Posts Tagged 'leadership'

5 essential skills for every leader…

Dennis Sparks

I have seen leaders rise or fall based on the presence or absence of one or more of the following skills:

1. The ability to discern and paraphrase the assumptions, values, and points of view of others with sufficient skill that those with whom they interact would report that their leaders accurately understand their perspectives.

2. The ability to effectively manage one’s feelings and to discern and respond appropriately to the feelings of others.

3. The ability to manage one’s responsibilities efficiently and with integrity, which includes but is not limited to email and social media, short and long-term planning, and task and project management.

4. The ability to effectively delegate meaningful responsibilities to others in the school community without micromanagement by providing appropriate support and skill development to ensure success.

5. The ability to facilitate meetings (or when appropriate delegate their facilitation) that achieve their stated purposes and are satisfying to participants.

Do you agree that these are essential skills? What skills have I missed?

Kent Peterson suggests ways to support “wary and weary” teachers

Dennis SparksKent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.

So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.

Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures. He may be contacted at
kpeterson@education.wisc.edu.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?

Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that they school leaders do.

First, they work to make school culture and environment a positive one, where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.

Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.

Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.

They also say that school leaders connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment.

In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.

What would you say to a principal in his or her first year on the job?

When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.

Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.

Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away.  First, learn about the current culture.  Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas.  Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.

Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture.  Who were the prior principals and what were they like?  What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders.  Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?

Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there.  Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics.  They have:

• A clear set of values focused on students.

• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.

• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of the how to foster a positive school culture.

• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.

• The ability to do complex problem solving.

• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school.

• A sense of humor.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself.  Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:

• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.

• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.

• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning.  This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.

• Reading.  And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life.  These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability.  Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.

But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children.

Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches.  While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).

But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools.

•  Connect the change to existing values and purposes.  Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.

•  Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy.  Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this.  Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.

•  Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers.  The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one.  Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms.  Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.

•  Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree.  Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.

In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?

I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.

Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better.  Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school.  Here are some things to consider:

•  Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school.  These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?

•  Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school.  Which problems are you choosing to address?

•  Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment.  Are you aware of every interaction?  Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?

Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement.  All of these—small and large, are investments in success.

Effective leaders listen with empathy

Dennis Sparks

When we move out of ourselves and into the other person’s experience, seeing the world with that person, as if we were that person, we are practicing empathy. —Arthur Ciaramicoli & Katherine Ketcham

Civility is the bedrock of productive and supportive relationships within schools.

An essential building block of  civility is leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy for the experience and perspective of others within the school community.

“Being aware of others is where civility begins,” P. M. Forni writes in The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. “To be fully aware of them, we must weave empathy into the fabric of our connection. . . . The empathy of strangers is good for us not just because it makes us feel better about ourselves and about life, but also because it encourages us to be better persons. Empathy is wonderfully contagious.”

In my experience, leaders’ lack of empathy is a leading cause of interpersonal problems in the workplace, which, in turn, undermines a school community’s ability to achieve it’s most important goals.

Empathic leaders:

fully and deeply hear what others say, 

• convey both verbally and nonverbally that they understand that person’s perspective and experience, and 

• communicate respect for the individual who is speaking.

Through their words and demeanor empathic leaders communicate to others the value of both the message and the messenger

Too often leaders inadvertently communicate disrespect by cutting off speakers because they assume they know what the speakers will say, “hijacking” speakers’ stories to focus on things the listener regards as more worthy of discussion, or demonstrating inattention and disinterest by glancing at their computer screen or smart phones.

On the other hand, leaders who listen with empathy demonstrate respect for what the speaker is saying through such simple but often neglected practices as making eye contact, tolerating periods of silence during which speakers can reflect on their own words, and demonstrating through their demeanor an appreciation of speakers’ feelings.

“[T]he quality of our listening is as good a measure of our humanity as any. . .,” P. M. Forni notes. “[W]hen we find the strength to engage in considerate listening we are in fact expressing ourselves. At our best.”

Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence listen attentively to deeply understand the experiences and perspectives of others and demonstrate that understanding through their words and demeanor. It is the bedrock of civility and meaningful collegiality within the school community.

6 common “confusions” that inhibit the continuous improvement of teaching and learning

Dennis Sparks

1. Confusing good intentions with a strategy.

2. Confusing a goal with a plan.

3. Confusing activity with accomplishment.

4. Confusing professional development with professional learning.

5. Confusing teamwork with any group activity.

6. Confusing management with leadership.

Taken together, these “confusions”  dissipate energy and help preserve the status quo.

Fortunately, principals and teacher leaders can turn confusion into clarity through professional study and dialogue.

That clarity can include meaningful, stretching goals that guide and fuel robust plans through which seemingly impossible goals can be achieved.

Students, of course, will be the primary beneficiaries of educators’ clarity.

What other “confusions” would you add to my list?

