This evening, I was asked to contribute to a graduate level assignment on leadership; and tonight I blog my responses, which I dedicate to my principal friends.
1. What is your administrative style?
This question can be answered from a variety of lenses, but I will pull from two resources in particular: 1) John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, whose research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning. Hattie synthesized than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students over 15 years of research about what works best for learning in schools; and 2) the Harvard Business Review research project identifying eight leadership archetypes using a combination of psychometric and statistical analysis from a study of more than a thousand largely U.S.-based senior executives.
In the article used for reference in my responses, High Impact Leadership, ASCD | Educational Leadership | February 2015 | Volume 72 | Number 5 | Improving Schools: What Works? Pages 36-40, which can be accessed online at http://dlstprincipals.wmwikis.net/file/view/High+Impact+Leadership.pdf, Hattie described two styles of leadership, transformational and instructional. The article describes transformational leaders as those who “focus more on teachers. They set a vision, create common goals for the school, inspire and set direction, buffer staff from external demands, ensure fair and equitable staffing, and give teachers a high degree of autonomy.” In contrast, he describes instructional leaders as those who “focus more on students. They’re concerned with the teachers’ and the school’s impact on student learning and instructional issues, conducting classroom observations, ensuring professional development that enhances student learning, communicating high academic standards, and ensuring that all school environments are conducive to learning.” In comparing the two, Hattie quotes research that determined “the overall effect from transformational leaders was .11, whereas the overall effect from instructional leaders was .42.” In laymen’s terms, an instructional leader is vastly superior to a transformation leader.
I will point out I have been on record to take exception to Hattie and a number of his statements despite his vast research base. Recently, I crafted an email in response to the article, which was shared with our principals. To the emailer I wrote,
“Hattie and I may agree on some points, but not wholly agree. Was he ever a school principal? I know he’s a researcher, and despite the extensive numbers studied, I’m a bit skeptical of confirmation bias. In the forward of the magazine, the writer notes the contradictions of research and points out how the current issue of EL contains several. My dad once said of attending church, “I take the good stuff and leave the rest.” I think this is apt in my study of education. Like the preacher who offered some thought-provoking ideas, Hattie offers insight. But when he leans toward the one “right” way (i.e. his way) and all-or-nothing thinking, I leave it at the pulpit. As I’ve aged, I’ve embraced paradoxical thinking with seemingly conflicting thoughts by embracing both. In this issue, I’ll blend Visual Learning with Uplifting Leadership (page 43 of the same edition of Educational Leadership).”
More recently, I read another article in which Hattie redeemed himself before quickly falling back in his overarching assumption. In the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/hard-lessons-for-better-leadership-20100903-14u7t.html), Hattie said, “transformational leaders in schools are impressive but they are often rare individuals. Therefore it would be wrong for principals to be seduced by a model of leadership forged in the business sector and better suited to it than the field of education.”
At first glance, I take Hattie’s quote as a compliment, but I disagree with his final analysis of studying the business sector. To cast aside research into best leadership practices is carelessly foolhardy at best and blatantly egregious at worst. Much can be learned from studying leaders from all walks of life. To reduce a principal to instruction leadership is to misunderstand the role or disregard the realities of principals’ work. In a research article of the same name (http://archive.wceruw.org/ccvi/pub/ReformTalk/2_99.pdf), Dr. Kent Peterson describes the daily life of a principal to be characterized by brevity, variety, and fragmentation. Despite the age of the study, the constructs hold steadfast. Ask any principal. (Don’t ask Hattie. He wouldn’t understand. It’s a principal thing.) First, principals engage in “hundreds of brief tasks, many lasting under a minute. An hour has upwards of 50-60 separate interactions with students, parents, custodians, and teachers. The flow of interactions is nonstop, hectic, and often unpredictable (i.e. brevity).” Further, a principal’s day is “filled with hundreds of short tasks (upwards of 2000 during the school day) is busy, but principals’ tasks are also enormously varied. Principals confront social, cognitive, and emotional variety. One minute the principal is talking with a 5 year old and the next a 63 year old. The next moment a minister wants to chat about “character education” followed by a parent who excitedly wants to review the procedures for cheerleader selection. Principals must engage in complex strategic planning as well as routinely keep track of soda machine fund (i.e. variety).” Finally, according to Petersen, principals are “expected to address the continuous flow of issues and so live in a fragmented, interrupted work schedule. Upwards of 60 percent of the day is spent responding to the demands, needs, and problems of staff, students, parents, and superiors. Principals are expected to be central problem solvers of the school and this means they are constantly interrupted. Fragmentation in their work causes stress and the need to make decisions rapidly, yet carefully (i.e. fragmentation).” Ask anyone who has finished his first year. As assistant principal, so many of the best laid plans go by the wayside almost immediately. Thus, skilled principals realize they cannot go at it alone. What human being is able to analyze the curricular expectations for every subject in every content area in every grade level? In my assessment, a leader empowers others through skilled leadership, which bring me to the business sector.
