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.

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.

Teach & Serve III, No. 10 – Proceed with Caution

Teach & Serve III, No. 10

Proceed with Caution

October 11, 2017

While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

This is a hard one.

I was in high school classrooms for almost 25 years before leaving that work for my current position. I choose the word “classrooms” intentionally as I made certain, even as I transitioned from full time teacher to full time administrator, that I was assigned at least one two semester class every year I worked in secondary education. I felt that was important in terms of keeping me grounded in the real work of the school which is, obviously, working with students.

In those almost 25 years, I am sure I worked with thousands of students. I live in a kind of ambient anxiety about running into them now because I am terrible about remembering them names which is unfortunate. I wish I could remember all the kids I had in class with me, but I simply do not have that kind of bandwidth. Many I know do and I am so impressed by them.

When I consider those years, I have only fond memories of students in my classes, fond memories of all the students whether they worked hard or not, participated well or not, got in trouble or not. I look back on that mass of kids with a smile.

I have always assumed that students who sat in the desks in my classrooms had much the same thoughts about me, if not a pleasant feeling about being in my room, then, at least, an idea that we were in something together, that I respected them and that we shared some good times. It has never occurred to me that some of those students felt as though I did not care about them, did not know them and did not value them.

No. I should write it had never occurred to me, not until last spring.

Facebook is a wonderful tool and I have really enjoyed connecting with people from my past, including students. I made it policy not to “friend” them when they were still in school, but, if they requested after graduation and I remembered who they were (because looking at their pictures always helped!), I accepted. I have had many a conversation through FB with former students and it has been a pleasure to follow their lives in this pretty limited fashion.

As it turns out, some of my former students have even read these blogs on education that I write weekly. I discovered this by seeing the infrequent “likes” they might click after a post and I found out that some are really reading these things when I received a message from a student.

The content of the message was not what I expected. Essentially, the student felt that I bullied her/him in school, that I did not care about her/him, that I made a point of sticking it to her/him. When this student was considering transferring from the school, she/he remembers many teachers trying to change his/her mind. The student is certain I did not recall her/his name.

It was a long message and a powerful one.

I remembered the student quite well. That is the reason I had accepted her/his friend request. This is a student that I would recognize if we ran into each other. This is a student of whom I had warm and fond memories.

This student did not feel the same. Situations I remembered one way, this student recalled in an almost polar opposite fashion. And, to be clear, the student’s perception is reality. While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

There is not a thing I can do to go back and change what I did to make this student feel this way, though I very much wish there were.

The benefit of this exchange between us was for me to be more reflective looking back, for me to consider things from my former students’ perspectives and for me to take myself down from the pedestal I have placed myself upon.

The good leaders and teachers I know welcome challenging input, they solicit ways to improve, they listen to those they have hurt and they invite pointed critiques.

Then they grow.

I have grown from reading these comments. Looking forward, I am more aware of how my actions and interactions influence others. Looking back, I am more aware of how my nostalgia colors my view of the past.

These are good things. They are hard things, but good.

Leaders must be cautious when they (as I often do in these posts) pat themselves on the back. Leaders must remember that their actions are interpreted, minute-by-minute, by those with whom they journey. Leaders should never get too comfortable thinking they have it all figured out.

Leaders must proceed with caution, for they are responsible for the perceptions they create.

Teach & Serve III, No. 9 – Who’s in Trouble?

Teach & Serve III, No. 9

Who’s in Trouble?

October 4, 2017

Give me leaders who understand this, leaders who know that the buck (and everything else) does stop with them. Give me leaders who say: “I get it. I will take it.”

In my years as an administrator, one of the teams on which I served to which I wish I could have offered more was the Student Assistance Team.

The Student Assistance Team was made up of administrators and teachers and directors. Anyone on staff could refer a student to this group. It was designed to catch students who might fall through any cracks in our program. It was designed as a place where kids could be discussed, plans could be made, help could be created. It was designed to keep kids on track socially and academically, to respond to their needs and to strengthen the overall community by assisting those who needed the most support.

