Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

Dennis Sparks

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./ And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.”

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.

That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

What have I missed?

A plague on the educational landscape…

Dennis Sparks

Bad meetings. Bad professional development. They are a plague on the educational landscape.

How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development?

More specifically, why is it that:

• so many teachers who complain about poorly-run meetings become administrators who conduct poorly-run meetings?

• so many teachers who protest meaningless, ineffective, and often demeaning professional development continue to offer the same kinds of professional development when they become administrators?

Cynics might say that it’s a process akin to fraternity hazing—if I had to endure it, so should you. I don’t think that is the reason, though.

Here are some possible reasons:

* Many leaders do not know what they do not know. Having never experienced well-run meetings or well-designed professional development themselves, they simple repeat what was done to them.

• Leaders who have experienced the processes and benefits of well-designed professional development are not clear about what made it effective. They cannot repeat what they do not deeply understand.

• Leaders do not deeply understand the principles of good teaching. Those who do may not appreciate that those principles apply to adults as well as children. As a result, the least engaging and effective “teaching” methods are used—lectures, endless PowerPoint slides, and so on.

The solution: Whatever the cause, things will not significantly improve until leaders are explicitly taught how to design and implement meaningful, engaging meetings and professional development.  And, of course, that means they have the will to do the demanding learning and planning that are required to ensure high-quality professional learning for all educators so that all students experience high-quality teaching every day.

What is your diagnosis? How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development? Or do you disagree with my premise, believing instead that meetings and professional development for most educators are efficient and effective?

Strong opinions, weakly held

Dennis Sparks

Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held. —Bob Sutton

“The world is divided into people who think they are right,” a wise person once said.

While it is essential that leaders have clear, well-defined beliefs and ideas that guide their work, it is also essential that those beliefs and ideas are open to influence by respected colleagues.

That means that leaders do both the intellectually demanding work of forming clear, well-considered points of view and the interpersonally demanding work of holding them loosely.

Because our views are often influenced by psychological and emotional forces of which we are not fully aware, both their formation and alteration is seldom fully rational.

That means that altering our views based on evidence and logic rather than vigorously defending them until death typically requires a high level of emotional intelligence.

How do you decide when to maintain your point of view and when to surrender it?

Words matter

Dennis Sparks

Words matter.

They create energy or destroy it. They can produce an upward flow of possibility and energy or a downward spiral of resignation and hopelessness.

The language that administrators and teacher leaders use affects the ability of the school community to solve problems and to achieve its most important goals.

It is essential that leaders cultivate discernment about the words that create upward or downward spirals of energy and then to carefully choose the words that they use.

Which words increase your energy and which ones deplete it?

Say yes “to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing”

Dennis Sparks

“The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” —David Brooks

Distraction is widely viewed as a significant problem in society and in schools. It dissipates energy at work and in our personal lives, and it is truly dangerous when we are behind the wheel of a car.

But perhaps the problem is not distraction, but rather the absence of a compelling purpose—a “…subject that arouses a terrifying longing”—as David Brooks describes it.

Cal Newport thinks about it this way:

“Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you can cannot be ignored?”

What useful thing are you striving to do that cannot be ignored?

Almost everyone has the same two problems…

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In the view of many observers, teachers’ dissatisfaction is … closer to passive resignation than to active indignation, closer to dejection that deflates energy than to anger that inspires action…. There is much research to confirm the importance of a sense of efficacy—the sense of making a meaningful difference…—in teachers’ motivation and performance. —Robert Evans (my emphasis added in bold)

Almost everyone has the same two problems.

The first problem is whatever problem we are experiencing at the moment – a technical problem related to teaching or leadership, a relationship problem, a health problem, or whatever it may be.

The second problem, which is often as or more significant than the first problem, is the way we think about the first problem.

How we define a problem and what we believe about it often determines whether we think it can be solved and whether we have the ability to solve it.

Resignation—that is, not believing there is anything we can do to improve the situation—is the most common of those energy-destroying mental barriers. 

Believing that a problem is unsolvable is, after all, the first step in ensuring that it won’t be solved.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “Resignation is an intellectual and emotional state in which educators come to believe that their individual and collective actions cannot improve teaching and learning, particularly given the large and serious problems that affect the lives of many students and their families…. A profound consequence of this belief is that teachers and administrators act as if they have a very small, or perhaps even nonexistent, circle of influence related to student learning.”

Do you agree that resignation is a powerful, often unrecognized barrier to solving the challenging problems of teaching, learning, and leadership? 

When we are committed to being our best selves…

Dennis Sparks

When people make a fundamental choice to be true to what is highest in them, or when they make a choice to fulfill a purpose in their life, they can easily accomplish many changes that seemed impossible or improbable in the past. – Robert Fritz

My personal experience and observations of others tell me that Robert Fritz is correct – that is, when we more consistently act in ways that are aligned with our most important purposes and best selves, we can often accomplish things that previously seemed impossible.

While there are no guarantees, being true to what is highest and best in ourselves and recognizing it in others enables the “extraordinary,” not only in ourselves but in everyone with whom we interact.

What can you do today to enable the highest and best in yourself and others?


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