Saturday, February 25, 2017

Leadership and Learning: How Do You Conceptualize Leadership?

Leadership and Learning: How Do You Conceptualize Leadership?

I’m obsessed about studying excellent leaders. As I get to know folks, I’m known to enter into a role as a quiet observer, thoughtfully studying and reflecting on what I am seeing, hearing, and watching. I pay attention to everything around me, trying to capture the needed information that is often communicated in an unspoken manner. Once I have established a relationship and trust with those around me, I slowly begin to share my thoughts and ideas, but I try to be careful about my timing, my tone, and work to have an ever conscious awareness of my audience, and possible unintended consequences of my words and interactions. I’m a thinker, so even as I am speaking and working, I am thinking. For me, my brain never stops and that can be a curse as well as a gift. It all depends on how you look at it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership-more specifically, about what makes some leaders exceptional, and others average at best. A few things have come to the forefront of my mind on this topic and I’d like to share them here in this blog. While I do not presume that my thoughts on leadership are groundbreaking or even new, I do believe they are worth sharing. It should be noted that all of my leadership experience has been in education, mostly as a principal, and now in my new role-unless you count my K-12 student council experience and my role as a co-captian on  my high school basketball team. J  In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and learn from a number of leaders, some peers, others superiors. After seeing leadership in a variety of different organizations and at different levels, there are a few summary thoughts I wish to capture and share.

Clarity precedes competence.     

Leadership and learning go hand in hand or not at all. Leaders have a responsibility to guide, direct, inspire, motivate, and hold folks accountable for their efforts, but that work is gravely impacted by the leader’s learning. It is quite difficult to lead folks in work you have not embarked on learning. As a leader your learning informs your decision-making. Gathering all information and increasing your knowledge base as needed, allows one to make better informed decisions, see the implications and long term benefits of the decisions they are making, and clarifies the intent of the strategy or action being executed. If leaders aren’t clear on the “what” and the “how” of their work, their competence has the potential to be compromised. There seems to be an encouraged focus to be hypersensitive regarding the “why” of our work as we work with adult learners, but the “what” and the “how” should not be left out of our thinking. Clarity precedes competence because if we only acknowledge why something needs to happen, we end up with some assumptions on what needs to happen and how it needs to happen. We must be clear about not only why we are doing something, but on how it can be operationalized and what that looks like for members of our organization in roles that will execute the strategy we are pushing them to implement.

Support is not a general term.

So often in my leadership experience, I’ve heard folks talk about their need to be supported or even an experience where they have not felt supported. It is my opinion, that our human condition, flawed and all, leads us to believe that a lack of agreement is a lack of support. Instead, we ought to be a bit more conscious about what support should be and how it should be provided as leaders and as recipients of it. Support is about precisely diagnosing what type of assistance, encouragement, intervention or guidance is needed and then administering it at the right time. Support is not about affirming another person’s ideas or actions or agreeing with them. Excellent leaders are careful about the use of this word, and in how they offer and administer support. Support is a gentle balance of pushing and stroking, just at the right time and in the right context. When I think about leaders who I see as excellent, this is something I see them doing with precision. They are not overly complimentary, yet their objective isn’t to be adversarial by constantly pointing out deficiencies and what’s wrong. They are skilled at situational leadership, administering encouragement when it is needed and warranted, critical feedback when it is necessary to ensure performance expectations are met and not compromised, and praise when there is a clear body of evidence of one’s work to support such recognition. Like criticism, compliments, are not given without a link to solid evidence of such. Average leaders often provide empty compliments and use support as a general term synonymous with agreement. Support is not a general term.

Excellent leaders are driven by the work.

