What is a leader’s role in setting organizational aspirations?

dreambigFrom How to Help Kids Find Their Aspirations:

The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, an independent non-profit organization, defines aspiration as the ability to set goals for the future while maintaining the inspiration in the present to reach those goals. When a student has dreams for the future and is actively working towards them, she’s in the “aspirational zone.” And in that state, student achievement increases.

It’s a good article about students and aspirations. Definitely go read it. As I read the article, though, I couldn’t help but think of how the ideas connected to leadership. As leaders, what are our aspirations for the people we lead – the big dreams for our students, teachers and parents? And what are we actively working for? Now more than ever, it’s important for us as leaders to create that audacious vision for our schools and inspire ourselves and those around us to reach our goals. Too many of us are mired in the vision-less mandates of policymakers and departments of education. We have an imperative to break from the cycle and lead our schools to aspire to loftier aims. Would our organizations be different if we were more actively engaged in setting our organizational aspirations?

What are you doing to mold the aspirations of your school and provide the inspiration to bring to reality an audacious vision for teaching and learning?

Reflective Inquiry and Action – A Model for Leadership Inquiry

confusedOne of the most effective ways to create a learning organization is to model it. When leaders are faced with the “Oh, no! I have no idea what to do because I’m confused” moment, they often respond in a reflexive manner, trying to preserve their authority, meet the communities broader expectation of “leadership” and ultimately “save face.” In Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don’t Know What to Do, Barry Jenz and Jerome Murphy propose a 5 step model – Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA) – which leaders can utilize to approach the “Oh, no!” situations reflectively rather than reflexively.

As the authors assert in the article, the RIA model is “deceptively easy to describe but remarkably hard to practice” since the actions required of the leader are often counter-intuitive, challenging personal and community assumptions of what a leaders should be and how he or she should act. There is a lot more nuance in the presentation of the model in the article than is outlined here, so definitely dig into it if the model intrigues you and you decide to apply it to your own leadership practice.

Reflective Inquiry and Action “These steps are presented as a sequence, but in practice their implementation should be seen as flexible and opportunistic.”

Step 1: Embrace your confusion. “Acknowledge that you are confused and that you see this condition as a weakness.” Additionally, you may need to reminder yourself, “Leadership is not about pretending to have all the answers but about having the courage to search with others to discover solutions.”

Step 2: Assert your need to make sense. State firmly that you are at a loss. “Before I can make a decision, I need help in understanding this situation and our options for dealing with it.”

Step 3: Structure the interaction. “Without skipping a beat, you must next provide a structure for the search for new bearings that both asserts your authority and creates the conditions for others to join you. You provide such a structure by stating the purpose of the joint inquiry, offering a set of specific steps or procedures to fulfill that purpose, providing the timetable, and identifying the criteria and methods by which decisions will be made.” By doing so, you will tacitly send the message, “To be confused is not incapacitating. I may not know what course to take, but I know the next step. I know how to structure a process that we can go through together to make sense of our new situation and move forward. In other words, you announce that you are metaphorically asking for directions but that you are still in charge of a process that will produce a clear outcome.” This is the step where the leader walks a fine line between asserting control of the process while inviting others to be open and honest in the problem-solving changes.

Step 4: Listen reflectively and learn. As the leader, you reflect thoughtfully upon what you have heard and then reflect your understanding back to the speaker. The speaker then has time to respond to your understanding, providing clarification or affirmation. The challenge, especially with those who do not listen well, is to not reflect their reflexivity. Reflective listening will build trust for joint problem-solving; reflexive listening will shut it down.

Step 5: Openly process your effort to make sense. After listening to what others have to say, process your thinking out loud. The authors suggest you resist the temptation to process privately and then announce the results of that processing. Instead, you must “externalize your intellectual process.”

The RIA model provides structure for a leader to stay on the path of reflection and inquiry instead of a knee-jerk, top-down, solo response to challenging situations. Reading this article was affirming for me as I often find myself in a system that pressures leaders into quick answers and away from inquiry. Even when there is a constrained time-frame on a less than clear-cut decision, it is important for the leader to be self-aware, slow down the process and engage others through inquiry. We should not be pressured into providing an answer when we are unsure and confused.

