What John Manning (2015) called “Pick Your Battles” in Lesson #45 of The Disciplined Leader, I call deciding whether or not to put the boxing gloves on. One thing is certain — you can’t take on every problem at work. Each person has a finite amount of political capital. If you make a big deal over something silly, you may not be able to get your way when it’s something really important. Or, as I always say, “I am (or am not) willing to put my boxing gloves on for this.” This is not to say I literally want to fight, but I use the metaphor to think about how far, or how passionate I am about the issue – would I break out the boxing gloves?
As Manning (2015) said, “Your leadership needs to reflect your ability to discern which battles aren’t worth fighting as well as your fearlessness in the face of the battles that are.” Even if you’re certain that the issues you want to tackle are critical, your reputation may suffer if you take them all on at once. I believe another important consideration is before taking on a battle, you’ll need to assess whether you have the reputation and authority to succeed. Additionally, you do not want to be seen as an inflexible leader or someone who is more concerned with be right than connecting with others. This type of leader doesn’t value other opinions and ideas.
To decide when to put on the boxing gloves, tackle only problems that are truly important. It’s important to examine your motives. Does the issue really matter to your employer, your colleagues or your ability to do your job? Never put on the boxing gloves without offering a solution or suggested route to one. Engage but do so when it makes real good sense. Win the battles – the big and important ones – and let the others go. That is leadership.
I consider myself a pioneer in the era of the curious leader, where success may be less about having all the answers and more about wondering and questioning. A curious, inquisitive leader can set an example that inspires creative thinking throughout the entire organization. Leading-by-curiosity can help generate more ideas from all areas of an organization, while also helping to raise employee engagement levels. One of my heroes is Curious George – that little monkey who is not afraid to explore new and exciting things. I strive to be like Curious George. In fact I have have blogged about this in Living and Leading Like Curious George.
Walt Disney, another one of my heroes, said his company was great at innovating “because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” But having that desire to keep exploring “new paths” becomes even more important in today’s fast-changing, innovation-driven marketplace. In The Disciplined Leader, John Manning (2015) reminded us in Lesson #44 to, “Be curious about how things can be done better or differently. Identify one organizational norm that could be improved. Remember: just because you have always done something ‘that way’ does not mean it is ‘the way’ today” (Kindle Locations 2320-2321). I believe curiosity leads to valuable insights and understanding. Curious leaders would rather pose the right questions that give them a deeper understanding than compete to deliver answers in hopes of acknowledgment. Curiosity allows leaders to adopt an exploratory mindset in everything he/she does.
Curiosity is all about asking questions and wondering why things are a certain way. Great leaders search for new paths – new products, new and innovative solutions, new talent, new efficient ways of building, creating, and getting things done. Being curious is an important part of a leader’s role in serving those he/she leads. Are you embracing your role as a leader and being curious like Curious George?
Manning (2015). The disciplined leader: keeping the focus on what really matters. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Back in 2010 I blogged about “why” in Why Baby Why? I was reminded about the importance of the “why” in John Manning’s (2015) Lesson #43 in The Disciplined Leader. Ever notice how great leaders ask the best questions and the question “why?” A masterful leader will sit quietly in a meeting, listening intently to the discussion, and then, ask a question that will change the tenor and the performance of the entire team. My dad used to tell me, “There is not necessarily a correlation between the amount of talking someone is doing and their intelligence.” Very true!
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” ~ Voltaire
Watching a great leader ask astute questions is like watching an artist in action. I aspire to always be this kind of leader and hope I can model the wisdom and timing to use less oxygen and get the great results of collaboration and discussion. One question that I love to ask is, “Why am I wrong on this?” Pressing the team to consider what I might be missing demonstrates humility, awareness, and openness to possibility. Wherever you find an innovative culture, you find leaders asking this question. Great things happen when we start with “why.”
We say it all the time, but do we really understand what we are saying when we say, “Success Breeds Success?” As a livestock and dairy guy, I understand the importance of genetics in breeding. My son and I spend a great deal of time studying and selecting which bulls to breed his Jersey’s to in order to make improvements; and hopefully produce the next great one. In Lesson #42 of The Disciplined Leader, John Manning (2015) taught us we must also study success as a leader in order to duplicate that success.