It was a great work of which to be a part.

Many schools have groups such as this. All schools should have them. Schools ought to be about this. They ought to have these sorts of nets in place. They ought to have people committed to keeping their eyes on as many students as possible. They ought to know that protecting students is as important as teaching them.

Here’s the question: do we have these same kinds of supports for the adults in our buildings?

If we do not, we should think hard about developing them.

As leaders in our schools – as administrators and department chairs – part of our role in serving our staffs is knowing who needs to be served and how. Leaders must be as vigilant about the health and wellbeing of the adults in their charge as they are about the students in their charge.

This is not a lot to expect.

At the end of the equation lies the students. The operators in between the administration and the students are the teachers and staff, the adults in the building. To care about the kids is to care about those who are most closely in contact with them.

Leaders have to know who is in trouble on their staff. Beyond that, they have to try to help those who are in trouble.

When I was as assistant principal, my responsibilities revolved, primarily, around working with the faculty. Looking back, I know there was more I could have done, there were people to whom I could have been much better, colleagues I should have worked with in a far more compassionate way. However, I can say with honesty that I attempted to make it my work to know who the adults in my charge were, how they were and what they needed to be the best version of themselves.

Bringing the best version of themselves to all the did at the school made them better, the experience of the students better, the school better.

How would I ever know if a teacher needed to be non-renewed or replaced if I did not take the time to know them, to hear their perspective, to work with them? How could I advise my principal on hiring and firing if I did not try to engage and understand? How could I help if I did not know who needed help? I tried to connect because I thought it was critical to my role. I could have done better and, in many cases, wish I had, but I did understand that leadership required this of me.

Leaders who do not understand that knowing who on their staff is in trouble is as important as knowing which students might be in trouble are missing something critical.

Take care of those in need, adult and student alike. Make their lives as fulfilled as you can.

That is one of the critical roles of leadership.

Teach & Serve III, No. 7 – Intimidation

Teach & Serve III, No. 7


September 20, 2017

I do not want to follow a leader who thinks that the best way to engender loyalty is to intimidate those being led.

And I won’t.

I have written about this anecdote before, but I had cause to consider it anew this week.

When I first was hired as an administrator, I had a conversation with my uncle who, for years, had been Dean of the Math Department at a midwestern public university. He had well over 40 professors and adjuncts in his department and there was much to manage.

My uncle, a very bright, very tall man, said to me: “Sometimes, use the height.”

“What’s that?”

“Sometimes use your height.”

I am a tall man as well, taller than my uncle, actually, but I still did not take his meaning.

“When things get out of hand, if I am sitting in a meeting, I just stand up. That tends to quiet the room.”

“Ah,” I said. “Thanks.”

It sounded like a pretty good strategy to me. Rise up. Indicate displeasure. Control the room.

I do not, however, remember ever using this technique. I am sure I did.

15 years later, I wonder about it. I hate to overthink it, but it does seem to me like a move that is meant to intimidate. I am tall. I am taller than you. I exert my authority.

Okay, okay. No big deal. It is not like my uncle pounded on tables (I do not believe he did, anyway) and it is not like I ever did, either (if I did, I have conveniently blocked those times out of my memory).

This is not a bad strategy. It is not offensive. It is just fine especially if one does not find oneself standing up all the time to control a room or reset a meeting. See, I believe the only reason a strategy like that would work in the first place is because those being led respect the leader enough to care what he or she is doing, standing or sitting.

There are some leaders, though, who believe that their leadership originates from a place of power. Some who believe the only reason they are followed at all is because of the title on their lanyard, the name plate on their door, the position they hold. There are some leaders who believe their positions grant them all the authority they need to be leaders, to be called “boss,” to be in charge.

And those leaders, in my opinion, tend to rely on leadership techniques that intimidate, that divide, that defeat. Frankly, though initially those being led might be “defeated” by these tactics, it is my experience that, in the end, leading from intimidation is almost always self-defeating.

Is there a place in leadership to exert one’s authority? Of course there is. Often leaders need to. But if that is the primary mode of operation – if intimidation in leadership is seen as a useful tool, not a last resort – that is a problem.