How do you typically lead in an “Oh, no!” moment? After learning about the RIA model, how might your process of problem-solving change the next time you are confronted with an “Oh, no!” moment?

How do we model inquiry as organizations?

questions5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners:

The humble question is an indispensable tool: the spade that helps us dig for truth, or the flashlight that illuminates surrounding darkness. Questioning helps us learn, explore the unknown, and adapt to change.

That makes it a most precious “app” today, in a world where everything is changing and so much is unknown. And yet, we don’t seem to value questioning as much as we should. For the most part, in our workplaces as well as our classrooms, it is the answers we reward — while the questions are barely tolerated.

Questioning is at the heart of an inquiry classroom! Further in the article, Warren Berger provides 5 conditions for us to think about as we work to make our classrooms places of student inquiry.

  • make it safe
  • make it “cool”
  • make it fun
  • make it rewarding
  • make it stick

How are we as educators modeling these conditions for our students? Do we inquire as a staff? Do school leaders approach challenges through inquiry? If we want our classrooms to be places of inquiry, we need our organizations to be places of inquiry led by leaders who model the way and establish an environment where questions are welcomed, not just tolerated.

Are you playing full out?

fullout2In the past few years, I’ve become a fan of Michael Hyatt. I enjoy reading his blog and listening to his podcast – I learn so much! Today I followed a circuitous path to one of his blogs – The Benefits of Playing Full Out. In the post, he shares 3 ideas that reflect what “playing full out” looks like:

  • Being fully present, undistracted by anything else.
  • Stretching yourself, even if it makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable.
  • Giving it your best effort, even when you are tired and want to quit.

After reading this short list, I reflected on my ability to “play full out” in my role as an educational leader. In what situations am I most inclined to play full out? When am I unmotivated to play full out? What are the barriers and how can I overcome them?

Like most things in life, our ability to be fully present, to stretch ourselves and to give our best has an ebb and flow. For me, energy and interest levels play a big part. Also, levels of synergy with other people I’m collaborating with. However, for the most effective leaders, low energy, lack of interest and being around unmotivated people are no excuse for not playing full out. Yes, we are human, and we will have days when we are not successful at overcoming those barriers. But the most effective leaders push through the barriers; they’re not always successful, but they keep pushing.

This serendipitous learning experience (so common in the digital world) has reminded me that I need to be more self-aware of my “playing full out” behaviors. For every situation I find myself in, I need to ask:

  • FOCUS: Am I fully present, engaging with the work at hand with a laser focus?
  • LEARNING: How am I stretching myself to engage with the work at hand to grow and learn, but also help others grow and learn?
  • GRIT: Am I sustaining my focus and learning despite physical and mental fatigue?

What do you see as the BENEFITS of playing full out? Why should we embrace it? How has it made a difference it what you have achieved as an educational leader? How do you make “playing full out” a part of your school culture?

Goals – Pt. 2 – Some areas of focus…

learn-leadA few days ago, I shared a post on SMART goals vs. DUMB and HARD goals. Shortly after that I ran across an excellent post from George Couros where he provides a set of focus areas and questions for superintendents to ask principals, but they could really be used with any educational leader. Check out the post, 5 questions you should ask your principal, for George’s detailed thinking.

  • Fostering effective relationships – What are some ways that you connect with your school community?
  • Instructional leadership – What are some areas of teaching and learning that you can lead in the school?
  • Visionary leadership – What are you hoping teaching and learning looks like in your school and how do you communicate that vision?
  • Developing leadership capacity – How do you build leadership in your school?
  • Creating sustainable change – What will be your “fingerprints” on this building after you leave?

I really like these questions because I think they lend themselves to the HARD goal framework:

H – heartfelt (You’ve got to have an emotional attachment to your goal, it has to scratch an existential itch.)

A – animated (Goals need to be motivated by a vision, picture or movie that plays over and over in your mind.)

R – required (It needs to feel so urgently necessary that you have no other choice but to start acting on them right here, right now.)

D – difficult (Goals need to drag you out of your comfort zone, activating your senses and attention.)

What will your goals be for 2014-15? What is your plan to grow your school (or district) in these 5 areas?