Living in the Gray

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.Leadership ThriveI 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?

 

You Never Know Where That First Step Will Lead

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.

 

A Call To Explore

Years ago I visited the Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C.  Standing with a friend near the Eternal Flame, we found ourselves in awe both by the setting and the words from a JFK speech inscribed on a wall.  Breaking the silence, my friend simply stated, “it feels like he took all the best words.”  I simply nodded my head.  She was right.  leadership & learningAs a result of my PLN growing over the last several years, I have become convinced that investing in ourselves is paramount to growing stronger as leaders.  If you are not pushing yourself to learn more – either through reading, writing, posting, or lurking – then you are robbing others of all you can offer.  Don’t do that.  Instead, get in the game.  Personal or professional learning is now available 24/7 from the comfort of your couch.  Will it come in spurts?  Will it ebb and flow?  Might it be hard and confusing at times?  Yeah, probably.  The most important stuff usually is.

Merriam-Webster offers as a definition of the word “explore” the following:  to become familiar with by testing or experimenting. Inherent in the definition is being an active participant.  As I continue to work on my own leadership, I find myself drawn, more than ever, toward learning more about leadership in many forms.  Whether it is through my reflecting on an article, blog, image, or a personal lesson learned, I commit to #explore what it means to be a leader, especially when working with both students and adults on a large urban campus.  I intend to hold myself accountable through my reflections within this blog.   img_5fa2bec61763-1Accepting that JFK was right and our learning is critical toward our leadership, how can you commit to be active now?

 

Inspiration On a Morning Run

I have been an active runner for many years now, and typically get out 4-5 times a week.  I love it.  This morning, I was running in the neighborhood and I saw a neighbor walking toward me on the sidewalk.  I waved and said Good Morning.  He waved back and said, “New Years resolution?”  I quickly searched my mind for a reply, something that could be uttered without breaking stride, that acknowledged the commonalities between us that could transcend simple age, and something that would not necessitate further conversation.  The product of all that rapid, and one could argue, unnecessary thought, was three simple words, “always moving forward.”  Pleased with myself, I kept moving, offered a thumbs up with a smile, and concluded that my beautiful retort would be the best answer he would likely receive in his quest among our shared streets.  Surely no one had been able to offer such wisdom on the spot – certainly others were stumped by his inquiry.  Magic!

However, about 25 seconds later, I realized he wasn’t soliciting resolutions from those he saw in the neighborhood.  Rather, he was asking if I was running that morning to launch the start of a New Years resolution.  D’oh!  Homer-DohWhile the prestige I had placed on him and his open question to the neighborhood was not just that – I still walked away thinking about those three words.

Eddie George was a Heisman Trophy winning running back at Ohio State and then had a successful career with the Tennessee Titans in the NFL.  While he would batter and bruise his way to each yard on the football field, I remember commentators attributing one specific quality to his rushing style – they say he always fell forward.  And that by standing more than 6 feet tall, this specific ability could often grab another yard for his team.  And each yard, over time, grew to more achievement.   Eddie George

Each year, my fellow #compelledbloggers share a challenge where we identify one word or three words to guide our learning for the coming year.  Lately I wasn’t feeling either.  However, through this random morning run, I realize that “Always moving forward” is three words.  And I think it’s pretty good as it focuses on improvement, even if only an inch at a time.  It’s also aligned with a book I just started, Atomic Habits, after a close friend recommended it.  The idea being that similar to an atom, there are small little things we can develop as habits, that can, with patience, lead to desired results.  So I have decided that Always Moving Forward (AMF) will be my three words.

I will focus on little things I can do each day that can influence the overall year.  I see these being in the personal relationships I strengthen, the campus leaders I further support, and the resulting student experiences that grow more powerful.  #Destiny

How does potential inspiration find you?

 

The Trio That Serves as My Totem

Inception is one of my favorite movies not only because it is highly engaging and well produced – it also references the idea of each person needing a totem.  For the characters in the movie, they employ a totem so that they know whether they are still dreaming or not.  The idea is to always carry something simple with them so that they can take a potentially complex issue (asleep or awake) and solve it by using a simple item.

