5 Ways to Make Our Leadership Work More Like Art

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 1.58.00 PM“If it’s work, we try to figure out how to do less. If it’s art, we try to figure out how to do more.” ~ Seth Godin

Our work can either be “work” or it can be “art.” But what exactly does that mean? What is art? To that question, Godin adds, “Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.”

For people like myself, though, education has not only been a career but a life’s passion. It’s what we live and breath, and, like Godin says, the art of this work not only resonates with the “creator” – ourselves –  but also the “viewer” – the people we serve as leaders.

What can we do to make our leadership work more like art?  It’s not easy, especially in the current climate of over-testing, misguided accountability and ever-shrinking resources. But if we extend ourselves – even a little bit – we can do this, and make a difference. Here are 4 (somewhat sequential) ideas to get started.

  1. Find at least one close collaborator….more than one is even better. Educational leadership these days is complex and uncertain. There is so much to know that no one person can know everything. The best and most gratifying work comes when we don’t go solo, but create a synergy with equally passionate minds. You’ll find these collaborators in the traditional workplace such as a school but also virtually online.
  2.  Embrace technology, particularly social media, as a tool for connection. Online connections can feed your art with a nearly constant flow of ideas, resources and learning. Once connected to others via social media, you’ll see your work amplified and resonating with others you never knew had similar challenges and passions. Take that learning back to your workplace collaborators and watch what happens.
  3. Stay on top of “edge” thinking by reading, listening and learning about “disruptive” trends in education. Subscribe to blogs, set time aside daily to dip your mind into your Twitter feed and check out new books on Amazon. One of my favorite blogs for “edge” thinking is Educating Modern Learners. While some of their best content is behind a paywall, quality free content is also available.
  4. Write about what you read. Start a blog or send your thinking out to Twitter. Or both. Share what you are learning and doing with the world. Writing allows you to process your thinking in unique ways. As you develop your thinking around the “edges” of education, use your emerging vision to guide your leadership practice. Provide the space for others to tinker with unconventional ideas and push back, challenging you to think even more deeply about the practicality of changes in your unique environment.

When you embrace ideas such as these and take action, you will be spinning artful leadership in no time – creative, passionate and personal. You’ll know it because you’ll want to do more…and more…and more! More importantly, the work will not only resonate with you, but with those you serve – your teachers, students and parents.

What other ideas can you share to make our leadership more like art?

VUCA and Educational Leaders

VUCAThis school year I am participating in the Pennsylvania chapter of the Education Policy Fellowship Program. We meet monthly as a group and hear from informative speakers on issues related to education policy. In October, we spent a day at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. It was a fascinating day hearing about leadership  from the perspective of those in the military. In one of the presentations on preparing strategic leaders, we were introduced to an acronym, VUCA, to describe the challenging environment we live and work in:

  • Volatility – We live in a world of rapid change driven by an overwhelming volume of information.
  • Uncertainty – Our environments are characterized by our inability to know everything for certain, making it difficult to predict outcomes.
  • Complexity – Multiple parts/components of a problem make it difficult to understand.
  • Ambiguity – Different interpretations of events are further blurred by cultural differences and diversity of thought.

As educational leaders we are operating in a similar environment to those working in the military. What is our changing landscape, our VUCA? Teaching. Learning. Governance. Policy. Funding. Leadership. Careers. Technology. And on, and on. As strategic leaders, how do we buffer the effects of the changing landscape on our principals, teachers, students, parents and community? How do we make the space for innovations to happen in a VUCA environment?

I find myself asking these questions in my role as assistant superintendent and one of the people managing the seemingly endless array of policy mandates from PDE: educator effectiveness (including teachers, principals and specialists), PA Core implementation and new testing, new graduation requirements including remediation and alternative assessments such as the yet unveiled Project-Based Assessment. And anything else they push down the pipe. I find most of these initiatives needlessly complex (…this is how we evaluate educators in Pennsylvania…), thoughtlessly implemented, and a huge distraction from the conversations and work we ought to be doing in our schools and districts.

As I’m learning more about how the policy bureaucracy operates, I struggle with putting my energy into (1) working to change the bureaucracy or (2) finding ways to minimize the negative impact at the local level. Either way, it seems to be a lose-lose. How do we as educational leaders turn this from an either-or into a win-win, managing the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the current environment?

 

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.