I do not want to follow a leader who thinks that the best way to engender loyalty is to intimidate those being led.

And I won’t.

Nor will most others. For long.

Teach & Serve III, No. 5 – Embrace the Expectations of Leadership

Teach & Serve III, No. 5

Embrace the Expectations of Leadership

September 6, 2017

Give me leaders who understand this, leaders who know that the buck (and everything else) does stop with them. Give me leaders who say: “I get it. I will take it.”

Let us begin this blog with a statement which, I admit, may or may not be true: It is harder now than ever to lead a school.

Again, I admit, there may have been moments in the past, long before my blip on the timeline of the educational game, when school leaders and teachers had it harder than they do currently, but it sure seems like school leaders and teachers deal with an awful lot right now.

School leaders seem to be held accountable for so much. They are held accountable for school culture, for the manner in which their students use social media, for the behavior of the people on their staffs, for the content of the textbooks (digital or otherwise) used in their curricula, for graduation rates, for college and career placements for whether no not students get invited to other students’ parties, for what kids do after dances and proms, for how students might procure alcohol and other materials at school events, for… well, you get the picture.

While some of the above issues may appear more critical than others, please note this: I did not fabricate any of them. All of the above have been issues brought to me or to my colleagues in their work. And the list could be much, much, longer. Some of these issues are, obviously, realistic. They are the things school leaders can and should address. They are things that ought to be on the leader’s proverbial plate. Some of them, however, are unrealistic to the point of being absurd. And, yet, they find their way to the teacher or school leader’s door.

All of this kind of makes you wonder why someone would choose school leadership as a vocation. I cannot answer that musing. I can say this: great teachers and great school leaders embrace the expectations of their position. It is not that they love every moment, or that they agree with the fact that all of these issues (and more) should come to their office doors. No. It is that they understand that these issues – any issues which occur that involve their staffs, their students, their families – are part and parcel to their work. Great leaders do not avoid this kind of responsibility. They take it on. They lean into it. They embrace it.

Schools are complex structures. Those structures involve hundreds (or thousands) of people. Those people, whether they know it or not, rely on great leadership.

Give me leaders who understand this, leaders who know that the buck (and everything else) does stop with them. Give me leaders who say: “I get it. I will take it.”

Give me leaders who embrace the expectations, realistic or not, of those they lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 4 – Optimism Can Be a Choice… and It Should Be

Teach & Serve III, No. 4

Optimism Can Be a Choice… and It Should Be

August 30, 2017

Our work is with kids. Our work is for the future. What could be better – or inspire more optimism – than that?


We work with kids.

Let us never forget that we work with kids.

I know that seems like a ridiculous directive, remembering we work with kids, but in the midst of the booting up duties at the beginning of the school year, as we set up our LMS’s and our electronic grade books, as we go from meeting-to-meeting and review policies and procedures, the fact that we do all this to get to the good part – the working with kids part – can be lost in the haze.

We should not lose sight of this.

Whether we are teachers or administrators, our work is with students, with kids.

And kids are exciting and excitable. And they are young (at least they are younger than we are). And they are looking at us. All. The. Time.

It is all too easy at the start of the year to be weighed down by the pressure of the work, by the immensity of all the we needs must do and all that we are asked and directed to do. It is all too easy to set high goals for ourselves – and setting those high goals is, of course, critical! – but to see those goals as barriers to cross not benchmarks to achieve. It is all too easy to come into the year tired. Worn out. Pessimistic about the months ahead.

Guard against pessimism.

Remember, the students are watching us. All. The. Time.

In a society that rains pessimism down on them, would it not be refreshing – for them – if they did not receive the same from us? Would it not be wonderful for them to receive from us the reverse?

Optimism is a choice and choosing it over pessimism is a choice that we can and should make over-and-over again.

Our work is with kids. Our work is for the future. What could be better – or inspire more optimism – than that?

It is our choice to give into the morass of pessimism and our choice to embrace the freedom of optimism.