Occam’s Razor.  KISS.  Robert Fulghum.  These three ideas or people are what serve as my totem and often help me recover as a leader.  They do this by reminding me that the ability to hear, understand, reflect, and address/solve a problem or issue is usually completely within my zone of influence.  Occam’s razor is a philosophical principle that says that the least complicated explanation is usually the correct one.  KISS is a reminder to Keep It Simple Stupid!  And Robert Fulghum is the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the book that reminds me of both the previous ideas – namely that, at its truest essence, any idea/concern can be resolved by utilizing a concept I learned long ago.

This month as a member of the #CompelledTribe, we were asked to share a book, or multiple books, that influence our work and that we would recommend.  AIRNTKILIK is such the book for me as it has always served as a powerful reminder that when dealing with people – which is what we do all day every day – so much of what we learned as a young person can still serve us well.  My tattered copy that stays nearby was a high school graduation present, and it became a life lesson piece for my family moving forward.  Some of the reminders are timeless:Share EverythingPlay FairPut things back where you found them.Clean up your own mess.Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Take a nap every afternoon.Be aware of wonder. Hold hands anWhile many of these remain aspirational – still no cot in my office – I do try and embrace the others when interacting with others (both while wearing my principal hat or my parent hat).  And as a leader, I have literally and metaphorically grabbed on to this advice as it reminds me that at our core, each faculty and staff member made a decision to step in to a classroom or school where children are in need of so much.  And often what they need, what we all need, is simply hope.  The idea that things can be better.  Complication does not usually inspire.  Simplicity does.

Finally, I would add that a large part of what we do in leadership is connected to the stories we share.  Creating a narrative that makes an experience accessible to others can enable a vision to be understood and a path forward to form.  The Storytellers Creed from Robert Fulghum is also a reminder to me of the charge we have as leaders on a school campus.  Each year I try to share this advice with seniors as they embark on their next adventure.  What helps you reset when faced with a challenge?Storytellers Creed

Movie Popcorn Can Bring Inspiration

This last weekend I was able to breakaway from some of the stress and see one of the Academy Award Nominated Best Movies – 3 Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.  I enjoyed the movie yet during a particularly climactic scene, there is a line shared that has continued to resonate with me.

_Cause you know what you need..._ Love. Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes...It's kinda all you need_ - WoodyThere’s a whole lot of stuff happening in my school district right now.  We’ve lost 17 school days on my campus this year to Hurricane Harvey, Ice, and an Astros Championship Parade.  The stress on everyone has been palpable.  Toss in that our school community was particularly impacted with more than 600 families displaced, and you can get a sense of how we’ve all arrived at the description of “it’s just a crazy year.”

It’s February which means the plans for next year are being hatched, and for many reasons our school district is facing a financial challenge that’s not been seen before in this district/city/state.  How we come out of it is yet to be determined.  What is certain is that we have students this afternoon, this week, this month, and this semester that need us at our best.  So how do we navigate through tumultuous times?

Previously, I wrote, in this blog post, about the advice my mentors had for me as a new campus Principal dealing with struggles.  However as I look to make my way through this spring semester, I am choosing to take a different approach.  For me to have the needed clarity to steer through these challenges, I am going to focus on love in all its forms.  Perhaps it’s a thoughtful card received at the right moment, or a smile in the hallway to someone feeling lonely.  Maybe it’s attending the Lasagna Dinner for the Band or simply cheering on your students at the Girls Basketball game.  Or it could be as simple as visiting a teachers classroom, sharing fist bumps with everyone, and bringing value to what we do.

Chalkboard - LoveRemembering what we love brings the needed calm that leads to thought.  Yeah, I think my trip to the movies with a large popcorn, SnoCaps, and a Cherry Coke just brought me my plan.

What’s the latest quote from TV or Film that has brought you inspiration?

My First ISTE Conference and It Hurt My Brain

In high school I loved to write fiction. In college I continued but it was harder. I realized that it was work – that for it to be quality it took lots of time, effort, reflection, and perseverance. It’s not easy to commit to all of that so I stopped. Yet as I reflect on my learning from #ISTE2017, and especially the opening night keynote from Jad Abumrad, the creator of the Radiolab Podcast (Check it out here) , I realize that when I gave up on the process, I cut myself off from many other opportunities.  And I realized that my desire for it to be better wasn’t a detriment.  Rather it was the challenge I needed; the push that each of us need when we try something new, as we strive to find our voice.  

