Awhile back I was making my way through Dare to Lead by Dr. Brene’ Brown, and stumbled upon this quote which left me intrigued.
“Leadership is the ability to thrive in the ambiguity of paradoxes and opposites”
– Dr. Brene’ Brown
I appreciate the use of the word Thrive. First it reinforces the idea of a wide spectrum of performance when it comes to leadership. Second is that if there are gradients of performance then that also means it is complex. Each of those are affirming to the notion that leadership should be respected. It doesn’t say live, survive, complete, etc. It says that in order to prosper or flourish as a leader you must be able to operate with ambiguity. So lets talk about that.I am drawn to the idea of Ambiguity being the same as inexactness. And the gray is where we often attribute the idea of being open to more than one interpretation. So much of what we do as leaders lies in the contrary. I understand the discomfort with not always knowing when so much is at stake. I get that it is hard and challenging, and you may not understand for a long time whether your choice was the best one. That small undefined area, that sliver of mystery, is where the strongest leaders have the chance to emerge. To thrive.
So often when we are thrust in to the role of being a leader the immediate goal is to appear proficient. We want to be able to answer each question, address each concern, and keep everything moving forward. A new leader can survive making decisions early on – many of them likely simple and black/white. And maybe even the gray ones seem easy enough as most people being supervised will be polite and offer the benefit of the doubt. However, some leaders linger in that space, they get comfortable. However I don’t think you can thrive – prosper – flourish – if you don’t dig deeper in to that gray area. It’s hard. Yet the gray area is where risks are taken, lessons are learned, and better ideas emerge. If you aren’t willing to lean in to the gray area then you may never realize your potential.
I don’t know, I haven’t figured this one out yet. It’s been rolling around in my head for some time. What do you make of this descriptor for leadership? How do you wrestle with the unknown?
There is a great story that Sir Ken Robinson shared during his famous 2006 TED Talk regarding how schools kill creativity. In the video he tells us of two anecdotes involving a little girl and a little boy. And the gist of the story is that both of them separately take chances with whatever they are working on – they Give it a Go! They aren’t afraid to be wrong when they are young and they’ll take a chance. (Here is a link to that particular section of his TED Talk Sir Ken Robinson Link )
Inspired by his commitment to creativity, I have tried to model what it is like to take a chance as a leader. The last three years we have begun each year focused on the idea that LEARN is a verb. We began this by focusing on the muscles and pushing our teachers to commit to the experience of learning. We asked them to choose anything they wanted to learn about – it didn’t matter if it was connected to education at all. Rather we wanted them to simply be a learner again. I wrote about how I did this with my leadership team in a previous blog My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults. In any case I was now trying it with 185 teachers and 30 support staff.
“Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” – Albert Einstein
Our second year we focused on the brain and what you did with your learning. Having engaged as a learner again, we wanted them to exercise their creativity in how they demonstrated that new knowledge. The idea was that simply learning something is no longer enough. The next step, the innovative step, is to create something new from your learning. And, perhaps, the biggest step is/was to then share it with others.
“Learning is creation not consumption.” – Dave Meier
Finally, this fall we pushed with the heart. Fortunate to have Dr Brene Brown and her team spend two days with our faculty/staff was an amazing opportunity to really push us forward. In retrospect, I believe this was definitely an act involving vulnerability as I knew some people would be thrilled and others dismissive. I processed this experience through a blog post a few months ago We are Where We are Until we Move (and sometimes that’s okay) I have seen the impact in pockets around campus, almost like seeds planted. Time and patience is what’s needed for this to flourish and saturate the campus. Our kids can only benefit so I’m in it for the long haul.
“We are born makers. We move what we are learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands.” – Dr. Brene Brown
I share all of this as I reflect on what we continue to do. Truthfully, when I embarked on this work with others, I didn’t know where it would lead. I certainly couldn’t have predicted that nearly 200 faculty/staff would share their personal learning with others, making themselves vulnerable in new ways that I doubt they anticipated. I would not have placed any bet in Vegas that Brene Brown would select us as a pilot school for her Daring Greatly Educator Workshop. And had I known about the stumbles along the way, the eye rolls that I saw, and the comments that I heard, then I doubt I would have embarked.
I heard Brian Apsinall say on a podcast the other day that “it’s okay to be where you are. It’s not okay to stay there.” So I guess I moved. I gave it a go. And I hope you will also.
