A professional journey

journey noun

jour·ney | \ ˈjər-nē
journey: something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another
• the journey from youth to maturity
• a journey through time

When we are young, say in our 20s, we have many unanswered questions about the journey ahead, about our careers, marriages, and families.

As we grow older the answers to those questions reveal themselves.

And then as we grow older still we begin to turn to questions concerning the things that remain to be done and to our mortality.

Sometimes, however, we look back, as I did recently.

When I was young I knew little of my father’s family, and what I did know was shrouded in mystery.

So I set out to see what I could learn, and I was stunned to discover that my father’s ancestors (and mine) were Western Michigan pioneers whose mid-19th Century farm was located less than 10 miles from where I grew up along a river I had fished and the fields I had roamed as a child.

As I went back through the generations I learned that I my 9th great grandfather was a Canadian First Nation Mi’kmaq chief and that my 7th great grandfather was a 17th Century French settler of New France who some claim was the illegitimate child of one or more royal parents sent to North America to hide his existence.

I also learned that my 6th great grandfather, Henry Sparks, came from Bristol, England to Boston in 1666 as an indentured servant, later marrying Martha Barrett, who was jailed in Boston for a year in 1691 on suspicion of witchcraft just a few months before the Salem Witch Trials. Although she was from Chelmsford rather than Salem, in the eyes of many historians she was considered the first of the accused witches during that era.

When I completed a memoir based on my discovery of those ancestors and others, I decided to look back at my professional life, which, if nothing else, would be easier for me to research.

My goal was simple—to better understand the social forces and many opportunities that enabled me to have a life that far exceeded my imagination as I was growing up in a village not far from Lake Michigan.

I felt overwhelmed as I approached that task. How could I ever recall and organize the experiences and people who shaped my life for over 50 years?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could tell my professional life story in just 25 “chapters,” which I will periodically publish here beginning next month, connected by a common theme of “it might have been otherwise,” to borrow a phrase from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Otherwise.”

While it is hard to tell a personal story without putting myself at the center of it, my hope is that readers will be able to see themselves in my experiences and draw lessons from them that will prove valuable now and in the future.

I look forward to sharing my professional journey and to seeing what memories and insights they evoke in you.

Until then, I welcome you to a new school year, to enriching professional learning and collaboration, and to the annual “new beginning” that is a gift of our profession, a profession that has enriched my life for over 5 decades.

Without emotional intelligence, “all else may turn to ashes”

I read obituaries. 

When well written, they are mini-biographies about interesting and influential people who would otherwise be unknown to me, particularly those obituaries published in the New York Times.

One such obituary was that of Fred Greenstein who died last year at age 88.

The Times said this about him: “While writing [The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader], Dr. Greenstein was absorbed by a longer-term project that would enable him, over time, to evaluate 30 of the nation’s presidents on the basis of their effectiveness as leaders….

“He devised a checklist of six qualities by which to evaluate success or failure in the Oval Office: public communication; organizational capacity; political skill; vision; cognitive style; and emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence, he maintained, was the most important….

“[H]e defined emotional intelligence as ‘the president’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them and allowing them to diminish his leadership.’”

Hopefully, all of us have had the benefit of working with leaders who possess all or most of these qualities.

But it’s just as likely we have worked for one or more leaders who lacked many of the qualities Greenstein identifies, with perhaps emotional intelligence being first among those that were missing.

“In its absence all else may turn to ashes,” Greenstein observed.

But because they possessed political skill (one of Greenstein’s qualities) and a sharp instinct for survival, they managed to stay in their jobs long beyond the point where the damage they had done was obvious to virtually everyone.

Eventually, however, the turmoil and chaos that surrounds such leaders is no longer tolerable. But by then a great deal of harm has been done to the organization and to those who have suffered at these leaders’ hands.


Greenstein’s list caused me to think again about the qualities of leaders I have known or observed.

In addition to the qualities he described, I offer the following “principles,” some of which are elaborations on the items in Greenstein’s list:

• Because effective leaders understand that if they do what they have always done they will get what they’ve always gotten, they first change what they believe, understand, say, and do before they seek to change others.

• Because effective leaders understand that emotions are contagious, they cultivate within themselves authentic positive emotions like gratitude and a sense of possibility.

• Because effective leaders understand that integrity affects trust within the school community, they consistently tell their truth and keep promises.

• Because effective leaders understand that school culture enables or thwarts innovation, they cultivate and sustain cultural changes that promote continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

• Because effective leaders understand the power of collaboration and collective action, they develop high-functioning teams.

• Because effective leaders understand that constant decision making saps willpower and mental energy, they develop habits, routines, and checklists to enable them to focus on the novel, non-routine, and most cognitively-demanding parts of their work.

• Because effective leaders understand the limitations of their own perspectives and understanding, they possess an openness to the views of others and to career-long professional learning.

• Because effective leaders aspire to be their best selves, they encourage others through their example to do the same.

• And because effective leaders possess a moral compass, they aspire to create organizations in which everyone thrives.

In your experience, what are the non-negotiable qualities of leadership that enable organizations and the people within them to thrive?