More than 20 years since college, I now find my desire to identify and develop my voice stronger.  Whether it is with this blog or my latest LEARN project where I started a podcast focused on seniors at my high school, I more fully understand that I need to stick with the process of continuing to work.  It’s not great yet and I’m okay with that.  


Additionally, during the same keynote, Jad shared with us a great piece by Ira Glass where he speaks about the Taste Gap.  I’ve included a link to the 2 minute video here: The Taste Gap.  This spoke to me in a powerful way in that it reminded me of the fact that the work must continue.  And that being aware that it’s not good enough yet is important as that is what will keep you working. Imagine that – the very idea that may seemingly stop us from continuing to create is instead exactly what we need to persevere.  The idea that we think it’s not good is the fuel we need for the journey.  Personally, I t was not uncommon for me to reach the point of it not being what I wanted it to be, and the conclusion I reliably drew was that it just couldn’t be any more that that.  Yet ISTE & Jad showed me there was more value to be had by simply “fighting through it.” 

So as I recover from the end of the school year and refresh through my learning at my initial ISTE conference, I find my brain throbbing like the overworked muscle it is.  Thinking and working at another level leave me both exhausted and motivated.  I am excited about engaging again in my own learning through both blogging & podcasting.  Neither is where I want them yet; I get that.  Yet ISTE helped me understand the power in the process & that you must keep plugging along.


What are you struggling with right now in terms of your creativity?  Where does your Taste Gap currently reside?

Turning the tables on interviews

Todd Whitaker said that there are two ways to have an amazing school: Hire great teachers and improve the ones you already have. Now I’m not here to focus on the best means to improve the ones you have as that requires personalization and is work I continue to strive toward each day. However I have always been a firm believer in the importance of hiring well.  And have been surprised over the years by the number of school leaders that delegate this responsibility. It’s far too critical to both the health and success of every school. 


I love interviewing candidates. The main reason is that it allows you to be unapologetically aspirational. You have the chance to find someone that will make your school stronger than you may have imagined and someone who can take your kids to the highest levels. Now I’m not saying that you offer any deception about your current reality when seeking a best fit or job match among candidates. I am encouraging you to focus during an interview on those days when “we are at our best.”  Seizing the opportunity to engage in affirmative inquiry allows you to reflect on your wins without being discouraged by your areas in need of growth.

My campus has strived for excellence since the doors opened in 1955. For a large urban high school, the stability with leadership exceeds expectations and when coupled with a large core of veteran teachers committed to keeping a high standard for everyone, I know we are normally blessed with a sizable pool of applicants.  That being said, the evolution we have undertaken of late has been the means by which we have had to adapt and develop our strategies to impact that work toward similar lofty standards.  We haven’t done this work without struggle, doubt, and a lot of honest reflection. Our learning the past five years has pushed me toward this different slant when interviewing people to join our team.  Largely it is that we really should be the ones that sweat a bit as we search for that person that will make us better.  When sitting across from a strong candidate, it really should be us that is sweating a bit. Rock star educators aren’t everywhere, and so it’s at that moment that I feel the tables switch.  

As a team we now better understand that we aren’t looking for someone to remark that they are a quick learner and willing to “fit in” to our school.  I make it a point to let them know that I am not looking for someone to sit at the end of the bench for a year and wait their turn. Every hire must include a belief that the new team member makes us stronger and will push our thinking and thus the overall learning on campus.  And so we are really the ones that should be nervous that they won’t choose us.  We should wonder whether the learning that we emphasize for both our students and our adults is enriching enough to bring along the best. 

The clarity with which I have seen this over the past 6-8 weeks has excited me in new ways. And I think it may even remind all members of our school community that they have agency each day.  Finally, it reminds others of our vision as a school community. We get the chance to tell our story and our responsibility to do just that is paramount to every school community.  If we ignore or miss this chance, then we leave others to either tell their version or permit a suspect version to gain credibility (as there is no contrary response or narrative). 


Screening candidates, scheduling interviews, checking references, and then working with HR to bring on a new person is work.  It’s an invstement and deserves the same due diligence we would exercise within our personal lives.  The timing for most hiring couldn’t be harder as it’s at the most hectic juncture in the school year. But, I mean, c’mon, is there anything better than landing that rock star addition to your team.  What interview practices might you consider shifting this summer?