For twenty years we have had a single lunch for our 3000 plus students. It’s one hour long and they can eat anywhere on campus. As visitors enter the building during lunch they are often taken by surprise as the students walk, talk, play guitar, study for quizzes and just hang out with their buddies. Many walk with a bag of chips in their hand as they socialize with new friends. At the same time in classrooms on each floor there are tutorials happening, clubs meeting, and teachers simply connecting with kids. The single lunch period absolutely provides the structures needed for students to be supported in all sorts of ways. Additionally, it has also built a culture where the students completely feel like their school belongs to them. They are trusted, they have agency, and they value it. And for nearly 20 years we kept it just like that. Check out this 2 minute student-created video about our one lunch Click here for video
However this year we decided to bring a new element. You see, we were pioneers in this movement years ago. But other schools caught on, and, frankly, they were passing us in terms of maximizing the time for kids. So this summer we began to learn, again, how a single lunch period could work for kids. This time our goal was not to invent – rather to innovate. And thus Cardinal Hour was born.
What we began to understand was that most of our students understood what was being provided to them and took advantage. However our freshman, the most vulnerable, had not yet developed both the agency and organization needed to make the one lunch work for them. Also, we had a moment of clarity whereby we realized that so much more was happening during this hour then just lunch.
Cardinal Hour is the midday activities that occur from 12:20-1:20 each day. The first half is Red Block and the second half is White Block. A beeping bell denotes the midpoint where a meeting may be ending while a new opportunity is beginning. A student may go to the Problem Solvers Club for Red Block, hear the bell, and then head to Geometry for a scheduled tutorial. Or maybe they eat first, and then the slight beeps tell them that White Block is beginning, and thus they need to hustle to the Feminist Club meeting. The rebranding of our midday activities – which include lunch – allowed us to bring structure for students and teachers while also highlighting the fact that so much happens during this Hour.My learning from this is two-fold. First I learned that subtle structures within a larger piece can bring strong advantages for kids and adults. Second I learned that even your most successful and “tried & true” school routines need to consistently be re-examined so that as you learn more, they can be improved. We should never slow down when it comes to learning about how powerful our school can be for kids.
What’s the next aspect of your school that could use some innovation?
Before I attended my first EdCamp, I had been versed in Open Space Technology – an early version of an “unconference.” The premise is similar in that it is participant driven. There are four principles that guide the OST and I often find comfort in the first which is to say that whoever attends is exactly who needed to be there. I try to remember this and share it with others when there is a session held or meeting planned and we have less people show up then hoped. One could quickly view it as a disappointment. Or you can choose to see it as a reminder that those that did come are exactly who needed to and that, as long as they have a positive experience, then that is the measure of success.
During our two weeks of professional development with teachers this past August, my school was selected by Dr Brene Brown to pilot their new Daring Greatly Educator Program. Two full days of training with her team including the first day with Dr Brene Brown leading the work. What a coup, right?
Upon confirmation with her team in May 2018, we bought Daring Greatly and Rising Strong for each of our 225 team members that would participate. We could not believe our good fortune and, as others kept asking us how it happened, we kept focusing on how it would reshape our work with kids and each other in the coming school year. I asked them all to at least read Daring Greatly and be ready for the two days in August. Here’s the thing, not everyone is ready to dive in to the kind of work on themselves that Dr Brown requires. Shame & vulnerability are not easy to access no matter how willing you might be. And thus as the days approached for these two days of learning, we began to get nervous. While most had at least taken their books home for the summer, there were some that left them at school in their mailbox all summer. They didn’t even pretend!
Cut to the chase and overall the two days went very well. As a whole the faculty and staff were engaged and asked questions, shared with others at their tables, and had positive things to say. Yes, there were also many that went through the motions, may or may not have come back from breaks on time, and resented the two days not in their classrooms.
But this is when I got back to my OST experiences and remembered that everyone is at their own place. And that is okay. If those that were ready soaked up the learning then that was fantastic. Surely there were others that likely got more out of it than they expected and I’m excited for how their kids will benefit this year. And there were some that did not engage at all. And that’s where they are right now and that’s okay. Those that “showed up” were exactly those that needed to. Sometimes we wait for consensus. Or we poopoo an idea or initiative because some won’t engage or will be negative about it. The conclusion I draw from that is two fold: (1) If you wait then that’s really more of a reflection of you & your poor leadership than of them; (2) When you hesitate to move forward with something because you don’t have 100% on board then you are giving all the power to others. Don’t do that.
We are all at our best for students when we remember that leaders lead and managers manage. Figure our which one you are and be that.
What kind of learning have you done when faced with similar situations?