Why getting others to change is so difficult

IMG_1365Influencing others is one of leaders’ most important responsibilities and greatest challenges.

Most of us are familiar with techniques that are less than effective—providing rational reasons for the change, threatening, and ordering people to change, for instance—yet we persist in doing them, often because we don’t know what else to do.

David Brooks explored this issue in his New York Times column.

“You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop,” he writes. “You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will….”

“People don’t behave badly,” Brooks says, “because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.”

Brooks encourages readers “…to pick one area of life at a time (most people don’t have the willpower to change their whole lives all at once) and help a person lay down a pre-emptive set of concrete rules and rewards. Pick out a small goal and lay out measurable steps toward it.

“It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.”

What does work then?

  • Having modest, measurable goals within a framework of larger, stretching purposes that energize the change. The achievement and celebration of modest goals also provides the energy to persevere when our motivation lags.
  • Learning to think about things in new ways. While such “reframing” is often essential, it isn’t always necessary for people to change their beliefs before they change their behavior. In fact, a change in beliefs often follows a successful change in behavior that produces the desired result.
  • Repetition of new behaviors until they become habitual. Because old behavior are often deeply rooted and provide their own rewards, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of effort and perseverance required to change even one behavior.
  • Having supportive relationships, particularly with those who are a bit farther down the road of change and who offer hope, a new way of thinking about the problem, and practical solutions to common problems.

The essential role of social support in making lasting change will be explored more fully in my next post.

What have been your experiences with change—as an influencer of change, as the subject of someone’s change effort, or as a person seeking to change—taught you about the “essentials” of influence and the change process?

8 ways to know that you are challenged by management responsibilities

Dennis Sparks

Both leadership and management skills are essential in schools that seek to continuously improve teaching, learning, and relationships in the school community.

Too often significant goals are unachieved because principals and teacher leaders struggle with the day-to-day management of their personal and professional lives.

Here are eight signs that you or others are challenged by those responsibilities:

1. You over promise and under deliver because you find it very difficult to say no and/or to prioritize your work. As a results, activities related to important goals are not being accomplished and your integrity is compromised.

2. Your days are filled with unproductive and unfulfilling meetings.

3. You spend almost all of your time reacting to events rather than shaping them.

4. You are aware that many of your actions are not aligned with your values.

5. You hear from those closest to you that they are concerned about your health and emotional well-being.

6. You are not exercising and eating in ways that you know are best for you.

7. You find it difficult to focus on anything for very long.

8. You know that a lack of sleep interferes with the quality of your work and life.

What would you add to this list?

6 ways you know that you are challenged by the management responsibilities of leadership

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Administrators and teachers are increasingly called upon to be skillful leaders as well as managers.

Managers make certain that the school or school system operates efficiently and effectively, that the organizational ship is, well, “ship shape.” Leaders, on the other hand, take the ship to a new and more desirable port of call.

While effective leaders are always effective managers, effective managers are not always effective leaders. And sometimes the lack of a leadership orientation creates management problems.

Here are six indicators that you may be challenged by the management aspects of leadership:

1. You have not invested in crafting a statement of the vision, values, and big ideas that will guide your work, or

2. You have taken the time to craft such a statement, but you’ve become bogged down in the details and have lost the sense of direction it provides.

3. You are constantly reacting to things rather than influencing them, which means you feel like you spend a great deal of time solving other peoples problems and “putting out fires.”

4. You seldom work from a to-do list because it just reminds you of all the things that are not getting done.

5. You spend too much time in unproductive meetings.

6. You find yourself counting activities to demonstrate the value or your work rather than identifying meaningful evidence of accomplishment.

In what ways do you ensure that you leadership is founded on sound management practices?

How being an introvert can increase your influence

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Leaders are typically expected to be outgoing, forceful, and even charismatic. Effective teachers are often portrayed in that same way, at least in the movies.

There are many examples, however, of effective educators who do not match that description. In fact, many of them are introverts.

You don’t have to dig very deeply into the characteristics of introverts to see why they would make outstanding teachers and administrators—for instance, they are likely to use solitude to gain energy and perspective, quietly observe others to determine how to best support them, and offer thoughtful, well-considered points of view to enrich conversations.

But I hadn’t thought a great deal about the ways in which their preferences would make introverts “quietly influential,” at least not until I read an essay by Jennifer Kahnweiler posted on Mary Jo Asmus’ blog. (Kahnweiler is the author of Quiet Influence: The Introverts’s Guide to Making a Difference.)

Describing scientists she observed in the cafeteria of a research institute, Kahnweiler wrote:

“I saw people sitting alone, eating, reading and simply starring into space. The atmosphere was so calm. These scientists and engineers develop innovative products and breakthrough ideas. I call them ‘quiet influencers,’ those who make a difference by challenging the status quo, provoking new ways of thinking, effecting change and inspiring others to move forward.

