Byron's Babbles

Serving Instead Of Putting On A Show

So, let’s see here; if we are constantly looking up to make sure our boss is seeing and approving of us or bragging about what we’ve done, we’re probably paying less attention to the people we’re now leading or worse yet, our customers. If your organization follows a traditional hierarchy, which most unfortunately still seem too, attention will naturally shift up — be directed up the hierarchy. Ever been a part of an organization where there always seem to be the favorites, you must make sure those high on the hierarchy are hearing every great thing you do, or having to make sure you’ve bragged on those high on the hierarchy? It’s not a good place to be.

In Simple Truth #3, Servant Leaders Turn The Traditional Pyramid Upside Down, in Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways To Be A Servant Leader and Build Trust, Making Common Sense Common Practice we are told by Ken Blanchard and Randy Conley that great leaders turn the hierarchy over and make those closest to the customer the top of the organizational pyramid. For example, in a school, this would put the teachers at the top of the pyramid. In this model, the principal serves the teachers. Let me tell you from experience, this works. What this ultimately does is place the customer (in my example, the student) at the top of our organizations. This really shifts us to an intent-based leadership model where everyone is a leader. Then, everyone is serving.

Plum Crazy Leadership

What would happen in our busy corporate world if we had more opportunities to allow wisdom to emerge instead of either believing we have to already know everything and convince others we do, or controlling the atmosphere of our corporate cultures so we can be more productive? We can do this! In a recount of his journey through corporate life at Hallmark, Gordon McKenzie introduced a timeless analogy about plum trees and pyramids. The book is Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.

He reminded us that most organizational charts look like a pyramid. He also reminded us that the pyramids are tombs. That’s a pretty huge reminder. Important people at the top and the not so important at the bottom. A reminder of this is when organizations say they want leadership from everyone and then create “leadership teams.” I thought everyone was a leader and the whole organization was a team. These types also always want to call themselves a family when really… People don’t stay in these organizations very long because they don’t want to get crushed and entombed by the pyramid.

MacKenzie argued that great organizations were like plum trees. Great metaphor because for one thing, a plum tree is a living thing. The plums are the products or services and the branches are all the teams. The leaves (I added this part) are the people who make it all happen and keep the organization thriving and alive – just like leaves do photosynthesis. Then, the trunk supports the whole tree. Novel idea, right? Actual it’s a plum great idea! See what I did there?

MacKenzie also taught us to practice what he called “compassionate emptiness”. Compassionate emptiness is a state of nonjudgmental listening and receiving of others’ ideas, thoughts, opinions, burdens, and worries. I’ve only met a few who were truly masters at this. Fortunately, I got to work for one of the few very early in my teaching career and I believe it helped to shape me into who I am today. To practice compassionate emptiness takes courage. There are boundaries to cross, impasse to acknowledge, and the admission of idiocy.

Unlike the pyramid, the plum tree is a living organism. It is flexible and can adjust with the times. In the plum tree, the service providers, talent, and product producers make up the top of the tree. They have sunshine, they have air, and they can see from their vantage point. They produce the fruit (cash crop). The plum tree can create opportunity through support of those that are closer to the solutions. Note this is intent based leadership – those closest to where the data is created should be making the decisions. So, it’s not plum crazy to wonder why more organizations don’t operate more like a plum tree.

Separating The Idle From The Industrious

I’m now getting to another prompt for a post that I had on my “to blog about list.” This prompt is from another quote in The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles: “Time is what God uses to separate the idle from the industrious.” I learned from David Marquet that great leaders understand how to control the clock. This quote got me to thinking about this control of the clock. When I looked up being industrious, this is what I found: industrious: applying oneself with energy to study or work; actively and purposefully getting things done; opposite of being idle and accomplishing nothing. The best example of why we need to be industrious is thinking back to being a kid (okay, I still kind of am a kid). The worst days ever were the ones when there was nothing to do. Time seemed to stand still – I wasn’t controlling the clock. When we are idle and purposeless, we are at our unhappiest.

