Teach & Serve III, No. 30 – Leading from Fear

Teach & Serve III, No. 30 – Leading from Fear

March 7, 2018

When we find ourselves responding too frequently from a place of fear, perhaps our most effective window as leaders has closed.

There are good places from which to lead, good places of the heart and the soul.  I am a better leader when I am rested, when I am centered, when I am in touch with myself – with my weakness and my strengths. I can be a much more effective leader when leading from a place of good will and understanding.

Likewise, I am conscious of when I am a weak leader, when my judgment is  compromised and when I make poor decisions and choices.

Typically, I am a weaker leader when I am leading from fear.

Fear comes in many shapes and sizes in our institutions. We can be afraid of parents, afraid of students and staff, afraid of change, afraid of rocking the boat we have carefully tried to keep from sinking. Recognizing about what a leader should be afraid is not the same thing as leading from fear.

Leading from fear often restrains a leader and, ostensibly, an institution, from making bold choices and from innovating. Fear holds us back.

If we stop ourselves from making challenging decisions or from empowering others because of fears of whom we might offend or the impacts our decisions may have, we must consider the relative good. Is the offense outweighed by the positive results we anticipate resulting from the decision? If we are reluctant to lead because there are informal forces which will push back against us, we must ask a similar question. If we shy away from issuing clear statements or taking stands which we believe are important for our schools or our students out of concern for the reactions these statements or stands might draw, it is likely we have not considered them well enough in the first place. If they have been thoughtfully considered, and the students or school will benefit from them being made, good leaders move forward.

Yes, there are fears to which we should respond. Yes, there are times when what concerns us must inform how we proceed. Perhaps there are even times when our fears ought to stop us in our tracks.

But not always. When we find ourselves responding too frequently from a place of fear, perhaps our most effective window as leaders has closed.

A good leader recognizes fears, analyzes them and acts.

An excellent leader understands when fear is nothing to fear.

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

February 21, 2018

… how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate?

First, let us get this out of the way: our schools exist to serve our students. They – in a very real sense – are the bosses and they should be in charge. Not many of our organizational charts for our schools reflect that, however. Our org charts illustrate the adults who are “in charge.”

Okay. Fair enough.

When considering that, we can note that very few of us are actually the “Big Boss” or the “Head Cheese” or the “El Numero Uno Honcho” of our contexts. Schools are hierarchical systems. Typically, no matter our position as educational leaders, we answer to someone. Teachers answer to department chairs, department chairs to assistant principals, assistant principals to principals, principals answer to presidents, presidents to boards, and so on. This comes as little surprise to any of us working in schools.

It should also come as no surprise, then, that how we follow says very much about how we lead.

If we are good leaders, we expect that we will be followed. Whether we are consultative, collaborative or servant leaders – how ever we define our leadership – we anticipate that, if we are doing a good job as leaders, we will be followed. But even the best leadership cannot function in the real world without sometimes creating conflict or friction or unintended confusion. We know this. No process is perfect. No system is perfect. No leader is perfect. Not everything will go as we intended or planned.

If we are competent leaders leaning toward good leaders, we can navigate these waters and restore faith and trust. If we do a good job in that process, all will be well. Importantly, though, our followers must allow us to do a good job. The reservoir of faith and trust we have built up indicates much about how we will recover.

But so does our followership and here is the point: how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate? Do we presume their good will, listen to their explanations, give them the benefit of the doubt? Do we reflect on what has happened and consider our role in the issue? Do we seek to come to resolution, conclusion and positive outcomes? Or do we perseverate? Complain? Gossip? Vent?

As educational leaders, how we model followership may well be as important as how we lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 27 – Love the Work. LOVE IT!

Teach & Serve III, No. 27 – Love the Work. LOVE IT!

February 14, 2018

So we better love it. We better love the work. We better love the kids. We better love the hours, and the stress and the cafeteria duty and the dances and the grading, and…

This week, I am in my second week in a row of working with a group of educators from Jesuit schools across the US and Canada as they focus on what makes them great leaders and what they can do to make themselves even better. This is such a terrific blessing of my work and it challenges me to focus in on significant questions facing educational leaders today.

