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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.

“Principles”

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?

Viewing life as improvisation

I have yet to find anybody who finds their gift…. [I]t’s much better to think of something you want to attain and then get the help of teachers and parents to start you on the path of creating that. On that path, you may decide you want to go in a different direction. That’s fine. But you haven’t simply been waiting around for something that would allow you to instantaneously become good because that’s never happening. And I think the process of really seeing how you can improve is something that will transfer even if you try to improve in some other domain. —Cory Turner

Many young people, and older ones as well, are paralyzed by the belief that there is one true path in life that will fulfill their destiny.

As a result, they drift in a kind of limbo waiting for that path to reveal itself.

Another way to think about important life decisions, however, is to view them as a series of experiments or prototypes.

This improvisational perspective is one that resilient people often apply in their lives.

A New York Times article about a new book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dale Evans, addresses this issue:

“A common mistake that people make … is to assume that there’s only one right solution or optimal version of your life, and that if you choose wrong, you’ve blown it,” the article points out.

“Design thinking, as rendered in the book, is about treating life in a more improvisational way….

“Their method is experiential and accepts that failure is part of the process.

“Central to the philosophy is prototyping, a concept borrowed from how product designers work. Let’s say you’re thinking of changing careers. Interview someone who does the job you’re considering. Better yet, ask to shadow them for a day, or work in the field on weekends. If it feels right, take it a step further; if it doesn’t, move on.

“‘It’s a classic form of design,” Mr. Burnett said. ‘You build a lot of stuff, you try a lot of stuff. But it’s always less than the whole product.’”

There are many possible paths in life that can make use of our talents and interests, that will be alighted with our values, and that will be deeply satisfying..

Which means that finding our life’s purpose is to a large degree a process of well-designed experiments paired with an openness to follow emerging opportunities.

What has your life taught you about the role of experimentation and improvisation in creating a meaningful life?

Speak short

 

[Senator Chuck] Schumer told me in December that Democrats would have “five, six sharp-edged [policies] that can be described in five words,” although it sounds as if the plan hasn’t come out quite so lean.  —Dana Milbank

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. ― Mark Twain

Speaking and writing succinctly is challenging. So challenging that many people, even ones who are otherwise accomplished, never master the skill.

Influence, however, often requires “speaking short,” saying less rather than more, but packing a lot of meaning into those few words.

Think “elevator talk”—the ability to communicate an important message to someone you want to influence whose attention you have for only the brief duration of an elevator ride.

Think “radical simplicity.”

What important message in your personal or professional life would benefit if it were polished into an approximation of bumper-sticker length?

How adults can boost their resilience

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges. 

Scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. While it’s useful to build up resilience before a big or small crisis hits, there still are active steps you can take during and after a crisis to speed your emotional recovery. —Tara Parker-Pope

Given that resilience is an “emotional muscle” that can be strengthened at any time, and given that human beings can learn important skills throughout their lives, it is enabling to know that there are practical ways to boost our resilience, such as these suggested by Parker-Pope:

Practice Optimism… Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, ‘I’ll never recover from this.’ An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, ‘This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.’

“While it sounds trivial, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people really does help. Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School and Dr. Charney’s co-author, notes that optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious. His advice: ‘Hang out with optimistic people.’”

Rewrite Your Story…. Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. In expressive writing studies, college students taught to reframe their college struggles as a growth opportunity got better grades and were less likely to drop out. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better physiologically than those taught to ignore stress.

Don’t Personalize It. We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To bolster your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem and shift your focus to the next steps you should take.

Remember Your Comebacks. When times are tough, we often remind ourselves that other people — like war refugees or a friend with cancer — have it worse. While that may be true, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.”

Parker-Pope concludes: “The good news is that some of the qualities of middle age — a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences and concern for future generations — may give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience, said Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “There is a naturally learnable set of behaviors that contribute to resilience….”

What specific behavior, if consistently practiced, would strengthen your resilience?

Our words matter…

As this political season has taught us, the feelings that words evoke are contagious. They can uplift and unite us or create hatred and division.

Likewise, particular words have a unique emotional resonance to each of us because of the meaning they possess in our life experience.

Here a few words that have such resonance for me:

Empower, as in enabling others by delegating authority and responsibility

Voice, as in “expressing our uniqueness” or enabling others to express their uniqueness (see “empower”)

Conversation, as in thinking deeply with others about important topics with an openness to learning

Learn, as in changing what we belief, understand, and/or do

Teach, as in promoting the intellectual, emotional, and physical growth and well being of others

Witness, as in “bearing witness to” the life circumstances of others.

What words most resonate with you?

Getting better at getting better

Dennis Sparks

In a recent issue of the New Yorker James Surowiecki wrote about performance improvement in a number of fields, including teaching:

“…the biggest problem is that we’re in thrall to what [Elizabeth] Green [in Building a Better Teacher] calls “the idea of the natural-born teacher,” the notion that either you can teach or you can’t. As a result, we do little to help ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great. What we need to embrace instead is the idea of teaching as a set of skills that can be taught and learned and constantly improved on. As both Green and Goldstein detail, school districts in the United States that take teacher training seriously have seen student performance improve, often dramatically. More accountability and higher pay for teachers would help, too. But at the moment most American schools basically throw teachers in at the deep end of the pool and hope that they will be able not only to swim but also to keep all their students afloat, too. It’s a miracle that the system works as well as it does.”

In response to the article I wrote this letter to the editor:

“James Surowiecki (“Better All The Time,” November 10, 2014) correctly notes the generally low quality of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development for teachers. He does not acknowledge, however, that inadequate compensation and poor working conditions in many schools discourage talented individuals from becoming teachers. Nor does he explicitly acknowledge, although he cites examples of it, the importance of sustained collaboration among teachers in continuously improving teaching and learning, a quality that has been undermined by ill-considered reforms that encourage unproductive competition among teachers and schools.

“The reason the education system works as well as it does is because of the often heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers and administrators in the face of immense and unrelenting challenges.”

What’s required for teachers and administrators to continuously “get better at getting better” so that “ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great”? 

Ways to avoid unproductive, dispiriting meetings…

Dennis Sparks

There are few things more dispiriting than unproductive meetings. 

A veneer of polite conversation disguises a lack of serious and deep analysis. Conflict about important assumptions and points of view are avoided or minimized.

When such meetings are the norm rather than the exception, the energy required for the continuous improvement of teaching and learning is depleted rather than created and sustained.

Here are several recommendations offered by Dan Rockwell to avoid those problems and “ignite meetings”:

1. Build relations with team members that enable candor. Distance produces fear; connection courage.

2. Systematize dissent. Require the entire team to speak for and against the issue on the table.

3. Ask those who originate ideas to explain why they won’t work.

4. Develop three solutions and have everyone defend all three.

What is missing from Rockwell’s list?


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