BRINGING VALUE

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

“No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself.”–Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

True lead learners are people who live authentic lives so they can fully express themselves. They have a purpose, which not only helps them become who they truly are, but also aids them in nurturing authenticity within their organization.

Learning and expressing oneself go hand-in-hand. If you’re compelled to express yourself, you’ll continue to learn the multiple ways you can do so. This constant learning means you’ll be an authentic leader, or as Michael Fullan writes, an “indelible leader.” In his book, Indelible Leadership, Fullan writes of the importance of “deep learning,” which can only happen if leaders help their staffs find meaning. As stated before, this isn’t done by attempting to tap into people’s passion. Leaders accomplish this by promoting deep work. Fullan quotes Cal Newport from Newport’s book Deep Work:

“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn . . . is an act of deep work. If you are comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.”

There are some leaders who cruise at 30,000 feet and only want to think about the big picture. They can’t be bothered with the details–perhaps it’s just too much for them to process. Other leaders get stuck in the weeds. Their intentions are good, but they waste valuable time and resources working through problems that can most likely be ignored.

A lead learner isn’t coasting at 30,000 feet nor chopping through the weeds. Instead, I like to think of a lead learner as a helicopter pilot who can deftly fly to different elevations very quickly. These people soar at 30,000 feet in order to bring coherence when needed; then they can drop and hover over the weeds (without getting stuck!) when a specific issue requires their expertise. I truly believe teachers are longing for leaders like this. They want someone who sees the big picture and also can dive in and get messy when it comes to curriculum, instructional strategies, collaboration protocols, and more.

As stated by Cal Newport, depth is important because deep learning means you can take complex systems and make them simple. A lead learner brings a lot of value to his or her organization by being comfortable with complexity and always looking for ways to make ideas more easily accessible to all adults at a school site.

In one of Cal Newport’s other books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he explains how a person can become valuable to an organization. As I re-read Newport’s book, I was struck by how similar his thoughts are to other great thinkers I’ve already shared in this book. First, he writes about the importance of a craftsman mindset over a passion mindset.

“Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.”

To be valuable within a school or district, it’s best to begin each day with the motivation of finding how you can help others rather than how they can help you. At first this sounds easy, but to maintain a mindset of everyday generosity takes constant effort. If you have to feel passionate about what you’re doing, in the long run not much will be accomplished. We’ve touched upon this already, but it’s worth noting that a worker running off passion will not be able to sustain the mundane responsibilities found within the field of education. As Newport writes:

“When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.”

As a teacher or administrator, the bureaucratic tasks that are constantly thrown at you can wear you down and make you bitter if you don’t approach the day with purpose. It’s the integral first step in becoming valuable.

Newport further discusses the “craftsman mindset.”

“It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.”

Once you decide on working with a purpose (i.e. craftsman mindset) you can begin learning the craft. The teachers and administrators I’ve seen who have a craftsman mindset are constantly reading, practicing the strategies they’re learning, and performing acts of generosity not just toward students, but also adults. You earn your career through hard work and constant learning. Afterall, we don’t call it being a “lead learner” for nothing.

Second, to bring value you must recognize student achievement will come when the adults on a campus get really good at what they do. This is accomplished by understanding what being “good” means. You can quickly learn which activities are worth your time by tracking your day by hourly increments on a spreadsheet–perhaps even quarter-hour increments. Then, you need to seek out immediate feedback concerning your actions, which could come in the form of student test scores, the thoughts of colleagues, or the observation of your boss. Imagine if students sought out feedback concerning their work on a daily basis! The same benefits can be derived from teachers and administrators who are honing their crafts by asking for feedback.