Today is also Valentine’s Day and, rather than focus on the commercialization of love (which might lead to a blog talking about the pitfalls of the commercialization of education – that would be a good one for a future date!), I want to write about love and education and how they ought to be integrally linked.

I have noted before what any teacher or administrator who has committed to our shared work already knows: what we do is very hard. Work in education is highly demanding. The hours are long. The pay is not always terrific. The rewards are not entirely tangible.

This is a tough job!

So we better love it. We better love the work. We better love the kids. We better love the hours, and the stress and the cafeteria duty and the dances and the grading, and… well, I could go on.

Over my 25 years in education, I have learned a few things – stolen them, really – from the many, fine people with whom I have journeyed. One thing I have learned is the best among us are happy to be here. The best among us LOVE the work.

I love the work. Do you?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Teach & Serve III, No. 26 – When Leadership Lets Us Down

Teach & Serve III, No. 26 – When Leadership Lets Us Down

February 7, 2018

What happens when we find that we have – in good faith – done all we can to eliminate issues, to find middle ground, to offer constructive approaches, to build and become bridges? What do we do when our leadership is actually not very good or working in ways that counter the well-being of the school?

This week, I have the great pleasure of working with a group of educators from Jesuit schools across the US and Canada as they focus on what makes them great leaders and what they can do to make themselves even better. This is such a terrific blessing of my work and it challenges me to focus in on significant questions facing educational leaders today.

Many (most?) of the blogs I have composed for Teach & Serve reflect on or reference conditions wherein good leadership is present in a school. They are written from a perspective assuming solid norms and procedures, relatively healthy environments and excellent standards for behavior.  

Let us be honest: those conditions do not always pertain.

Where does that leave individuals who wish optimal (or, at least, functional) leadership is in play? Where does that leave those who aspire to greater things for themselves and for their schools? Where does that leave people who seek perpetual improvement?

These are challenging questions, to be sure.

But there are answers.

Like the best answers, they start from within us. They start with us making honest and clear assessments of who we are in our leadership and of how we relate to the leaders and systems around us. The best answers ask us to ask ourselves hard questions.

And to answer them.

Good leaders know that one of the fundamental qualities of leadership is authenticity. I have written previously that I believe it to be the central and most important quality of a good leader. Good leaders, then, take the questions they are posing outward and turn them within.

If leadership is bad in our schools, we must ask ourselves if we are part of the issue. What role have we played to sour the milk? Have we contributed to an environment that is less than ideal? We must be willing to examine ourselves as a necessary first step.

And what happens, then, if we find that we have – in good faith – done all we can to eliminate issues, to find middle ground, to offer constructive approaches, to build and become bridges? What do we do when our leadership is actually not very good or working in ways that counter the well-being of the school?

We must, then, assess what change we can make from where we are. We must consider who we can help and for what reason. If our challenge of authority and status quo and broken systems is for the good of our students (and the good of the adult community – a secondary good; students come first) then we are called to confront.

We must respectfully disagree and offer alternatives. We must exercise the authority we have as teachers and as educational leaders within the same structures our chairs and administrators occupy. We must speak truth – truth to colleagues, truth to power. We must do so offering suggestions and solutions, through-lines and conclusions and ways forward. We must be willing to suffer slings, arrows, criticisms and critiques.

When we are authentic, when we act from our true selves, all of this, though incredibly heavy to shoulder, is worth the weight.

If our systems hurt our students, if our leaders are negligent in their most important tasks, they must be examined and changed. They might even need to be set aside or torn down.

However, our seats in the school, our positions and our power along with the management and leadership styles of our superiors may make true and lasting collaboration and change so difficult as to be impossible.

This can be a bleak state of affairs and cause crises of the heart.