“One of the ways to learn from prior success is to shift your organization’s attention away from trying to avoid mistakes and a bit more toward replicating success. That starts with identifying wins and taking inventory of what was done right to contribute to the outcome. Employees have their own talents, gifts, and hard-earned skills. Considering these attributes and other factors influencing your ability to succeed, the onus is on you to apply this learning to future challenges and generate even more wins.” ~ John Manning
Some of the ways Manning (2015) pointed out to do this are:
- Embrace a positive outlook.
- Analyze successes.
- Success happens for good reasons, and when you start to explore the who, what, where, when, and why of an achievement, you’ll most likely see it wasn’t just some matter of pure luck.
- Pay more attention to what works.
- Find ways to note what’s working well in work and life, leveraging whatever you learn to maximize your chances for more wins.
As you can see it is important to not only celebrate our wins, but analyze and study them. How can you help your organization to ensure “Success Breeds Success?
Lesson #41 in John Manning’s (2015) The Disciplined Leader is titled “Lead From The Front.” To me this is contrast to the idea of being a travel agent. Travel agents send us to places that, in most cases, they have never been. Leaders take us to places they have been or serve as a trailblazer to places we are going together. It’s more than just being a workhorse or riding the white horse out in front of the army. It’s really about influence; doing the kinds of things that cause people to feel better about the work when you’re on the team, and to choose to follow you when you offer suggestions or direction. I like to look at this as leading from where you are. Leadership must happen where and when it is needed; by anyone.
Great leaders who are out front lead by offering solutions and have skin in the game. Out front leaders think strategically and keep learning. The type of leader I am describing here shares resources and information. She is a giver, not a taker. This leader chooses to be extremely generous with her time, expertise, and helping others succeed. It’s about taking an interest in people. Great leaders look for value in every person. Great leaders are a friend and listen to people and what’s going on in their lives, professionally and personally. Great leaders complete others.
Don’t forget that sometimes leaders must also go alone. Sometimes we must boldly go where no one else wants to go. Many times leading out front means going against conventional wisdom or the consensus of others. Those who lead change transformation know that there will be times when they will truly be trailblazers – going where no one has gone before. As the great leader, Robert Gates, says, “The change agent must be an oak, not a daisy.”
This past week I had the opportunity to take another deep dive into the new Every Student Succeeds Act during the Legislative Conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). It was also great to not only listen to Charlotte Danielson of the Danielson Group, but I was also able to have a lengthy personal conversation with her about innovation in education, teacher evaluation, and teacher leadership. The thing that impresses me most about Charlotte is that she is always thinking continual improvement and innovation. She made a few comments that are appropriate as we consider leading learning. Let’s face it, students learning is the ultimate goal we need to be achieving in education. The phrases that Charlotte said that resonated with me were, “Learning is done by the learner,” and “Teaching is cognitive work.” As we lead learning I believe it is very important that we keep these two thoughts in mind.
The goal must be to shift the thinking on the student and how the instructional environment supports student thinking. Teaching is a constant work of improvement – a career that involves learning and rethinking our approaches daily. It’s a very interesting concept if we reconsider that we’re always developing our practice. If we are to be successful we must start with the student as the focus and lead the learning from there. The student must always be at the center – this is always critical to success in leading learning.
In my studies at Harvard University around leading learning, I have had some key takeaways that came from the idea that, “Learning might be best described as the process by which information becomes knowledge” (City, Elmore, & Lynch, 2012, Chapter 6, p. 153). This when put together with the thought that, “Knowledge…is information plus meaning, where meaning is acquired through experience or education” (Chapter 6, p. 153) frames a fertile environment for innovation in education. It allows us to take education outside the walls of the traditional schoolhouse. It allows school to be any modality where some combination of information, knowledge, and learning flows from some portal to the learner (City et al, Chapter 6, 2012). As a leader of learning I want to continue to use the lens of education as learning instead of school as a physical place of learning. (City et al, Chapter 6, 2012). These key takeaways came from studies of the book The Futures of School Reform (2012) edited by Mehta, Schwartz, and Hess.
As a state board of education member and someone that works in education leadership and policy development, I want to continue to make sure and educate fellow policymakers on the learning core and make sure we are leading learning and not just leading school as usual. I want to continue to improve leading learning from a policy side to help others understand how to make policy meet reality.
Being involved as a school leader of a network of schools offering fully virtual enrollment, as well as blended learning centers, I have experienced both the joys and challenges of being involved in innovation. Keep in mind online learning is very much still in the pioneer stage of development. Through this experience I have learned first hand the push back from individuals, organizations, and policymakers who will not even accept trying innovating in the space of online education and school choice. The same holds true for many other innovations in education as well. This makes it extremely hard at times to reach consensus for having education policy, accountability systems, and funding meet reality.