My oldest sister Tonya, who is also in leadership (business, not education), told me something several years ago that has gravely impacted my leadership. If you knew our mother, you’d know her rearing was definitely an influence on Tonya’s thought that I agree with whole-heartedly. Tonya said in one of our many conversations about leadership and work, “There are two kinds of horses. There are show horses and there are workhorses. A show horse looks good and sounds good, but a work horse get’s the job done.” So often in my career, I’ve seen those who aspire to lead be enamored with the appearances of leadership. Many admire some who are well dressed, well spoken, socially graceful in their conversations with others, but lack a body of evidence of work to support that their leadership is in fact excellent. Excellent leaders are not only socially graceful, they are also driven by their body of work that serves as evidence that they are achieving their goals and getting the job done. Leaders who strive to be excellent aren’t always moved by what one says or how one is perceived, but by the work one has been instrumental in accomplishing, producing, etc. Excellent leaders are results oriented. Their worth is rooted in their ability to accomplish the tasks set before them. Several months ago, I heard a speaker say that he “always tries to imitate excellence”. I immediately thought, we must be sure we are defining excellence in the right way as leaders. Those we look to as examples ought to have a body of work that supports our judgment of seeing them as an excellent leader.

As I continue to think about this topic, I am sure there will be other thoughts that come to mind. Perhaps I’ll write a second blog as that happens. For now, I share this with you and hope you may have found something in my words that helps you think about how you conceptualize excellent leadership.

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!
-Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Leadership: Are You Leading With Actions or Words?

The Power of Reflection
Leaders are often tasked with evaluating situations, perspectives, people, etc. Leaders look outward to see progress towards goals, to determine to what extent collaboration is happening, and to assess how well a strategy is executed or implemented. That's why it's important for leaders to look inward first. Reflection starts with looking inside and taking an honest and personal assessment of your efforts.  Reflection isn't simply thinking about the past. It's digging deep into the core of who you are as a leader, how you have lead others, and whether or not your leadership has been effective. Reflection isn't about  how well you've taken charge either. Great leaders understand that positional power is an absolute, last resort. They are skilled at using the power of reflection to spur personal improvement and action. They are self motivated because they take the time to think about how to get better, and not just to review what else needs to be done. Reflection moves us from task masters to critical thinkers. We think more about how to go about the work to produce a desired effect. Leaders who struggle with reflection move along the checklist, checking off what has been done, and highlighting what's left to be completed. That's not reflection. That's a review. Don't confuse the two. They are quite different.

Leaders Go First  
When a shift in culture needs to happen, the leader does not wait for the rest of the members of the organization to shift. Instead, great leaders understand that they can model the shift they desire. Simply verbalizing the expectation of how folks should interact and behave isn't enough. This means when a leader recognizes that his or her attitude or actions hasn't met the bar, they admit it. They admit it by making it clear and transparent. Reflection, when done well, can serve as a catalyst for changing behavior. Changing others isn't really possible. Leaders influence others, impact others, but individual change is personal. Change only happens when one makes a conscious decision to do so. That conscious decision is often the result of deep reflection. Above all, when the leader sees that something is not going well, he or she looks in the mirror first. Great leaders resist the urge to look outward to find blame in an initial assessment. Great leaders check themselves first, taking an honest assessment of what they have done or have failed to do. Reflection, in its' truest form only happens when one looks in the mirror first. Leaders who go first lead with their actions, followed by their words. They believe in showing more than telling.

Leadership Challenge
Continuous improvement isn't simply a mindset to be adopted by organizations who want to make sure their school, district, or company is always working to get better. It's a concept to be adopted by individuals who wish to lead, regardless of position or title. Reflection is the mental exercise of figuring out how one can improve to reach his or her maximum potential. The challenge is to resist the urge to look outwardly first. So often when things aren't going well or the way we desire, our tendency is to look at those around us. I reject that tendency. I believe that when we look at ourselves first, we not only model powerful reflection for others, but we commit to the idea that everyday we have an opportunity to get better, to improve our craft, to sharpen our expertise and skills. My challenge to leaders is simple. Have you taken a look in the mirror lately? Are you spending time thinking about how you get better at being the leader versus thinking about how others need to improve? If not, I challenge you to do just that. Take a look in the mirror and reflect!

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!
-Latoya
@latoyadixon5

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Power & Pressure of the Principalship: Why Principals Need Support Now!