The way to happiness is finding purpose in how we use our time. We are at our best when our time includes industriousness that leads to tangible production. Also, think about that great feeling at the end of a very productive day of working really hard. It’s such a great “tired.” There are a lot of days like this on the farm. This feeling also happens when you are taking the shot where others will not, and doing things that other people may consider difficult. Time passes whether we are controlling the clock or not. The best athletic coaches are the ones who know how to control the clock the best.

My takeaway from the interaction in Towles’ novel was that we need to find purpose to truly be industrious. When we take a moment to really look around to see what is out there, we can find an unlimited number of things that can and should be done for ourselves, for others, and the betterment of the world. Participating in resolving these things can help us not only feel useful and helpful, but actually be useful and helpful.

The Goal Setting Paradox

I have always had an interesting relationship with goal setting. I’ve always had goals, but I’ve also always believed in living life and believing there were people and opportunities that show up at the right moments for me to choose how to use the effects of – kind of like a chemical reaction. Everly, a character in Patti Callahan Henry’s great historical novel, Surviving Savannah said it best, “Anyone who is engaged in life at all is brave.” Now don’t take this to say I am against goal setting. It’s just that I believe we must recognize the paradoxical effects that goal setting can have.

This reflection on goal setting was prompted by Chapter 43, “Raise The Bar” in Mindset Mondays with DTKby David Taylor-Klaus (DTK). He taught us that we are motivated by reasonable stretches. We need to go beyond the common endpoint to what he called the “visionary goal.” He told us “…there’s something extraordinary that happens when your marshaling your energy in the direction of a stretch goal.” I totally get that and have been blessed to experience that. But, this is also where the paradox begins.

In the great book by my good friend, David Marquet, Leadership Is Language, David reminded us that strict goals plus steep hierarchies can create an environment fertile for unethical behavior. He also reminded us that, “Strategies to achieve goals are often at odds with learning.” Now, I know this was in no way where DTK was going in Chapter 43, but the paradox is worth noting. I believe it needs to become the litmus test for goals. Individuals and organizations need to keep a close eye on whether goals are creating the desired effect of stretching us toward our greater purpose. I have witnessed ambition taking over purpose and there are well documented cases of this. In fact I’ve blogged a great deal about it. If you want to check out a couple, read Passion At Ambition’s Command and When Purpose & Passion Turn Into Ambition. To counteract this, DTK taught us to remember that failure along the way, if used for learning and course correcting, is a key contributor to the ultimate success of a goal.

So, thinking back to what Everly said in Surviving Savannah, if to be engaged in life is to be brave, let’s be brave and set the bar high, make sure we don’t let the goal get in the way of learning, and never let goals turn into purposeless ambition. Remember the litmus test for goal setting.

Collaborate Instead of Coercing

The face of a man, David Marquet, who believes we need to get rid of the old definition of leadership.

During my morning study time today I finished reading the great book Into The Raging Sea: Thirty Three Mariners, One Megastorm, And The Sinking of El Faro by Rachel Slade. Because of my belief that everyone is a leader, everyone needs to read this book. Slade did an amazing job of chronicling the October 1, 2015 loss of the 790 ft U.S. Flagged container ship El Faro in Hurricane Joaquin. The 33 on board all lost their lives and the loss sent shock-waves through the marine industry. I don’t want to spoil the inspiration of reading the book, but Slade explains in detail what happened plus a great many other details and history of the merchant marine industry. Her research included the many conversations on the bridge from the last 26 hours prior to the sinking of the El Faro from the NTSB Voice Data Recorder (VDR) transcripts. Those conversations on the bridge illuminate what went on in the last hours. Slade described in detail how the recovery of the VDR from the 15,000′ ocean floor of water was a major accomplishment.