When leadership does not work and is unwilling to reflect and consider change, authentic leaders are in painful positions. If one has done all one can on behalf of students to confront challenges and bad actors, to affect change and to advance the institution and there is no way forward, another question comes into play: is my presence here so important for those I serve that I must stay?

If the answer is yes, it is good to remember that systems alter over time and leaders do not stay in place forever.

If the answer is no, it may well be time for an individual to change one’s circumstance. While that is easier written than done, it may be an inevitable conclusion and a legitimate alternative to continuing frustration and pain.

The best answers start from within. Knowing ourselves is a significant key.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 12 – The Roots of Steel

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 12

The Roots of Steel

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


Superman is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. I did a little research (on the internet, so it has to be true!) of the most recognizable symbols in the world and the Superman “S” was in the top five on each list I reviewed.

There is some kind of power in that, in the fact that people see that “S” and know it stands for Superman.

And what does Superman stand for?

Truth? Justice? The American way?

Superman was created by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, OH in the 1930s. Children of the Depression, sons of European immigrants and one the child of a man killed in a store robbery, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster could not conceive how their creation would change the world. That was too big from them to think about.

Rather, in Superman’s earliest adventures, they thought about what a character driven by justice would take on. What type of evil should their Superman confront?

Within the first years of his adventures, Superman battled men who abused women, white supremacists, immoral politicians and corrupt businessmen.

Not a so-called “supervillain” among these criminals.

Within those same first years of his adventures, it was established that Superman came from another world and was adopted and raised in America’s heartland.

He was not shipped back to outer space because of his lack of proper papers.

There was a controversy a few years back when Superman declared himself a citizen of the world, not simply of the United States, when he said he would fight for those in need across the globe.

I did not understand the significance of the moment.

I bet all those who have never held a comic book, who have never seen a Superman movie, who cannot read English would have understood that moment’s significance. They understand the “S” to mean something special, something heroic, something great.

It represents the story of the ultimate immigrant fighting for justice.

For me, it will always stand for hope.

I am not sure why all this came to me this week… perhaps I need a little of what Superman has offered.

Teach & Serve III, No. 25 – Education: Our Family Business

Teach & Serve III, No. 25 – Education: Our Family Business

January 31, 2018

If you ask me what our family business is, I would have to say “teaching.”

And what a wonderful business it is.

Today is my younger sister’s birthday. In the past, I have called her my “little sister” but, as we are both *ahem* over forty, that seems a bit ridiculous now. I wish her the happiest of birthdays and a wonderful year ahead. I wish that all her dreams come true.

My sister is a child librarian and has been one for over twenty years. I have written about her and libraries in a previous Teach & Serve. She is a model for me about commitment and vocation and service. And she is thinking about altering her service from the library setting to the school setting.

She will be terrific and this is a natural progression for her.

My sister and me long before either of us were… forty.

As I was thinking about her and her potential change in career, I began to consider the other teachers in our family.

My mother’s mother was an elementary school teacher for years. One of my earliest memories about schools is being with Grandma in her classroom putting up decorations in the fall. What a lovely memory to have. One of my uncles was a math professor and dean of his department at a major university for decades. His daughter, one of my cousins is a professor at a major university teaching … math. One of my aunts was an English professor and dean of her department at a community college for years. Her daughter, one of my cousins, has directed preschools for years. One of my brothers-in-law taught for almost five years. My wife has been a teacher for almost twenty years. One of my sons is applying to graduate schools in education to become a teacher.

I taught English for over twenty years and am headed back this fall back towards teaching and into direct school leadership.

Other members of the family do critical work in other fields – for the church, for their communities, for the public health – are engineers and business leaders and are studying to be lawyers and nurses and so many more valuable things. I honor each and every one of them.

But, if you ask me what our family business is, I would have to say “teaching.”

And what a wonderful business it is.

I cannot wait to fully welcome my little… er… younger sister to it.

Teach & Serve III, No. 24 – Support

Teach & Serve III, No. 24 – Support

January 24, 2018

And, from that point on, all he did was support his understudy. He did not sulk. He did not pout. He did not complain.