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words (a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

What to do when you feel like an impostor

I have sometimes felt like an impostor, particularly when taking on new, more demanding responsibilities.

Over time I learned that many leaders also have felt like frauds whose incompetence might be revealed at any moment, and that there was a name for such a feeling—“the impostor syndrome.”

Here’s what I had to say on that subject in January 2013.

When leaders feel like impostors

A surprising number of us feel like impostors. Even people who appear confident and in charge may be experiencing what some have termed “the imposter syndrome.” 

Those who suffer from it may appear to know what they are doing. They may appear confident, or even superbly confident. But deep inside they fear the moment when their incompetence will be revealed.

Here’s an example in which Ben Affleck describes what it felt like to direct his first movie, “Gone Baby Gone”: “I was very, very scared. I just didn’t know if I could do it. . . . And every day I was scared, and I probably stayed that scared throughout … and not sure of myself at all.”

So, if you sometimes feel like you have risen above your level of competence, here are some things you might do:

1. Admit it to yourself and to trusted confidants. Because this is a very common feeling, they are likely to disclose the same feelings to you, and together you will experience the relief of knowing that you’re not alone.

2. Read what experts have to say about the syndrome and what can be done to address it.

3. In those small number of areas in which there may be reality-based knowledge or skill deficits, engage in the process of professional learning to remedy the deficits.

If you have felt this way, what strategies have you used to counteract the impostor syndrome when you felt it arising within you?

Thoughts on how we can make a “worthy difference”

There are some things that people do that matter far more than others. In this post from March 2013 surgeon Atul Gawande offers his thoughts on what those things are.

8 ways you can become a positive deviant

In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, physician Atul Gawande describes a talk he gave to medical students addressing the topic, “How do I really matter?” He decided to offer “five suggestions for how one might make a worthy difference, for how one might become, in other words, a positive deviant.”

(In another post I defined positive deviants as individuals who with the same resources available to their peers achieved more favorable outcomes. They do so through identifiable behaviors that distinguish their performance from that of others.)

In his talk Gawande suggested: 

Ask an unscripted question. “You don’t have to come up with a deeper important question, just one that lets you make a human connection,” he wrote.

Don’t complain. “[N]othing in medicine is more dispiriting than hearing doctors complain.”

Count something. “It doesn’t really matter what you count… The only requirement is that whatever you count should be interesting to you.”

Write something.

Change. “[M]ake yourself an early adopter,” Gawande recommended. “Look for the opportunity to change…. Be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and to seek out solutions. As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure.”

Gawande’s suggestions lead me to think more deeply about the behaviors of school leaders whom I have viewed as Positive Deviants. 

 I concluded that they possessed one or more of the following habits:

1. Writing to gain clarity and to communicate;

2. “Counting” things to improve their performance (most things that count can be measured, even if only in rudimentary ways);

3. Reading widely in search of new ideas, perspectives, and inspiration;

4. Continuously seeking more effective and efficient ways to do things; 

5. Engaging the support of others when challenged by stretching goals or demanding circumstances;

6. Persisting over many months and even years to achieve important goals because the values represented by those goals were so important;

7. Seeing things in unique ways that were in opposition to accepted wisdom or common practice; and

8. Assuming that important problems can be solved, and that working alone or in collaboration with others they would contribute to their solutions.

What behaviors would you add to this list?

Expanding the boundaries of our best selves

Occasionally I find myself in uncomfortable situations over which I seemingly have little control. 

“Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now” is an idea I draw on to improve both how I am feeling in that moment and the situation itself.

“Do the best that you can…” is an empowering thought that enables our resourcefulness by reminding us of the options available to us to change things for the better, as this April 2017 post reminds us.

Do the best that you can…

Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now. — a poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom

That’s wonderful advice for all of us that applies in many situations. 

And it’s an approach to life used by many resilient people.

But because resilient people are resourceful, consider these additions to it:

Do the best that you can by expanding what you know and can do through lifelong learning

With what you have, and with what you can acquire through learning and by using your resourcefulness to provide additional tools to more effectively accomplish your goals

Where you are right now, and, when appropriate, by changing your environment or your mental perspective about the place where you are.

What do you do to continuously expand the boundaries of your best self?

Meaningful change begins with ourselves

A theme that has run through many of my posts for the past 8 years is the importance of administrators and teacher leaders changing themselves before trying to change others.

This post from February 2013 makes a succinct case for that point of view. Next week’s post will talk more specifically about what those changes might be.

Change yourself first 

One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change. Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment. Empowered leaders are the only ones who can induce real change. —Robert Quinn

Important, lasting improvements in teaching, learning, and relationships in schools occur when leaders adopt new beliefs, deepen their understanding of important issues, and consistently speak and act in new ways. It is a common human tendency to see others’ shortcomings before noticing our own complicity in maintaining the status quo. It’s also human for leaders to believe that the primary barriers to change reside outside themselves. Leaders who understand these dynamics begin the change process by making significant and deep changes in themselves. 

Today I will reflect on an important school goal to determine a belief I want to modify, an understanding I want to deepen, a skill I would like to acquire, or a habit I want to develop.

[This “meditation” is the first of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership.]


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