Saturday, March 14, 2015

Isolation Won't Make the Problem go Away

I agree with New York Times opinion editor Maureen Dowd when she says President Obama has remained isolated during times of conflict with others and his party and those who oppose him. She talks about the president's leadership in a January 24, 2015 article that immediately followed his State of the Union address (click to read Dowd's piece).

Learning from the experiences of a sitting leader has compelled me to reflect on my own relationships with those who may present obstacles to my efforts for reforming school programs. The lesson learned here- don't stay apart from the fray. Embrace conflict, maintain lines of communication always, and most of all, don't let anger corrupt your true nature and focus on the real deal, which is doing right by kids.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

It Takes Courage to Stop Staying Angry

Educational leaders are emotional people just like everyone else. I’m happy when I see a teacher taking a risk with a playful lesson and having fun with her kids. I’m sad when a child comes to school tired, unfed, and unkempt because his parents were up arguing all night on the verge of a bitter separation. I get angry some days too, but it was a recent set of challenging circumstances that really made me angry. This was anger that became all-consuming.

And this is unfortunate because I don’t remember being so angry in my 23-year career. I wasn’t getting anywhere in solving my challenges and being as upset as I was just made me grumpy every day. This being new to me, I had to come up with a new attitude…a new way to be a leader if I was going to continue doing my job with at least some bit of effectiveness. 

It was a passage from Scott Berg's biography of Woodrow Wilson that suddenly redirected me and the jarring quote was this, "The man who has courage is marked for distinction; the man who has not is marked for extinction, and deserves submission." In a moment of open-mindedness (it was only after two weeks that my anger released its grip on my ability to be open-minded) I equated courage with my predicament and it dawned on me that I would have to be fearless in attacking my emotions if I was going to move forward. I was taking the easy path (maybe even a selfish path?) by staying in my angry "place." It was easy for me to "sit" on my anger and let it fester, but it would take strength and boldness to look past my irritation, come back to my "default" attitude (I try to be a nurturing and collaborative leader) and move on. 

Drumming up courage paid off in two ways. I felt emotionally healthier than I had in weeks, which in turn made for better sleep, eating habits, and helped me be sharper on the job. Just as important, I was able to address my challenges head-on without letting them get the best of me or my school district.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Leader's "Trifecta" for Longevity

There's no shortage of articles about New England Patriot's Quarterback Tom Brady heading into the 2015 Super Bowl. The New York Times Magazine's spread on his relationship with trainer Alex Guerrero (click for the full article) shed interesting light on the underlying reason for Brady's success and, what I think should most be emphasized, longevity.

Brady's "trifecta" for durability? First, be physically fit. Second, be emotionally stable. Third, be spiritually sound. Could this be the bedrock of resilience for leaders? I felt compelled to "audit" my own place among these three qualities, an especially important exercise since I work in a high-pressured, stress-inducing job (school superintendent). Turns out I am striving to be these things that Brady preaches are the reason he's able to continue to be so successful at age 37.

I tend to believe what Brady is preaching. Long suffering from Crohn's Disease, I have not had a bout of the illness for as many years as I have taken the helm of my school district. I took up endurance racing (physical fitness), resolved I would not let my mistakes and failures keep me down (emotional stability), and drew more love from my family, after developing a greater appreciation for two daughters and wife.

I'm not professing allegiance to a particular NFL franchise here, but I have no problem learning from a successful leader in his field who has found a way to hang in there over time.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Inspiration Does not Have to Come From Lofty Rhetoric

Woodrow Wilson believed the role of a leader was not to dictate but to inspire. I heartily agree, but decades of professional experience have taught me that I cannot inspire people with grandiose speech like Wilson and countless other leaders (Lincoln, King, and Kennedy come to mind). I know my weaknesses, and one such area in which I don't shine is the ability to persuade people with halftime locker room-like speeches. How then have I managed to inspire those around me?

My three keys to inspiring others have become: 1. Modeling the expectations to which I hold my subordinates. I work hard to "walk" the talk day in, day out. 2. Empowering my constituents to help me make the important decisions. 3. Showing my subordinates that I am human, have the same problems in personal and professional life, and am willing to acknowledge my mistakes.

Those who take to this form of inspiration invest themselves in what's good for the organization. I'll bet the majority of leaders don't have the eloquence and force of an oratory giant, but there are no prerequisites to having the willingness to role model, empower, and self-reflect.

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Humility has Been one of my Keys to Success

It was validating to learn that one of Dwight Eisenhower's key character traits was his perceived humility. Michael Korda, in his biography IKE: An American Hero points out:
It was part of Dwight Eisenhower's genius that he never wanted to appear 'to know more than the other fellow,' or embarrass anyone if it could be avoided.
My wife used to chide me for talking too much about myself, what I knew, what I did...I took my cues from her early on and internalized the notion that most people appreciate those who don't "show off" and who apply themselves to helping others when necessary. I've gained more respect over time by applying my knowledge and skills only when needed and only when called upon.

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Use Talking Points to Keep the Complicated Simple

I've been struggling to make sense of all the state and federal mandates thrown my district's way. I help lead a small system of three schools and 1,400 students so accountability is left to a small team of principals, supervisors, and central office administrators.

Early failures as an inexperienced leader taught me that complicating already complicated issues didn't help anyone. In fact, I did more harm than good and wasted others' time and energy. I've taken to simplifying matters now. It should not be seen as coincidence that some of our greatest leaders in business (Steve Jobs comes to mind) and the military (Eisenhower) rose to success by whittling down the complex to the simple.

Michael Korda recognizes Dwight Eisenhower's rise to Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in his work IKE: An American Hero:
One of IKE's greatest strengths as a senior officer [was] his ability to produce a simpler solution than anybody else's to a difficult problem.
I help my leadership team communicate simple solutions by having them repeat a mantra each year (what I refer to as no more than three "talking points"). I fashion the mantra out of what I know will be our core needs for a given school year. The talking points keep the mishmash of mandates and new initiatives simple so the problems with which the whole school community must confront are tackled slowly, surely, and simply.

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Be Neither Dreamer or Dictator: Influence Others to Believe in Your Vision

Thomas Jefferson, despite any of his faults, was considered in a recent biography by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham (Thomas Jefferson, The art of Power), a leader able to "articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma." He was able to "move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic [as he] realized his vision [through] compromise and improvisation."

I don't profess to have all the answers when I share my vision with stakeholders in my learning community, and I do not present absolutes, pretending to have the solutions to everyone's challenges. The themes of my messages are clear and forthright- I recognize my community's needs and lay out processes by which everyone can collaboratively engage to come up with solutions together. In doing this, I have had success engendering sincere ownership among the faculty/staff, parents, and students in moving the community forward, rather than trying to convince them I can fix the problems with which we're faced.

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.