I am not a college football fan. Growing up, I was (and remain) a devoted follower of the Denver Broncos and, though the University of Colorado was a top ten program from much of my childhood and even won a share of the National Championship in 1988, the year I graduated high school, my affinity was for the NFL in general and the Broncos in particular.

I paid little attention to the college football playoffs this year and would have likely not watched a snap of the title game had my son not been home from college watching it himself. Never wanting to miss an opportunity to be with any of my wife and my college-aged kids, I sat and watched almost the full second half with my son.

And I got to see something that can be great about sports that entirely resonates with our profession as educational leaders.

I saw unconditional and unwavering support.

Allow me to tell you the story, a story that you have probably already heard. The University of Alabama football team, having suffered through a brutal first half on offense, pulled Jalen Hurts, their starting quarterback who had, going into this game, posted an amazing 25 – 2 record. Unhappy with offense production, they sat him, replacing him with backup (and true freshman!) Tua Tagovailoa who went on to win the game and the title for Alabama.

There is much to be written about the boldness of being a leader, about head coach Nick Saban making such a startling and brave choice to change quarterbacks, but this blog is about Hurts.

Jalen Hurts, a sophomore who had done very little but win for Alabama, must have been stunned by his demotion to the sidelines. He must have been in turmoil. Surely, he thought he would lead his team to victory. Certainly, he believed some glory was due him if the team won.

Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa

But the night did not play out the way he must have imagined. He went from starter to cheerleader in the space of a halftime speech.

And, from that point on, all he did was support his understudy. He did not sulk. He did not pout. He did not complain.

Rather, Hurts was the first person to congratulate Tagovailoa. He was at Tagovailoa’s side during timeouts, coaching him up, helping him out, working with him. He cheered him on, encouraged him after a bad interception, patted him on the back, yelled his support.

If the actions of this kid are not prime examples of servant leadership, then I have never seen it.

Sports can and does teach lessons – lessons that improve lives.

And kids can teach us, too.

What an incredible lesson in how to support a teammate. It is a lesson leaders should learn.

Teach & Serve III, No. 23 – I Hear You

Teach & Serve III, No. 23 – I Hear You

January 17, 2018

Anyone with a well-developed auditory sense can listen. Leaders who want to serve the people with whom they work must hear.

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to discuss myself and my leadership in detailed and reflective ways, asked questions by groups of dedicated educators who were most interested in my answers. I was both lucky and blessed to have been part of three separate search processes – processes looking to identify qualities in applicants for instructional leaders of schools. The conversations were long, intense, exciting and exhilarating one-and-all.

As I moved from conversation-to-conversation, process-to-process, I found myself listening to myself and reflecting on what I was saying in medias res which was a very interesting experience. After all, there are questions that good interview committees will be sure to ask and questions for which I very much needed to be prepared, prepared to give my most honest and authentic responses.

Inevitably, the question of how I would, as the instructional leader, listen to the staffs and the teachers and the students of each respective institution – was raised.

I replied that listening is a critical component of educational leadership, but not the most critical one. And, in fact, I found myself saying, on more than one occasion and working quickly to explain myself, how important it is that people feel as though they are heard.

Hang on, now… “feeling” as though one is heard does not actually indicate that someone has been heard.

Good leaders listen, sure. Good educational leaders are good at listening.

Exceptional educational leaders are exceptionally good at hearing.

Anyone with a well-developed auditory sense can listen. Leaders who want to serve the people with whom they work must hear. The must work at it and hone the skill. They must realize that hearing is so much more important than simply listening.

Hearing implies a desire to connect. Hearing implies wanting to comprehend. Hearing implies action.

Listening is passive. Someone who is listening is just there, in the room or the office, nodding, smiling, listening.

Hearing is active. Someone who is hearing is engaged, asking questions, offering support, giving suggestions.

Leaders who valuing hearing put away all distractions, close their laptops and shut down their tablets. They silence and set aside their phones and they hear.

When a true leader says “I hear you” the person to whom they say it does not just feel heard, she or he knows without a doubt she or he has been heard.