My personal journey has led me to study a host of leaders from a variety of walks of life both past and present. My leadership has been dramatically been impacted by historical leaders such as Jesus Christ; Gandhi; Attila the Hun; Sun Tzu (ancient Chinese military strategist and author of The Art of War); etc. to modern day leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Sam Walton; Steve Jobs; Seth Godin; Steven Pressfield (The War of Art); etc. Frequently, I peruse the Harvard Business Review. In the article, Assessment: What’s Your Leadership Style? (https://hbr.org/2015/06/assessment-whats-your-leadership-style), the authors identify eight leadership styles and offer an assessment instrument to identify individual styles from the list:
- Collaborator: empathetic, team-building, talent-spotting, coaching oriented
- Energizer: charismatic, inspiring, connects emotionally, provides meaning
- Pilot: strategic, visionary, adroit at managing complexity, open to input, team oriented
- Provider: action oriented, confident in own path or methodology, loyal to colleagues, driven to provide for others
- Harmonizer: reliable, quality-driven, execution-focused, creates positive and stable environments, inspires loyalty
- Forecaster: learning oriented, deeply knowledgeable, visionary, cautious in decision making
- Producer: task focused, results oriented, linear thinker, loyal to tradition
- Composer: independent, creative, problem solving, decisive, self-reliant
Based on the assessment instrument, I am an energizer (followed closely by a pilot and a forecaster). The assessment described my leadership style as “You know how to create and articulate a strategic vision. Both amiable and determined, you generate energy and draw on the energy of people around you. As a result, you are good at building enthusiasm and inspiring strong efforts and performance in others. Colleagues are likely to find you cooperative, positive, and team-focused, and your leadership style may help them see the purpose and meaning in the task at hand. Nonetheless, your determination may at times blur into relentlessness, and you are so forceful in presenting your ideas that you may inadvertently steamroll through conversations with your team. So you may be perceived as charismatic and courageous, yet dismissive of people who don’t think like you.” Additionally, the assessment identified potential blind spots such as:
- Being patient. Your high-energy, future-focused approach compels people to get on board with your plans. But the same internal driver that constantly pushes you forward is likely to reject anything that might slow you down. Recognize that your impatience can be detrimental, particularly if it prevents you from reflecting deeply on solutions and listening carefully to input from others.
- Bringing others along with your thinking. Your ideas may be clear and well argued, but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with them. And because of your magnetism and optimism, those around you may be content to follow you emotionally without fully understanding your logic. No one wants lemmings — so be sure everyone understands the whats, whys, and hows of your ideas, not just the emotions behind them.
- Encouraging dissent. You may be missing the opportunity to encourage constructive conflict that would lead to better ideas and protect against risks you haven’t anticipated. Ask people to take turns playing devil’s advocate in your meetings, to put your logic to the test.
- Tempering your unbridled optimism. Your natural enthusiasm may lead you to focus on best-case scenarios at the expense of thoroughly understanding the risks. Remember to ask yourself, “What’s the best — and worst — that could happen?”
- Wearing down your colleagues. You don’t just create energy in your dealings with colleagues — you also solicit it. People might, at times, find their interactions with you exhausting.
- Recognizing differences in others. You might think others would be more successful if only they were more passionate and energetic — more like you. But remember that diversity of thought and style can create a robust, well-balanced team or organization. In particular, make sure your team includes someone who is more methodical than you — this will help you put some process around your passion.
While you can improve in each of these areas, your natural or default style will resonate in certain work environments and fit less well in others. So you may want to seek out settings that play to your strengths, even as you work on areas for development to thrive in a broader range of contexts.
