[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]
As a lead learner, how do you hold other people accountable to high standards of performance every day for student learning to flourish? More importantly, how do you hold yourself to a high standard?
Experts have stated over the years that motivating one’s staff, and oneself, can be done in a myriad of ways. Buzzwords are generously thrown around in administrator courses and within leadership books: autonomy, candor, culture… all good words with wonderful intentions. The problem is these terms are effects of something else. In other words, you can’t have a campus where autonomy, candor, and a positive culture flourish without a main cause.
Speakers and writers who make their livings discussing how to build accountability within schools and districts are missing this cause, and I must admit I was blind to it as well. It took the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb to help me locate this blindspot and give it a name. As often happens, thoughts and beliefs are constructed by the vocabulary one possesses. Just as Taleb provided us with the word “antifragile,” he’s also provided insight regarding a term that shines a light on every place of learning and exposes the level of accountability members hold themselves to.
Skin in the game.
Let’s back up a bit. I was listening to Michael Fullan speak about two years ago, and he discussed how one of the correct drivers of student learning is “securing accountability.” Having read his book Coherence before attending his talk, I was familiar with this driver and didn’t expect to learn much more when it came to this idea. I was wrong. Not long into his explanation of securing accountability, he provided a synonym for the word accountable: responsible.
In an instant I saw this driver in a different light. Accountability and responsibility are of course similar, but responsibility speaks much more powerfully to me. We all have a responsibility to help students learn and mature into flourishing citizens who can in turn help others. We are all responsible for the state of the world in which we find ourselves, and it’s the great women and men who have taken a stand (when it’s difficult to do so) that creates positive change. These people saw it as their responsibility to live in a way where they would suffer consequences for their actions–mostly for the unfortunate reason that oftentimes doing what’s right is not popular.
In the field of education, administrators are taught they must create “buy-in” within their organization. Fullan divides the “securing accountability” driver into two sub-categories: external and internal accountability. (From here on out I’ll refer to “accountability” as “responsibility”). External responsibility is the process by which an administrator influences others to do what he or she wants, and it’s accomplished by means of directives, evaluations, and systems constructed to provide a specific result. This form of leadership can definitely be effective, but it’s extremely fragile because it depends on one person making sure everyone else is doing something. Once that administrator leaves, whatever is being managed will disappear because the staff didn’t hold it dear to their hearts.
Internal responsibility is more robust because, as the name suggests, people internalize the change and make it part of their practice. In some instances, external responsibility may come first, but the hope is that it morphs into an internal responsibility system for each members of the organization. This is when culture becomes positive, and a school site or district pulls in one direction toward its purpose.
This all sounds well and good, but the important question is: how do you create a sense of internal responsibility within a person? Earlier I wrote that great women and men in the past have changed the status quo by taking a stand for or against something by making themselves vulnerable because of it. A nice way of putting it is they take risks for their opinions rather than protecting themselves from the consequences of their actions.
External responsibility is easy: mandate, evaluate, implement, threaten (just kidding); you can always try to make someone do something. The goal, however, is to foster internal responsibility, and the most effective way–in fact, possibly the only way–to promote internal responsibility is by having skin in the game.
It’s common knowledge students will behave well in the classroom of a teacher they respect. They’ll even work harder for teachers whom they know care about them. The same goes for adults; teachers will work extremely hard for a principal they like. The million dollar question, however, is how does a principal garner the respect of his or her staff? It’s not by giving them whatever they ask for. It’s not by sending them to fun conferences. It’s not by being nice or strict or firm.
It’s by having skin in the game.
I go back to the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as I often do, because he speaks and writes truth. In his new book Skin in the Game, he cogently explains the importance of taking risks for one’s actions and opinions. For example, he writes, “If you give an opinion, and someone follows it, you are morally obligated to be, yourself, exposed to its consequences.” Someone with skin in the game is more than willing to pay a price for having exposure to the real world. When they tell others to do something, they don’t hide behind another strong leader or the mantra “that’s just the way it is.” They don’t hide behind anything, which is unfortunately rare–especially within large organizations. As Taleb writes, “Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.” Skin in the game as a leader is basically a broader way of referring to extreme ownership.
Ineffective leaders hide amidst fuzzy bureaucratic obstacles. They do what they have to do, and then insulate themselves from the effects of their nebulous decisions. When these people apply external accountability measures, staff balks. The leaders find no one listens to them, no matter how many administrative books containing buy-in strategies they’ve read and implemented. And if external measures don’t work, it’s crystal clear internal responsibility isn’t fostered.
People want leaders with skin in the game. Whenever I’ve visited a school where kids are learning, teachers are working in harmony, and (a chosen few) effective strategies are being implemented well, you’ll find a principal walking around the campus who doesn’t protect herself from her actions. Even if they don’t know it, most people crave for a lead learner such as this to take command of their campus. This is the type of leader who gets results from external responsibility. More importantly, this is a leader who has developed internal responsibility within herself and her staff. She’s taken risks for her opinion, and she’s received both accolades and grief because she was tied to her decisions and actions.
Let’s examine what a lead learner with skin in the game does not look like.
(My book will hopefully be published this year!)