A leader does not just listen, a leader hears.

(oh, and a follow up on those conversations about formal educational leadership is coming…)

Teach & Serve III, No. 22 – Get Real

Teach & Serve III, No. 22 – Get Real

January 10, 2018

Our students want us to be real. They want us to connect with them in real ways. They want to understand what application any and everything we are teaching them has on their real lives. Our staffs want us to be real. They want us to know them in real ways. They want to understand what implication our leadership has on their real lives.

 

You know what our students and staffs want from us as educational leaders?

They want us to get real.

I am an awards season addict. Okay, in fairness, “addict” may be too strong a word. Let us stipulate to the fact that I pay attention to Hollywood awards beginning with the Golden Globes running right on through the Oscars. Yes, they are self-congratulatory. Yes, there is much to criticize about entertainment and Hollywood culture. Yes, there is typically something vacuous about all this.

Yes, yes, yes.

But, at last Sunday’s Golden Globes, there was something else. There was a reality to the proceedings, a self-awareness. There was a seriousness about sexual harassment, about women’s roles in the industry, about what inspires good work and why people do it.

There was something real about what was said.

And that was before Oprah Winfrey spoke.

What she said, though inspiring, powerful and worth a listen I think, is not what got me thinking about Teach & Serve this week. The fact that Oprah took advantage of her opportunity to be real, to address real issues, to talk about reality is what most moved me. Her conclusions can be debated as can her reasons for sharing these particular comments at this particular time. But the fact that she was real cannot be.

Our students want us to be real. They want us to connect with them in real ways. They want to understand what application any and everything we are teaching them has on their real lives.

They want us to get real.

Our staffs want us to be real. They want us to know them in real ways. They want to understand what implication our leadership has on their real lives.

They want us to get real.

That is a standard to which excellent educational leadership hold themselves: they are real. They know what they say and what they do affects people and they are clear and careful and conscious of that. They understand that their leadership has real-world consequences and they do not take the responsibility lightly.

Be a better educational leader in 2018.

Get real.

Teach & Serve III, No. 20 – TRANSPARENCY #oneword2018

Teach & Serve III, No. 21 – TRANSPARENCY #oneword2018

January 3, 2018

Leaders who operate from a perspective of transparency take the guesswork out of followership and take the guess work out of who they are… It is easy to know who a transparent leader is. She is not hiding anything.

I love the concept of choosing one word on which to focus for the next twelve months. I am not entirely sure who began the initiative or how the concept got moving. But I am glad that those educators I follow on Twitter have been celebrating it. Their enthusiasm has inspired my own over the last few years and I thought carefully about what I would choose as my guiding word and principle this year.

My One Word for 2018 is TRANSPARENCY.

Talented leaders are brimming with qualities that make them inspirational and effective. They share those qualities freely and without expectation. They serve those with whom they work as part of the vocation of educational leadership they have chosen. And they have many qualities in common.

Of these, the quality I most wish to adopt, expand and emulate in my own life is transparency.

Leaders who are transparent (people who are transparent) in who they are, in what they do and in how they lead do not leave people guessing. They do not make decisions that seem out of the blue, left field or nowhere. They do not catch those around them flatfooted. Leaders who are transparent communicate with those around them consistently and as a matter of course. They are not hiding agendas because they have no agendas to hide. They are up front, genuine and authentic.

Leadership is challenging but so is followership. Followership can be made easier by leaders who are transparent. When followers know what to expect and what is expected of them, when they know what drives leaders’ decision making, when they know what leaders are thinking and why they are thinking it, being a follower is both easier and more fulfilling. Leaders who operate from a perspective of transparency take the guesswork out of followership and take the guess work out of who they are.

It is easy to know who a transparent leader is. She is not hiding anything.

We could use more transparency in our world. We can certainly use transparency in our work.

As I grow in 2018, as I continue to improve myself as a person and as a leader, I will work to be transparent. I will work to be authentic. I will work to be genuine.

I will work on my #oneword2018.