Third, Newport describes the importance of incorporating difficult strategies into one’s practice in order to improve. He writes:

“But this stretching, as any mathematician will also admit, is the precondition to getting better. This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of ‘good.’ If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s belief that a person should be lost physically or mentally every day. The only way to grow is to stretch oneself and feel the uncomfortable nature of uncertainty. Traditionally, educators have believed they can arrive to a point where they know everything and can just be left alone to do what’s “best for the students.” In reality, the work of “becoming” an educator is never finished. Just as the ever-changing nature of fashion is never finished and platforms such as Facebook never stop morphing into new entities–lead learners never stop evolving.

Fourth, it’s imperative we develop “rare and valuable skills.” This is hard, but as Newport writes:

“Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.”

The bottom line of being valuable within a school or district means you’re positively affecting student learning in the biggest way possible. This is difficult, and it takes amazing work to make it a reality; therefore, you need a clear path toward understanding how it’s accomplished.

To review, here’s an outline of what it takes to be valuable:

  • Purpose (craftsman) mindset over passion
  • Get really good by tracking your time and seeking feedback
  • Stretch yourself by trying new things (the process is never over)
  • Develop rare and valuable skills

If these four steps are accomplished at school sites and district offices, then true value will be attained and our students will improve by leaps and bounds. If the adults are constantly improving, the students will improve, too.

30,000 feet and from the sideline

Finding the Winning Edge is a book written by coaching legend Bill Walsh that’s impossible to find–unless you’re willing to pay $300 on Amazon or Ebay. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

This ESPN article does a good job summing up the book’s importance to many coaches. I really like the following excerpt from the post:

Some of the wisdom (from Finding the Winning Edge) is painfully obvious. “A quarterback should lead by example.” But McDermott understood why Belichick calls it a bible. In a secretive profession, it shows how a legend thinks. It teaches a coach to view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. It provides the tiny details that add up to a philosophy for building a team, winning games and running a franchise. Mostly, it can lure a coach into the illusion that if all the steps are followed, perfection can be attained.

My favorite takeaway from above is a coach must view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. Let’s examine this in regard to all leadership positions. Some leaders feel comfortable remaining at a 30,000 foot elevation (i.e. avoiding the details). Then there are leaders who insist on remaining at the sideline. In other words, they’re tromping through the weeds and don’t possess a higher perspective. Both approaches are beneficial–sometimes you need to cruise at 30,000 feet and other times you need to attack the weeds. The challenge is knowing at which elevation to cruise. A leader has to travel from 30,000 feet to the weeds and everywhere in between (continually).

In football, a coach must have knowledge concerning all positions while sitting in the skybox or standing on the sideline. The same goes for leadership in education. Leaders require a school-level perspective while at the same time drilling into curriculum and lesson planning. It’s not an easy job, and the more I learn, the more I realize how difficult it is to be an effective leader–especially in education.

I recently read Michael Fullan’s Indelible Leadership, which helped me gain a better perspective concerning what makes a great leader. Fullan provides six “tensions” within his Leadership Model:

  1. Combine moral imperative and uplifting leadership
  2. Master content and process
  3. Lead and Learn in equal measure
  4. See students as change agents
  5. Feed and be fed by the system
  6. Be essential and dispensable

These six tensions must be deployed simultaneously, which of course is not easy. In fact, Fullan writes in his book:

I warn the reader that it is hard (especially at the beginning) to become as good as you will need to be (at being a leader), so expect to invest time and persist… it won’t seem like hard work once you and others are immersed in it because the focused energy that is generated is irresistible.

Being a good leader at 30,000 feet, in the weeds, and everywhere in between takes hard work. To be more precise, it requires “deep work.” Fullan refers to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work* and quotes the following by Newport:

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn . . . is an act of deep work. If you are comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you. (p. 37)

Effective student learning requires adult leaders to master 21st Century skills and an understanding of complex systems in order to master all six tensions of the Leadership Model. It is in this way that teachers and administrators can grow, which in turn will encourage the skills needed to effectively circulate professional capital throughout schools and districts.

Deep work is the helicopter that will help us view student learning and effective practices from many different elevations.

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*I haven’t read Deep Work yet, but I have read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, and I found it to be a very helpful and engaging read.