So why should every leader read this book? The ship’s master, Captain Davidson, had a lot of experience but was known for not listening to the officers and crew. Never forget, it is important for leaders to listen more than they talk. In the transcripts of conversations on the ship’s bridge the officers seemed afraid or, at the very least, reluctant to challenge the route of the captain and a glaring lack of a culture for obtaining important feedback from the officers and crew. The captain had clearly not cultivated a culture that the officers felt safe to give feedback on any items they were concerned about. The transcripts showed that the officers had opinions on safer routes to take, but were never able or comfortable enough to communicate these in a way to make them so. Thus, the ship sailed right into the eye of the hurricane and its ultimate fate. Please note that I have way over simplified this story, but you need to read the book.

As I read Slade’s great book I was reminded of my friend and mentor David Marquet’s great leadership acumen and his incredible book, Leadership Is Language. In his book, Marquet uses the sinking of the El Faro as an example of leadership gone bad. David taught us that outdated top-down language from the Industrial Age playbook of leadership probably played into the terrible tragedy of the El Faro. This is another book every leader must read. Without spoiling all the content let me just say that Marquet argued that once we commit to a small step, we humans can’t help ourselves but to continue to commit in that decision. It’s just the way our brain works. We become stubborn and stick to it, even in the face of evidence that the course of action is failing. He taught us to build in pause and reflect stops. Think about it. If the crew had felt safe in a culture designed as a safe place to speak up, the alternative safer routes would have probably been chosen. Leaders must collaborate instead of coercing.

Finally, when we, as leaders, can admit we don’t know, we allow the team to admit that they don’t know. It also allows a team member to admit they DO know. Leaders must be looking for and encouraging divergent thinking. Remember, trust must be a verb before it can be a noun. I just blogged about this in Trust Is A Verb. Are you trusting your team and encouraging curiosity from everyone? To use one of David’s questions, “How can we make it better?” I had the opportunity this past week to be with David on a webinar with teachers from Canada and was reminded how important it is to move from the old definition of leadership that involves directing the thoughts, plans, and actions of others (see featured picture) to what he describes as “embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organization, and decoupling it from the personality of the leader.” Lets get to decoupling.

It Is All About Infuence

Yesterday, at a leadership gathering I facilitated in North Carolina, a participant asked a very astute question following an activity using examples of great leaders who had greatly impacted/influenced them. She asked, “Does having influence automatically make someone a leader?” She went on to ask, “Is having an influence on someone automatically make you a leader?” I loved these questions and literally stepped back and let the group take over. The discussion made me so proud, because they were using language we have been discussing together for five months now.

Since everyone is a leader, leadership is everybody’s business and you don’t need a title to be a leader. Everyone has the potential to lead and influence. Influence is the most important part of leadership. If someone has influence it means they can get things done. Organizations that value everyone as leaders and believe every person plays a vital role in moving processes forward, have individuals who influence the behavior of others at every level of the organization due to their leadership behaviors. It may be that someone who volunteers to lead projects or that everyone goes to when they have questions. In many cases these were the people some had brought forward as the great leaders who had influenced them. But, the group did conclude that just because you have influence doesn’t mean you’re a good leader.

“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.”

~ John C. Maxwell

Great leaders move themselves and others from a language of prove and perform to improve and learn. To influence others is what being a leaders is all about, but a leader also has to let herself be influenced by others if she is to become a great one. This can be done, for instance, by listening and becoming a student of organizational design and everyone in an organization. The best leaders I know are very good at knowing how to shut up so others can speak up.

Because I shut up and literally sat down and let the group discuss, they discussed things like influence being a person’s ability to shape people and mold outcomes. They also pointed out that influence is morally neutral (can be used for good or evil), but it always involves both relationships and results. So is influence just a fancy term for leadership? I believe the group decided, no. We often put the two together, but they are two separate entities.

Because everyone is a leader, you can lead without influencing. This does not put us at odds with John Maxwell, who said, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less,” however, because the group affirmed you can’t be a great leader without influencing.

Pathways To Quality Principals

Yesterday I had the opportunity to be part of a great National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) webinar where Susan M. Gates presented findings from research conducted by RAND Corporation. Click this recording link to view the recording of the webinar entitled Using State-Level Policy Levers to Promote Principal Quality. I was honored at the end of Susan’s presentation of the findings to, along with NASBE’s President and CEO Robert Hull, provide some thoughts, observations, and feedback.