Which would you rather bring to your classroom and context this year?

Teach & Serve III, No. 2 – Playlist 2017-2018

Teach & Serve III, No. 2

Playlist 2017-2018

August 16, 2017

… time to put together the mixtape that will be the soundtrack for the upcoming nine months, the backbeat of the days and weeks and months ahead.

It’s that time of year again: time to put together the mixtape that will be the soundtrack for the upcoming nine months, the backbeat of the days and weeks and months ahead.

In Teach & Serve Volume I a couple years back, I wrote about #OneSong, stealing the idea from my good friend and esteemed educator Sean Gaillard. The playlist is more than one song… it’s a concept album for an entire school year.

How do songs make my playlist? They land there for one of two reasons.

First, I like how they make me feel. In the fall as the year begins, I am searching for energy, excitement and enthusiasm. You won’t find too many ballads on the playlist, but you may find some instrumentals.

Second, the lyrics resonate with me, move me, inspire me and send me a message.

I listen to the playlist all year, adding to it, deleting from, adapting it like any good teacher should do.

Here’s this year’s edition:

What are you listening to this fall?

Teach & Serve III, No. 1 – Teach Boldly, Again!

Teach & Serve III, No. 1

Teach Boldly, Again!

August 9, 2017

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

The beginning of the beginning is ramping up in schools all over the country. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a teacher or administrator knee deep in preparation, cross checking lists of all that needs doing in these opening days and preparing for these early moments of 2016-2017 as best you can.

May I please make a suggestion? No matter what you do in these initial days, no matter the pressure you feel, the demands you take on, the time crunch you suffer, no matter what you do in these days, do it with as much positivity as you can. Go about your work with energy. Greet students and colleagues and families with smiles. Celebrate the beginning of the year. Be bold in your embrace of all the possibilities it brings.

Let boldness be your home base this year.

Teach boldly. Administrate boldly. Coach and direct boldly.

Let that be your rallying cry: teach boldly.

Students respond to boldness. Colleagues are searching for it. We hear that schools should inspire. They should challenge. They should dare. How do these things happen if we ourselves are not bold in our individual rooms and days and works?

Shouldn’t we want to be bold? Wouldn’t we rather be bold than be… well, what’s the alternative? Timid? Reticent? Fearful?

Those aren’t the descriptors for which our work in education calls. None of them are even close.

Be Bold. Be resolute. Be heroic.

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

Your colleagues want to hear what you have to say. Engage them. Be bold.

Administrators, your staffs want to be led. Animate them. Be bold.

Make this year a year for boldness, for courage, for fearlessness.

Your students, colleagues and staffs need this from you. They hurry from class-to-class, assignment-to-assignment, meeting-to-meeting and running that gauntlet is both daunting and draining. When they come to you, when it’s your class, your assignment, your meeting, you can give them what they’ve come to expect, most often a kind of dull proficiency. You can give them reserved professionalism. You can give them cautious platitudes. They won’t be shocked if you do. They’ve seen this before; they know how to respond.

But you have the opportunity, the responsibility to do more and be more. You can animate. You can inspire. You can engage. While they may not know it, your students, colleagues and staffs are thirsting for this. They are thirsty for boldness.

Teach boldly. At the end of the day – at that end of the year – teaching boldly may be the only kind of teaching that truly matters.

Teach & Serve II, No. 36 – Leadering: Magnificent Seven

Teach & Serve II, No. 36 – Leadering:  Magnificent Seven

April 12, 2017

There are the critical steps that individuals take as they become leaders. There are the universal gates through which they pass. These are the shared signposts they navigate.

Over the course of the last seven weeks, Teach & Serve discussed “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.

Presented here are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering.”

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps is a book by Kelly Williams Brown that was published in 2013 which quickly became something of a hit. The book details steps (468 of them!) a young person takes on the way to becoming and adult and the term “adulting” refers to those steps.