“Quiet influencers like these professionals begin their influencing journey where they think and recharge best: in quiet. They frequently return there. And it is not just brilliant scientists who tap into this reservoir to make things happen. The rest of us can benefit greatly from a needed pause in our hectic lives. Here are five key ways in which taking quiet time contributes to significantly increase our ability to influence others.”

Kahnweiler says that such quiet times unleash creativity, sustain energy, cause a better understanding of self and others, and promote focus.

She concludes: “Small steps here can make a big difference. Follow the quiet influencer’s lead and take a nice long walk, turn off your smart phone and even eat lunch alone once in a while. Then sit back and watch as your efforts to influence take shape.”

What is your experience as a “quiet influencer” or as one who has been influenced by such people?

 

When leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge

Dennis Sparks

I sometimes suffer from the curse of knowledge. I also suffer from the impostor syndrome (more about that tomorrow).

(Based on those two observations you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also suffer from medical student syndrome, which causes me to believe that I have every illness I read about.)

For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on the challenges posed by knowing too much—otherwise known as “the curse of knowledge,” a term I am borrowing from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.

The curse of knowledge is a problem that often besets those who possess deep understanding of a subject – researchers, consultants, and even school leaders, among others.

The problem, though, isn’t the amount of knowledge one possesses, but rather our inability to communicate clearly what we know.

For example, some of the worst teaching I’ve experienced was in advanced graduate courses taught by scholars with deep knowledge of their subject matter. There was no doubt they knew the material. They had literally written the book. But they were unable to structure and explain what they knew in accessible ways.

The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for those who possess it to understand a beginner’s mind. It can make it difficult to distinguish what is central from that which is peripheral and to speak concretely rather than abstractly.

Because communicating clearly and concisely with others is an essential leadership skill, it’s important that principals and teacher leaders are aware of and address the curse of knowledge as it infects their work.

Here are a few things that school leaders can do:

1. Spend a few minutes writing about what you would like to communicate, separating what is primary from that which is of secondary importance. Engage in conversations to help you further develop your clarity.

2. Hone in on a big idea or two. Organize two or three subordinate points around each big idea. Polish each of those points to proverb-like compactness.

3. Provide concrete examples and/or offer stories to illustrate those points.

In a recent blog post, Ann Murphy Paul uses the term “curse of expertise” to discuss the same phenomenon and offers some suggestions for addressing it.

Question: In what areas do you or others on your leadership team experience the curse of knowledge? What have you done or could you do to address it to enable you to communicate or teach more effectively?

Why resignation is often the most significant problem leaders face – and what can be done about it

Dennis Sparks

In the face of major national problems like gun violence and the privatization of public education it is easy to feel overwhelmed and insignificant.

Whenever I am faced with problems of some magnitude, I realize that I’m usually confronting two problems – the first is the problem itself, and the second is the resignation and sense of hopelessness I feel in its presence.

In the long run, the second problem is the more important one because it deprives us of the energy to take action by ourselves or with others.

At such times I have learned that it is essential that I find sources of inspiration, often in the work of individuals who have made a difference.

I remember hearing several years ago on the CBC an influential scientist who said that his interest in science began when he read Silent Spring.

A New York Times article about Rachel Carson, Silent Spring’s author, offers important lessons and provides inspiration to principals and teacher leaders regarding the significant contributions individuals can make whether their focus is the classroom, the school community, or the larger society.

“She was a classic introvert who exhibited few of the typical qualities associated with leadership, like charisma and aggressiveness,” Nancy Koehn writes. “But as people like Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, have pointed out, leadership can come in less obvious forms.”

Koehn draws these conclusions about Carson’s leadership (the italics are mine):

“Rachel Carson’s story offers many leadership lessons, including the importance of persistence in pursuing an objective. When I discuss her with business executives, many are struck by her ability to stay focused on goals in the face of obstacles including severe illness.”

“Another lesson involves the importance of doing thorough research and taking the long view. A sense of context based on hard facts, along with a knowledge of history, is essential to understanding what’s at stake in difficult and uncertain situations. It also confers a sense of authority on the person who has acquired this knowledge.”

“A third insight concerns the juggling of personal demands and professional ambitions. Carson understood the challenge — and satisfaction — of dealing with our obligations to others even as we follow our professional drive. And she saw that this can rarely be navigated smoothly. For her, and for many executives with whom I have worked, times of great productivity were followed by fallow periods when ambitions had to be put aside for personal reasons.”

A lesson that I draw from Carson’s life and work is that position power is not a prerequisite to making a meaningful and lasting contribution to the world or to our small part of it. Another lesson I extract is that influence often takes “less obvious forms” than the charismatic and aggressive appearance it often displays in American culture.

Instead, moral purpose, clarity, and persistence are hallmarks of such leadership and influence.

To whom do you look for inspiration when feeling overwhelmed and resigned? And what have you learned from those people?


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