You’re likely to thrive if:
- Your employees need visionary, strategic leadership, as they might in a period of rapid growth or turmoil.
- People in your organization tend to exert influence through relationships.
- You work in a collaborative and purposeful environment, such as an NGO or a cause-driven nonprofit enterprise.
- Colleagues with low morale — for example, in a strategic or financial turnaround — need a dose of your positive perspective.
You may struggle if:
- You work in an environment where process skills matter more than people skills.
- Your organization values intellectual ideas and positional authority — and colleagues get impatient with more relational or intuitive styles.
- Colleagues focus so much on metrics and results that they gloss over how the results were generated, losing sight of the organization’s broader mission and purpose.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your style?
3. What is your communication style?
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of two of my top ten favorite books of all time, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die describe my communication style best. In their Made to Stick model (http://www.heathbrothers.com/download/mts-made-to-stick-model.pdf), they capture my style best using the acronym SUCCESs:
S: Simple – Simplicity isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about prioritizing. What’s the core of your message? Can you communicate it with an analogy or high-concept pitch?
U: Unexpected – To get attention, violate a schema. To hold attention, use curiosity gaps. Before your message can stick, your audience has to want it.
C: Concrete – To be concrete, use sensory language. Paint a mental picture. Hook into multiple types of memory.
C: Credible – Ideas can get credibility from outside (authorities or anti-authorities) or from within, using human-scale statistics or vivid details.
E: Emotional – People care about people, not numbers. Don’t forget the WIIFY (What’s In It For You (i.e. the receiver).
S: Stories – Stories drive action through simulation (what to do) and inspiration (the motivation to do it). Stories help people see how an existing problem might change. Stories stick. Facts fade.
Often, I use visuals. According to Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina, our ability to recall information provided in text only is about 10% after 72 hours. With an added visual, ability to recall increases to 65%. Most of my emails include visuals. It’s unexpected (i.e. it is not the norm). Furthermore, I keep communication short, typically three to five sentences if possible.
4. How many hours a week do you work?
As principal, it wasn’t unusual to begin my work day anywhere from 2:30 AM to 4:30 AM. At times, I would go into the office in the wee hours to work uninterrupted (see Petersen’s research) and work until time for the children to wake (6:30). On the flip side, I rarely worked past 4:30 PM, but my children were little; and my responsibilities as dad were very important to me. I honored family time. (Granted, I was in bed by 9:00 PM.) Furthermore, a principal’s work is never done. Not one moment exists where one is caught up. The work of a principal is 24/7, 365 days a year.
5. What is your best asset for this job?
In 2012, our district assessed its leaders using the Gallup Strengths Finder. A strength is defined as “the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity. The key to creating a strength is to identify your dominant talents — the ways in which you most naturally think, feel, and behave as a unique individual — then complement them by acquiring knowledge and skills pertinent to the activity.” The purpose of the Clifton Strengths Finder is to start one on the path to strengths by helping one discover one’s most dominant talents. Talents are the required “raw materials” for building strengths, and the more dominant the talents, the greater the opportunity for strength. To encourage focus on one’s most dominant talents, only the top five themes, called the Signature Themes, are revealed. My top five registered as follows:
- Intellection: People who are especially talented in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.
- Futuristic: People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.
- Strategic: People who are especially talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
- Learner: People who are especially talented in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.
- Includer: People who are especially talented in the Includer theme are accepting of others. They show awareness of those who feel left out, and make an effort to include them.
Honestly, as much as my strengths add value to my work; it is my genuine love of the people I work alongside that matters most. When principal, this included the teachers and staff, the children, and their families.
6. What are your future goals?
Despite only being in the classroom four years, I am a teacher. I’ve continued to be a teacher whether teaching adults in Sunday School or in professional development sessions and keynotes. My heart’s desire is to continue to teach adults on a variety of topics across the state and nation if the opportunity arises.
7. What are the main problems for administrators?
Aside from the realities of principals’ work noted above, perhaps the most difficult task today is to sustain positive campus culture in light of the high-stakes, standardized educational system of our day. Teachers are defeated. Our culture holds teachers with little esteem, yet we ask more and more and more of our teachers to not only teach children content, but to right societal ills such as poverty and racism, issues far beyond the scope of a teacher to impact. As principal, you are the weather. The campus staff, students, and parents look to you to set the tone. Right or wrong, stress or no stress, it falls squarely on the leader. It is an awesome burden (and the word “awesome” carries a double meaning).