Some of the push back I refer to is well founded. When you think that we have been educating our children in much the same way for two centuries, it is natural for there to be some resistance to change. Interesting to me, however, is that an analysis of data from all the traditional means by which we deliver education to our children suggest we should be pushing back on some of those means as well. By their very nature, innovations are new and untested. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect that all innovations become immediate success stories and be evidence-based. At the same time, the education field has a long history of promoting the latest fads and “flavors of the month” that turned out to be, at the least, ineffectual, and at the worst, have children falling further behind. I am certainly not suggesting we contribute to this unintended consequence either. Sometimes, though, I worry that we have not given some very effective and innovative ideas enough time to see if learning gains will be experienced.
In the world of education, innovation comes in many other forms than just the online world. There are innovations in the way education systems are organized and managed, exemplified by charter schools or turnaround academies being managed by education management organizations (EMO). There are innovations in instructional techniques or other delivery systems. We need ongoing innovation in the area of customizing learning for every student. This is very important in serving every student. There are innovations in the way teachers are recruited, prepared, and compensated. I have had the opportunity to work with Teach for America teachers and would put them up against any teacher preparation program. The training and disposition of these teachers to work with struggling urban students who are behind on both skill and grade level is outstanding.
We must continue to encourage creativity and innovation in addressing our most important challenges in education. I believe we need more opportunities for innovations to pass through a peer review process focused on the project’s design. This would provide an opportunity for vetting of the ability of the innovation to be brought to scale and be duplicated. Schools and other innovators of learning must place rigorous, experimental evaluation designs in place so that, over time, we can learn if practices are effective.
Additionally, we need to continue to think about how to accelerate innovation time and evaluation of the effectiveness of those innovations. I believe collaboration is the key here. Innovations are best designed when they are a direct result of a need in a specific school context. We need to make sure our teachers and staff have the necessary time and resources to reflect and be creative in developing customized solutions for the students he or she serve. Finally, we need to continue to develop robust networks for sharing innovations and best practices.
On my flight home from Washington DC last night I had many things on my mind. One of which was the newly signed into law Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA as most people refer to it. ESSA was the reason I was in our Nation’s Capitol for the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)Legislative Conference. We had the opportunity to work through what state boards’ role will be in the implementation of ESSA. I was reflecting on how much work there was to be done implementing this new and great bipartisan law that gives a great deal of power back to the states – Patrick Henry would be proud. Consensus has been reached to pass ESSA into law and now it is time for implementation. John Manning (2015) referred to this as execution in Lesson #40 of The Disciplined Leader. As I was reflecting, the pilot came on and said we had 327 miles left to Indianapolis. Because the Wright Brothers are my idols, I could not help but say a quick thank you to them for executing their plan for first flight. They took advantage of what John Kotter calls the “Big Opportunity.” Because of them, I am able to be home from Washington DC in a little over an hour. That is one big opportunity!
Manning (2015) discussed creating ownership in solutions. ESSA empowers many to take advantage of the big opportunities. I had the opportunity to be with our recently confirmed Secretary of Education John King, yesterday morning and we discussed the opportunities for state legislatures, state boards of education, schools, and many other stakeholders to work together for implementation of ESSA. This implementation really plays into John Kotter’s Dual Operating System approach to change. As we implement ESSA in Indiana I hope we will use the five premises from Kotter as our guide for taking advantage of the “Big Opportunity” – equity in education for all students. Secretary of Education King also left us with this very important thought, “Schools save lives!” Again, that is one big opportunity. These five guiding principles are:
- Having many change agents – by having state legislatures, state boards of education, state departments of education, and many other stakeholders involved in the collaborative implementation we should have innovation and creativity for coming up with the best practices for our students.
- Creating a “want to” not “have to” mindset – Now that the power has been placed in the state’s hands for implementation of ESSA, we must be excited and have a “get to” approach.
- Head and heart, not just head – This is easy when we are implementing law to serve our children.
- Leadership, not management – This is important for me as an Indiana State Board of Education member. I must do my part to provide the leadership to keep the strategy of ESSA implementation in tact.
- Many systems, one organization, lose the hierarchy – everyone must be a part of the “big opportunity.” Again, there must be collaboration from many different stakeholders.
