teachers who are not solid communicators is a recipe for trouble. It is not that these people cannot lead, it is that they will not lead as effectively as those who can communicate well.

Honing communication skills is very much leadering. Those who wish to be leaders can seek out and embrace opportunities to develop this ability. Certainly, there are those who have talent for writing and a predilection for public speaking. There are those who are in their wheelhouse when they are in front of a computer, pecking away at their phone, addressing a crowd. However, everyone who aspires to lead – to administrate or teach – can and should engage in leadering around honing their communication skills.

Seek out opportunities to address large groups of people. Look to take over the department or school twitter account for a period of time. Develop a professional blog. Develop a personal one for that matter. Apply to be a presenter at a professional development conference. Write and publish articles.

COMMUNICATE.

The more one speaks in public, the easier the task becomes and clearer communication follows. The more one writes for precision and purpose, the better the result.

Leaders must be able to effectively and clearly communicate. Teachers, likewise, must be able to convey what they mean in what they write and what they say.

Take advantage of leadering opportunities that will allow you to become an excellent communicator. You will need them when you are in leadership positions.

Teach & Serve II, No. 30 – Leadering: Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths

Teach & Serve II, No. 30 – Leadering: Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths

March 1, 2017

A leadering step is identifying and embracing one’s weaknesses along with relying on one’s strengths. Good leaders comprehend their limitations. They know their difficulties. They recognize their weaknesses.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across. These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering?”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. IDENTIFYING WEAKNESSES BEFORE CELEBRATING STRENGTHS
  3. Honing Communication Skills
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

I have conducted many, many interviews during my years in education. Likely, I have been on the interviewer side of the desk more times than I can remember. As I became more facile with the task, I would enter the interview with a series of questions I knew I wanted to ask. No matter if I was part of an interviewing committee or solo, I would be sure to get certain questions answered.

One of these had to do with the perceived strengths and weaknesses of a candidate.

What I do not clearly remember is in what order I asked about these characteristics. If I had to guess, I suspect I asked first about strengths and then followed up with a query about weaknesses. Why put the candidate on the defensive with a challenging question?

A leadering technique, however, should be knowing one’s weaknesses just as well – better, even – than one’s strengths.

Do not misunderstand. Leaders must know their own strengths and realizing them throughout the leadership journey is a principal part of growing into leadership. But it is also an easy part. We like our strengths. We play to them. We are comfortable operating from our strengths. We have been celebrated for these qualities time and again.

A leadering step is identifying and embracing one’s weaknesses along with relying on one’s strengths. Good leaders comprehend their limitations. They know their difficulties. They recognize their weaknesses.

As we look for leadership positions, as we realize we may be called to them, we should search out opportunities to address our weaknesses. We can look to overcome them. We can look to find ways to lessen them. We can seek help in dealing with them. What we cannot do as leaders is avoid them. They will surface. It is inevitable that they do. Our leadering should involve us naming our weaknesses and working through them. Our leadering should call us to embrace them.

I chose the word “embrace” carefully for surely our weaknesses say as much about us as our strengths.

Often our leadering activities – working in groups, serving on task forces, building teams – provide wonderful opportunities for us to recognize our weaknesses and to strategize ways to compensate for them. These are chances we must take to know ourselves (see last week!) and to know our weaknesses. It is in knowing them that we can minimize them.

We all have weaknesses. What leaders chose to do with them, how they choose to acknowledge and work with them, indicates much about who they are as leaders.

Teach & Serve II, No. 29 – Leadering: Knowing Oneself

Teach & Serve II, No. 29 – Leadering: Knowing Oneself

February 22, 2017

People who do not wish to know themselves this well typically do not make effective leaders or, rather, they are not as effective leaders as they could be.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across. These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering?”

  1. KNOWING ONESELF
  2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
  3. Honing Communication Skills
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

Knowing oneself is the baseline for leadership. If you do not know who you are, your leadership is undermined before it has a chance to begin.

I have watched leaders around me, both the good leaders and the bad ones, and I have tried to figure out what makes good leaders good and bad leaders, well, other than good. One of the qualities that most good leaders I know display is a comfort and confidence with who they are.

Good leaders know themselves. They know what makes themselves tick. They know what they are good at, what they need help with and what they should shy away from. They know where they are comfortable and, perhaps more importantly, they know where they are not.

During the run up to taking on leadership, development of knowledge of oneself is the most important leadering activity there is. Leaders should look for those activities which will enhance their knowledge of themselves. They must look for these activities if they are to reach their potential as leaders.

Leadership is not about putting on a hat or wearing a mask. Sound leadership is about recognizing a desire in oneself to lead and to serve others. It is also about recognizing from where that desire comes. Does it come – primarily – from an altruistic place or does it come from a selfish one? Does one desire leadership to improve the lives of those with whom one works or does one desire leadership to improve one’s one standing, one’s bank account, one’s prestige.

Leaders come from many places with many motivations. Each of these motivations can produce effective leaders. However, knowing from where one’s leadership stems is critically important.

And to truly know that, one must open oneself up to oneself. It may read silly, but it is not. Leaders expect those they lead to be honest. Real. Authentic. They expect those they lead to trust them. Trust comes from knowledge. Leaders must have a deep knowledge of self – of those lights and shadows we all work through and we all carry with us – to be the most effective leader they can be.

People who do not wish to know themselves this well typically do not make effective leaders or, rather, they are not as effective leaders as they could be. If you do not want to look carefully at who you are, your leadership will always have an inauthentic tone. It will not be all it can be. More importantly, those you lead will sense a lack of something. They will note that you are less genuine that you might be and that will affect your leadership. Perhaps greatly.

Leadering activities that help someone know her or himself better are as important as anything else a leader can do as they mature. They are the most important leadering activities of all.