First of all, this is such an important topic for state boards and all policymakers to contemplate. Leadership matters. The research suggested, as we might have all guessed, that there is no “one size fits all” policy that will miraculously place quality principals in all schools. Another point that came out in the research was that professional development alone is insufficient. Highly effective pre-service development must also be a part of the pathway to quality principals. As a former principal, I reflected as I was reviewing this report and was thinking about the complexity of being a principal. Ultimately, the principal is a leader of learning, but there are many parts to that. Highly effective teachers and facilitation of learning and leadership define how successful any school is. A school without a strong leader will likely fail the students it serves.

The RAND report gave us four key levers to use as policymakers. Those four levers are:

  1. Standards
  2. Licensure
  3. Program Approval
  4. Professional Development

Interestingly, four things came to mind as I was reviewing and listening to Susan’s report. Here are my thoughts, observations, and feedback:

  1. As state board members, we need to take the approval of teacher education and leadership development programs very seriously. In my own state, our department of education does a tremendous job of evaluating and providing us reports for revue prior to approval of programs. We still have an obligation to study these reports and make sure the programs meet the test of equity and excellence. We also need to make sure that any pathway to the principalship is not rewarding the person who can best meet meaningless requirements.
  2. As I listened, I wondered if there were ways to leverage the attention we are now rightly giving to teacher leadership. Teacher leaders are so important to building the capacity is schools and it seems to me we could better leverage identifying those teachers with the leadership dispositions and develop those skills. Notice I said dispositions, because many teachers are very interested in being teacher leaders but not, at least in the present-tense, being a principal. As a believer that everyone is a leader and that leadership should happen where the data is created, in this case the classroom, it makes sense we would be developing teacher leaders to make decisions that traditionally have been cascaded down to teachers. This real-time development would give teachers practical pre-service development that would be important to effective leading for learning whether a teacher or principal. I would argue that a well developed and highly effective teacher/teacher leader could be the best bet to become a high quality principal. You’ll want to check out Susan’s response to this point in the recording.
  3. Another point made was the fact that sometimes we need to look at subtraction as well as addition when formulating policy. We deal with this a lot in education where we continue to place mandates without taking anything away. We need to allow for more flexibility. Additionally, how can we more effectively use incentives or information sharing in the place of mandates?
  4. Finally, there was a suggestion in the report of finding opportunistic ways: “Be opportunistic: link principal initiatives to key state education priorities and build on related initiatives.” By doing this we might find new ways to streamline, provide flexibility, or identify those things that can be removed.

I really appreciate the research and this report. Again, it provides levers for us to consider using as policymakers as we contemplate how to better prepare and provide quality pathways for the development of our critically important principals.

Going Platinum

Last week I had the opportunity to lead a session at our Principal’s Academy. My topic was “Professional Capacity of School Personnel.” Building the capacity of others is a passion area of mine. As a believer in intent-based leadership I love telling the story of creating a leader-leader instead of leader-follower community. I learned this from former United States Navy Captain David Marquet, who also taught me that we should build relationships such to understand how others want to be treated and understand their needs.

In Leadership Is Language Marquet taught us that we need to change the way we communicate. We need to drop the prehistoric language of command and control and learning the language of creativity, collaboration, and commitment. When building the capacity of our teams, how we communicate matters.

This session I brought in some other content that I was introduced to by my friend Maya Hu-Chan, author of Saving Face. She introduced me to the “Platinum Rule.” The “Platinum Rule” is the brain-child of Dr. Tony Alessandra and goes like this: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” Brilliant! Ever since being introduced to this I have been sharing with as many as I can.

What a difference. The Platinum Rule accommodates the feelings of others. The focus of relationships shifts from “this is what I want, so I’ll give everyone the same thing” to “let me first understand what they want and then I’ll give it to them.” This brings empathy and compassion to a new level.