Manning (2015) taught us to “stay the course” and execute. What “big opportunities” do you have on the horizon for implementation?
This has seemed to be the year of Jenga for our school as we build our leadership capacity. You know, the great balancing game with the rectangular blocks. The metaphor of the game of Jenga continues to pop up everywhere in our school’s leadership journey. Click here to watch a video of Jill Landers and I playing a wicked game of Jenga recently – we are the Jenga Masters! We used Jenga as a way to represent our vision and mission earlier in the school year as a way to make sure everyone understood the parts of our vision and mission. Then, we decided to completely redo our vision and mission and add core values as a project of our Focused Leader Academy. To do this we started by using a “Design Thinking” model. I cut 18” pieces of tongue and groove lumber and the teams built models of the ideal vision, mission, and core values. The exercise made learning visible. As the project progressed our Focused Leader Academy members were learning how to develop a vision, mission, and core value.
To understand the illustration of the Jenga metaphor, you need to get on board with a few ideas:
- Imagine the whole of the tower is the total sum of your entire organization, including leadership capacity.
- Imagine each block is some sort of capital (leadership, a moment/shared experience/word/deed, student, family, teacher, leader, curriculum, technology, et cetera) that is part of entire organization, school, or business.
- A block-in would be an organization building action while a block-out would be a situation whereby the organization would be weakened or damaged.
- When using the Jenga model, one must assume all capital mentioned in the second bullet point are equally important.
- Strong leadership everywhere in the organization equals well-built Foundations. The potential height of the tower depends a great deal on how well you build the foundation and how many blocks you commit to it. The stronger the shape, the more intentional the design and placement and the more blocks you have, the higher you can build.
- Removing just one block weakens the structure. When you remove one of the blocks, the entire structure becomes more unstable. So when you don’t have strong leadership developed in every individual in the organization, everything gets a bit more shaky. Each subsequent move not only feels more risky, but actually does put the organization at risk.
- We have to be careful of “piling on” too many initiatives or tasks for our teams and organizations to do. If the structure is weakening or is weak, it does not help to pile on the top.
- When leadership capacity needs to be developed, the bench needs to be developed at the individual level, not somewhere else. I call this hyper-personalization of developing the team professionally. Otherwise, new attempts at building the leadership bench can seem out of place and lead to destabilization instead of continual improvement.
- No matter what, if we remove enough blocks it results in eventual collapse. The tower can only handle a certain amount of pieces being removed. We learn how to work around it, even though it hurts the overall strength and potential of the organization. But eventually, our schools, businesses, and organization cannot hold under the pressure of “weak links” so to speak; whether individuals, teams, supporting organizations, or departments. Eventually, the entire organization will falter and this can be disastrous – just as when the entire Jenga model falls.
As you can see, there is a lot to be learned from Jenga. It has certainly been a great model for us to use as we rethink our school and use “Design Thinking.” If you were consider your organization as a Jenga model, how stable is your structure?
Effective leaders, of the past and present, carefully articulate what the end goal is and have a robust plan to get them there. Leaders understand that they are working with scarce resources – people and capital. Their imperative is to prioritize initiatives based on the impact and the ease of implementation and then allocate their resources appropriately. I was always taught to “Under promise and over-deliver”. It may seem exceedingly obvious, but this is hard to put into practice. Many leaders, including myself, want to appear as able to do everything, but sometimes the best strategy is evaluating the end goal and choosing what not to do. Remember, the most important decisions we make are what to say “no” to.
In Lesson #39 of The Disciplined Leader, John Manning (2015) argued for developing a “What’s the goal?” culture. By specifying goals clarity is achieved, the direction is clear, and the team stays focused. This past week we had a task force go to Arizona for school planning. While we used the best practice of a collaborative agenda building exercise, I gave them my desired end goal of solidifying our plans and doing what I called, “moving action items from being written in pencil to written in ink.” The team also set goals for what was needed to be accomplished, both for our time in Arizona as well as our overall school launch project. This vital few item of goal setting helped us to stay disciplined and get an incredible amount accomplished. It also helped us to say no to initiatives which would have caused us to lose our focus and take the eye of the ball. Are you taking the time to develop a “What’s the goal?” culture?
“Defining ‘What’s the goal?’ before taking action will save time and also form greater direction and improve execution. Drive this habit through your organization, and employees will be more productive, goal-oriented, and results-focused.” ~ John Manning