“Hey, you rented your first apartment! You are adulting!” and so forth. The idea of traversing rites of passage on the way from youth to adulthood was nothing new, but Williams Brown plugged into the culture zeitgeist with the “adulting” term. I heard and continue to hear my own children use it among themselves and their friends as they take on more responsibility, endure more adult situations and discover what it means to grow older.

  1. It is a pretty cool concept which got me thinking about the rites of passage people undertake on their journeys to be leaders. This is an excellent time for me to consider this as I am spending the week with a group of committed and talented educators, working with them in a program called Seminars in Ignatian Leadership. The program is designed to challenge participants to see themselves as leaders, to hone their definitions of leadership, to learn tools to utilize in their leadership and to help them become reflective as they take on new roles of leadership. All of this is informed and inspired by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, an excellent leader to emulate.

    What, then, are some steps individuals take as they become leaders? Are their universal gates through which they pass? Are their shared signposts they come across? Just how do leaders go about “leadering?”

    As many books have been written on this topic as have been written about the progress from childhood to adulthood, and I’m not writing a book here, just a blog post (or eight). None of what I discuss here is particularly revolutionary, nor is any of it incredibly original. These points spin out of the research, writings and speeches of people like Parker Palmer, Janet Hagberg, Simon Sinek, DeWitt Jones, Ed Catmull and others. Each has her or his own way to consider leadering activities and there are many ways to consider this topic. However, in my humble opinion, the following “leadering” steps are shared by most of those who become excellent leaders.

    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

    Each of these topics deserves, I think, something of an in-depth explanation and, rather than turning this post into a novella, I’ll take them on individually over the next seven weeks.

    If you are a leader, reflecting on the steps which got you there is a good exercise. If you want to become a leader, considering the leadering activities that will get you there is just as healthy a pursuit.

    Leadering is a pursuit we should celebrate in our schools. Our current leadership (of which many of us are a part) will not be in place forever. Are we looking internally for our next collection of leaders – those people who know our culture and know or systems? Or is it important to look outside our institution for new voices and new perspectives. In either instance, we want to identify leaders who are ready to lead, leaders who have already completed their share of leadering.

    Those leaders who have intentionally gone about leadering may well step into positions more ready to succeed than those who have not leadered.

    Give me leaders who understand leadering.

KNOWING ONESELF: 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.

IDENTIFYING WEAKNESSES BEFORE CELEBRATING STRENGTHS: 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.

HONING COMMUNICATION SKILLS: 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.


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.


APPROPRIATELY EXERCISING AUTHORITY: 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.

ACHIEVING BALANCE AND BLEND:  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.

HUMBLING ONESELF: 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.”


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.

LETTING GO:  I have saved the best for last… and it is, perhaps, the most obvious of all the activities I’ve written about in these last seven weeks of “Leadering” topics. Maybe not the most obvious, but certainly the progression of these activities has led to this:

Let. It. Go.

Leaders navigate waters both smooth and choppy. They encounter colleagues, students and parents at both their best and their worst. They inspire positive experiences. They are held responsible for negative ones.

Leaders have histories.

Leaders create histories.

Leaders leave histories behind them in their wake.

And leaders are human. There are moments in their histories of which they are very proud. There are moments in their histories of which they are not. There are students and colleagues they truly enjoy. There are students and colleagues they would like to never consider again. There are signposts they can point to which are very positive and there are those that are starkly negative.

They have met people and done things.

They’ve left footprints.

And the best leaders let all of that go. Leaders who are successful understand that, while they have a track record, they do not have to be defined by it. Nor do they allow themselves to be.

They do not live in their successes and they do not dwell in their failures. They do not revisit the past unless it is helpful for them to do so. They neither hold grudges nor are they swayed by their own press.

They live in the present. They work in the now. They plan for the future.

None of this can happen effectively without letting go.

Those who wish to be leaders will do well to practice letting go. A true leadering activity is allowing the past to stay in the past. Another is forgiving and actually trying to forget. A third is not prejudging a situation or a person based solely on past contacts and histories.

Leaders who find ways to let go of the past, to understand that conflict and praise are both fleeting, to look forward and not backward are leaders who inspire.

They are leaders I yearn to follow.