8. How do you handle upset parents?
If I could deflect issues before they got to the classroom teachers, I would take on the burden. They have so much already. If the issue was trivial or ludicrous, I took it on. If the teacher should have been or needed to be involved as the first person of contact, I referred the parent back to the teacher. Countless times, parents were overly concerned the teacher would retaliate against the child. That was rarely if ever the case in my career.
9. What do you spend most of your day doing?
That question is next to impossible to capture in writing. One truly must be in the seat to understand. It cannot explained. Regardless of prior preparation, an assistant principal cannot even fathom the responsibilities, the brevity, the variety, and the fragmentation of the job. NOTHING prepares one for the role. Even those whose outgoing, retiring principal who cast the vast majority of the work to the AP for a year or two or preparation mattered little.
One minute you are observing classroom instruction, the next you are talking with a teacher about curriculum, then you’re called to a classroom with a kindergartner turning over tables and throwing chairs across the room and you’re called diffuse the situation and perhaps restrain him for upwards of an hour only to turn to meet with a lawyer the next moment over a grievance (true story). After school, you settle only to talk to a parent whose child didn’t show up at home after school because (as you find out) she fell asleep on the bus, and before you leave for the day, counsel a teacher is in crisis because her husband is leaving her; all this before walking into the PTA meeting and the third grade choir performance that evening with chairs and tables that must be broken down and set up for the next day.
10. How do you handle incompetent or struggling teachers?
I cannot think of a more difficult issue that this one. Fortunately, these instances are rare. First, I am a proponent of engaged feedback as outlined by Brené Brown in her Engaged Feedback Checklist (http://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback-8×10.pdf). In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown writes, “Without feedback there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. People are desperate for feedback—we all want to grow. Feedback thrives in a culture where the goal is not “getting comfortable with hard conversations” but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized. “We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here—you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it. If education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable.”
What Brown articulated about feedback from the giver resonated deeply. She penned, “It’s easy to assume that the feedback process only feels vulnerable for the person receiving feedback, but that’s not true. [It is as difficult on the giver as it is the receiver.] Honest engagement around expectations and behavior is always fraught with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure for everyone involved.” Her description of leadership is profound. “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”
In my career, I’ve dealt with a few of these situations. One in particular was the most difficult. Years before I inherited her in a swap of underperforming teachers, she had been a student teacher for me in my fourth grade classroom. Further, she was my next door neighbor, I was her Sunday School teacher, and I was mentoring her husband (in my role as deacon as he was a newly converted Christian). I took her on knowing of her deficiencies offering her a second (and final) chance. She disappointed. Her subsequent arrest (of which I could do nothing about since it occurred off-contract in the summer at a state park out-of-town), did not prove to be an awakening. Her poor instruction led to a series of poor performance reviews and teacher growth plan, which she subsequently challenged by way of the grievance process. Despite the fact the superintendent upheld my decision as did the district board of trustees in a 7 – 0 vote, she appealed the case to the Commissioner of Education. (The case still resides on the Texas Education Agency website.) After the commissioner ruled in my favor, she appealed the ruling. In between the appeal and the expiration of time for the commissioner to hear its appeal (which in effect resorted to the original judgment), she took a leave of absence and never returned. The case cost the district the district thousands of dollars and was the equivalent of half of a teaching unit.
11. How do you see yourself as an instructional leader?
As noted above, the role of instructional leader is but one slice part of a sizable pie. Admittedly, instruction was not my area of strength having only taught for four years. Yet the campus had a vast number of curriculum experts on which I relied heavily. Outside resources were tapped often. When brought in, I was a part of the discussion and/or professional development sessions. While the content didn’t impact MY work directly, my presence demonstrated the importance. Further, I knew what to inspect as it’s vital to inspect what one expects. Hattie’s research be damned, despite being the fourth principal in five years, at the end of my five year tenure, the campus was recognized and awarded for being a Title-funded campus that demonstrated consistently high (exemplary) performance over a three year period. (Take that, Hattie.)