This really resonated with the group and they spent time discussing how to implement this into their daily work as a principal and leader of learning. I was so thrilled to get this message in a thank you email today: “Some even shouted out your presentation in their follow-up feedback. When asked “What is the most important thing you will take away from today?” One wrote “Strategies to get into the classroom – a great perspective from one of the presenters, ‘treat teachers the way they want to be treated.'” You never know what will resonate with participants, but I am thrilled that others are now treating others the way they want to be treated. Let’s all go platinum!

Build Great Things Anyway

I had a chance meeting of a professional sandcastle builder and teacher of sandcastle making this week. First of all, I did not know there was such a thing. Secondly, I didn’t do much sandcastle building in my childhood, so I was fascinated to discuss the art of sandcastle building. Really, I hadn’t thought much about the fact there are different kinds of sand. Bottom-line: lots of new things going through my mind.

There are three main rules for sandcastle building:

  • Always use wet (sloppy) sand (no such thing as too much water)
  • Always form shapes using a pyramid – larger at the base – thinner at the top
  • When all the formed sand is completed work from the top to the bottom

Other pieces of advice were to build on a big mound. This enables sand to fall down and away from the sandcastle as you are carving. And, it makes it up higher and easier to work on. Besides buckets of sand and water, the tools are pretty basic. You use simple tools (like a straw, a pencil, and a metal cutting device) to chisel it starting from the top.

The rule that was stressed over and over was working from the top down. If you work from the bottom up, the pieces from the top will tumble down onto the bottom, thus flawing your previous work. This is a lot like leadership in an organization. If the leader is a tyrannical monster all the trash falls down on the people doing the work getting marred and ruined. Thus, the flatter the organization the better, or at least the leader needs to already be chiseled and refined so all the chaff and sand isn’t ruining those below. But remember, if there are no “those below” in an organization, no worries.

I love that there are people helping kids learn to build sandcastles. When children play and create in the outer world, simultaneously they also create and learn in the inner world. We adults know change is coming when we build sandcastles but we encourage kids to build something great anyway. In our schools and classrooms, this is a valuable lesson. It’s also an important lesson for leaders to remember. Change comes, colleagues come and go, new research is discovered with the ebb and flow of the waves ever coming and going, and the tide is ever shifting. Build great things anyway.

Empowerment Needs No Menus!

Angelika & I

To empower means “to give somebody power or authority” and also “to give somebody a sense of confidence or self-esteem.” I believe we can change someone’s world every single day. I have something I love to do when going to a new restaurant for the first time. I’ll tell the server to not give me a menu, and pick the meal for me. To me, this is the ultimate act of empowerment and intent-based leadership. I first did this with my dear friend and leadership idol, David Marquet, when we went out to eat one evening.

Well, last night was the 142nd day of the Global COVID-19 Pandemic; and I was in a restaurant for the first time. We went to Riverstone Corner Bistro in Canton, Georgia, after setting up for our Impact Georgia teacher professional development happening today. So, to my table-guests surprise, told our server, Angelika, “I’m not going to look at the menu online (the way Riverstone limits contact) and I just want you to pick my entire meal for me.” At first she was a little taken back, but then we could tell she was beginning to have fun with this. She even came running back to the table and said, “I’ve got an idea and just want to know if you like lots of cheese.” I, of course, said “Yes” and away she went.

Here’s the deal: Angelika did a perfect job of showcasing the great food of Riverstone Corner Bistro and her abilities as a sever to meet the needs of her customers. She showcased a menu great and favorite if her own – Scallops Risotto. She was beaming when she brought it to the table and beamed even more when I said, “You could not have made a better pick.” It was awesome! And, as I told my table-mates, I probably would not have picked that, but because I empowered someone else, her life was brightened and I got an even better meal.

To empower someone, you have to help them feel proud of the good things they do. This is truly the essence of empowerment. It was clear that Angelika was proud of the menu items she chose for me and of the restaurant where she works. I merely opened the the door and created space for creative thinking. This requires discipline and patience on a leaders part. It also means we take a little risk, but it is worth it. We can provide hints or prompts, like my giving in and acknowledging I like cheese, but allowing those we serve to discover the answer will empower them in future situations.