Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Sometimes Lose Sight of the Current State of Affairs

Woodrow Wilson said, "The successful leader ought not to keep too far in advance of the mass he is seeking to lead, for he will soon lose contact with them."

This is a timely reminder to me that I must always keep track of what currently ails my school district community. I sometimes keep my eye too fixed on my broad vision and lose sight of the day to day crises that could be chipping away at the school culture I am trying to foster. Too laser-like a focus on the big picture while neglecting the current state of affairs can greatly diminish the effectiveness of a leader's vision.

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Test Performance Does not an Educational Leader Make!

It's too easy to measure an educational leader’s success by looking myopically at students’ performance on test scores. It seems like policymakers and education laypeople take the easy way out when they look to what they believe is the most concrete measure of student achievement and consider success based on standardized test scores.

I have been struggling to reconcile my core belief that standardized test scores are a poor measure of school and teacher success with the way society looks at me as an educational leader. I work hard to help my teachers, principals, and supervisors support student preparation for standardized tests because I know we will all be judged by assessment results. But why should my success be based mostly on how well my students do on the tests and perceivably how well the teachers have prepared the students for those tests? The PARCC and other standardized assessments are validly one measure of a child's progress, but many distinguished educational scholars rightly make a compelling case for the high value of using multiple measures to judge student progress (read senior research associate in the School of Education at Duquesne University Susan Brookhart's excellent ASCD article about this subject by clicking here).

I want to be measured by other means. Perhaps my ability to address the needs of all learners by creating specialized programs is something people could use to measure me? Maybe my work to communicate with all the stakeholders should be an indication of my success? Shouldn't the myriad ways I engage members of the local community in the decision-making process be considered an example of my ability to lead effectively?

Educational leadership is not a "black and white" enterprise- it is a craft that requires an individual to see the world in myriad "colors" that calls for all kinds of creative solutions to problems and different approaches to relating to people with divergent personalities and attitudes. Leaders should be judged according to their ability to effectively help the community they serve grow socially, emotionally, and academically and not only by their capability to get their students to perform well on tests.

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.

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

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.