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.


*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.

Antifragility and the 4 right drivers in systems

Two of my favorite non fiction books are Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Coherence by Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn. The more I think about both of them, the more I recognize how intertwined they are. The best way to illustrate this is to first describe the central idea behind Antifragile.



Think of an egg. You drop it on the ground, and it looks like this:


That’s fragility; introduce a little force or instability, and destruction follows. Fragility should be avoided at all costs: fragile systems, fragile investments, fragile jobs… the list goes on.

Think of a bowling ball. You drop it on a tile kitchen floor, and it looks like this:
That’s robustness. Introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, or organization isn’t affected. Obviously, this is more ideal than fragility.

Think of Hydra. You remember Hydra? When you cut off one of its heads, two more grow back in its place, like this:
That’s antifragility; introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, or organization becomes stronger.

So we have three ideas: fragility, robustness, and antifragility (a term coined by Taleb). These ideas are important to keep in mind when discussing systems.

Let’s discuss the book Coherence. Fullan introduces the four right drivers and the four wrong drivers in educational systems .

Right drivers:

  1. Focusing direction
  2. Cultivating collaborate cultures
  3. Deepening learning
  4. Securing accountability

Wrong Drivers:

  1. Punitive accountability
  2. Individualist strategies
  3. Technology
  4. Ad hoc policies

Let’s say you run a school district. The first thing you should do is foster the creation of the four right drivers. You begin by focusing direction, which means becoming good at a small number of things and aligning all your initiatives and resources toward that end. The second thing you must do is cultivate collaborative cultures. The means professional learning communities (PLC) are supported, as well as the components that create effective PLC time (i.e. an emphasis on common formative assessments, focusing on goals, and providing enough time for members to be productive). The third driver is deepening learning, which means building capacity (shared skills and common vocabulary) regarding that which your system is focusing. Fourth, you must apply external accountability while fostering internal accountability.

I believe a school district can be made robust–and maybe even antifragile–by incorporating the four right drivers. Before I explain why, let’s discuss how the four wrong drivers will make a system fragile.

First, punitive accountability is a tactic made by politicians and shortsighted leaders who want (need) quick results. This has never worked, and never will work to advance student learning. Second, individualistic strategies are damaging to a system. Teachers who are individualistic tend to alienate themselves. Likewise, charismatic leaders who are individualistic and make a big impact often leave a vacuum when they switch jobs or retire. Third, technology has been viewed as a panacea because devices are easy to buy and install within classroom. They can be tangible, “shiny objects” that catch your eye. But don’t be fooled, nothing magical will happen by putting technology in classrooms. Fourth, ad hoc policies can inflict much harm upon a district. This is because they’re often implemented without awareness of their placement within the coherent ecosystem of the district. For example, if you really want to introduce problem based learning (PBL), and you haven’t established conceptual links between direct instruction, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and technology, then the implementation of PBL is going to be a disaster.

All the wrong drivers Fullan discusses in his book will make your organization fragile. When you have the fragile-robust-antifragile paradigm established in your mind, it’s easy to make the connection between wrong drivers and fragility. Punitive accountability will make you weak. Individualistic strategies will make you weak. Technology could make you weak (unless you use it as an accelerator), and ad hoc policies will make you weak. In fact, ad hoc policies are the silent fragility maker, mostly because the people implementing them have the best of intentions and no idea they’re weakening the organization.

On the other hand, the right drivers will make districts robust–and as I wrote above–possibly antifragile. If an organization has focused direction, it doesn’t matter which shiny objects are offered; the organization is not going to bite. If collaborative cultures are strong, people will be unified, which helps focus direction. If educators delve deeper into their learning, they’ll be more likely to share, which cultivates collaborative cultures and focuses direction. And if accountability is secured both externally and internally, then learning will be deepened, people will collaborate, and the focus will zero in on what’s important. Thus, coherence.

This coherent organization will be robust because it will be strong. New curriculum adoption? No matter, we’ll learn it and use it to teach Common Core. New digital grade book? No matter, we’ll learn it and use it to provide valuable feedback. New principal? No matter, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing because we produce results.

That’s robustness. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But what about antifragility? Remember, antifragility is like hydra–this means the organization doesn’t just absorb the blow, it becomes stronger because of it. The antifragile district thrives within chaos.

My argument boils down to this: A district that incorporates all four right drivers can thrive within chaos. It can gain from disorder. This means the loss of a charismatic leader, lack of funding, Wi-Fi that’s down, large class sizes, new implementations, new standards, and new ideas can make a district stronger.

This is possible. We just need more people to jump on the Coherence train as we travel toward antifragility.