Image from: quoteaddicts.com


“With great power, comes great responsibility.”
-Uncle Ben in Spiderman

Being a principal isn’t easy, and I’m not so sure it’s supposed to be that way. It’s a tough job. As principal, you have the power to improve the educational experience of students, instructional practices of teachers, and build a strong culture of trust among parents. If you work it right, they say, you can accomplish something amazing.  Principals must be master mind readers, noting each teacher’s particular strengths and opportunities for growth. Principals must know their students, in both academic and social emotional fashion, and must be skilled at developing partnerships with parents to help students reach their maximum potential. Principals are tasked with creating a culture of collaboration, where each and every person feels valued, although they have little control of anyone’s actions. While principals may administer consequences or extend rewards and/or recognition for a particular action, the ultimate decision regarding how one acts or behaves, rest within each individual. Principals work to earn the power and permission to influence others, not control them. Principals are tasked with being familiar with a variety of content, pedagogy, instructional methods, all the while ensuring they have a firm handle on the budget, maintenance and operations, transportation logistics, personnel protocol, professional development, and board policies. Principals must support teachers, students, and parents in their efforts, but here’s a question: Who supports principals? Furthermore, how are principals supported? Beyond the monthly meeting and annual conference, what structures are in place to create that same culture of collaboration that is so beneficial to teachers and students, for principals? When principals need support where do they turn? 

For far too long, principals have been left out of the conversation regarding the benefits of collaborative communities of learners for teachers and for students. Principals, too, need collaborative communities with their peers, to work through problems of practice, to develop intelligent solutions to the challenges they face, and quite frankly to last in the principalship. In recent weeks, I’ve read a great deal regarding the principal shortage. Many states and districts are focused on strategies to replenish the principal pipeline, but who helps you stay there once you make the rank of principal? As a former principal, I can attest to the feelings of isolation, pressure, and stress that accompany the principalship. While a monthly principals’ meeting might provide a venue for a common meeting place, it doesn't serve the purpose of support. In a recent tweet, I asked principals to share with me what would give them the support they so desperately need. As I presumed, they noted the following:
  1. A listener who understands the complexity of the job. While the first and foremost task is teaching and learning, so very often other factors (meeting basic needs of students, working through a personal crisis with a staff member, budgetary or operational issues) consume a great deal of time.
  2. A coach who uses an assets based approach to coach them. It takes more than a review of school data and a set of goals to help principals meet the mark of academic achievement, but so often, to use a sports analogy, we cite last season’s record, state the goal for this season, and tell principals “Play ball!”. Occasionally, we cheer them on, but that’s usually at the end of the game, better known as testing season! 
  3. A superior who recognizes the things that are working well, as well as the opportunities for growth. Monthly principal meetings ought to be more than problem listing sessions. Principals need time with their peers to work through problems of practice. Additionally, principals need to be coached on what they can do to develop their skills, sharpen their weaknesses, etc. and that must go beyond talking to another principals at a meeting or shadowing someone else for a day.
  4. A structured and routine practice to ensure consistent opportunities for collaboration with job alike peers. We know professional learning communities serve as powerful platforms for teachers to improve their practice. Principals, too, need a job embedded opportunity to participate in a professional learning community that meets their needs.
  5. A focus on principal wellness, with professional development on stress management. As a former principal, I began a journey of fitness purely out of a grave need to manage stress, improve my sleep patterns, and reduce anxiety. It took me years in the principalship to recognize that I needed to be intentional about managing my stress levels so that I could bring my very best self to the job each day.

While the responsibility of the principalship is great, so is the pressure. Principals face a constant pressure to improve teacher practice, student learning, school community relations, and last but certainly not least, themselves. If principals aren’t provided with the support they need, what should be their power, often becomes pressure. In the age of high stakes testing, increased accountability, along with a push to be innovative in the ways we teach and that students learn, it is not difficult to see how a principal’s potential power can easily becomes a persistent pressure. District leaders have a responsibility to support principals in the same manner and fashion that they support the work of teachers and the educational experiences of students. Principals must not be left to fend for themselves, when we know collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking are essential to the educational experience. If we know those elements are working for students and teachers, why aren’t we making it our business to create routine opportunities for principals in the same manner? Principals are the heart of school leadership and they need your support now! I dare you to do something different!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!


-@latoyadixon5