My #OneWord for Two Lives

I am going to be honest in that I am not big on themes or resolutions.  In fact, I secretly would crack wise about the neighboring schools that felt a theme or idea should guide their year.  I believed that the work was the work and that we shouldn’t need pencils, or t-shirts, or shiny signs to get there.  I suppose I also took on this philosophy in my personal life and thus refrained from resolutions every January.  Sure, I might secretly mutter something to myself, however, I wouldn’t share it with others.

 

oneword2017Truthfully, I don’t know much behind the idea of the #OneWord.  I suppose that at it’s essence it is a decision to not subscribe to a specific act (eat better, be nice, say thank you, etc) and rather commit to the concept behind a word.  And so I am going to give this a try for 2017.  My #OneWord for 2017 is ENGAGE.  And this word will thread through both my professional and personal lives.

I choose to continue to ENGAGE in my own learning.  The past 12 months have been powerful for me as I pushed myself to remember what it’s like to be a learner.  I started this blog, reconnected via Twitter, began to build a larger PLN, and am enjoying my Voxer group.  It’s been a positive experience that I want to continue.  It makes me better.

I choose to ENGAGE in those difficult conversations that so often come our way as leaders.  In the past I may have prioritized the ones that were urgent or that challenged my curiosity.  However I know that when I am being honest with myself, I sometimes pushed off those tough chats in hopes they either resolved themselves or became moot.  The idea of something being “easier” can be quite alluring.  For 2017 I intend to resist the easy route and push myself to be better.

I choose to ENGAGE with my student body in new and exciting ways.  I know that I can’t personally connect with all 3500 students within one school year.  Yet I can make efforts to add new means for how, when, and where our paths do intersect.  Perhaps it will be via the use of video, social media, and/or a microphone.  I’m not sure yet.  It’s too easy to forget that it does matter just how present we are with young people and each other.  Around this notion, I know I can do better.

family-nyc-trip-july-25-2016

Finally, I choose to ENGAGE with my family more.  I could not be the type of high school principal that I am (and that I continue to aspire to be) without the support and understanding of my wife, my son, and my daughter.  There are times they get less of me so that I can offer more to my students, faculty, staff, and community.  My family rolls with it pretty well as that’s the gig we signed up for and they understand.  However, Jacob is in 12th grade and Emma is now in 10th grade.  They won’t be home for much longer and I can’t forfeit those remaining days and months.  So I choose to engage with them by sitting in their room together, making dinner together, listening to records together – trying to just be together.  These are small things however they matter and they can add up.  It’s important to me to be better with them.

In which ever way you interpret the turning of the calendar to January, I hope that you consider choosing a single word to drive your actions.  There are so many wonderful words out there to choose from; similar to a long journey beginning with a single step, your selection of just #OneWord might launch quite an exciting adventure.

How will you start today to engage in your own world?

Thankful to my mentors as they remind me about unity

“Focus on your primary”

basketball-referee

A dozen years ago, I was a new principal fortunate to have a strong mentor.  He guided many of us as we embarked on a new adventure.  Blessed with seemingly a never ending supply of energy and time, he shared with us a story about his experiences as a basketball referee.  He said that there would be times where the game was getting heated, fans were bristling with every play, and tensions were rising.  At that very moment a game could spiral out of control for the referees or it could remain a contest of skill and talent.  Our mentor would tell us that the way you make it through those times of turmoil was by focusing on your primary.  You see, unknown to the average fan like me is the specific tactic that referees are charged with -to focus on their primary coverage area.  If they do their job, then when working with the other officials, the game will maintain its intent.

I have to trust my teachers to focus what they excel at – which is to teach.  Ensuring that routine remains for kids is important.  Life outside of school can be hectic and the rhetoric that fills nearly every portal of communication can be overwhelming.  Thus kids need the refuge of school, and they need it to be predictable.  Enabling teachers to do what they need to do and keep the work moving forward is what sets the conditions for our kids, and for the entire school community, to persevere.

hot-seat

 

I had another mentor when I was a principal intern and he always had such wisdom to share and faith in young people.  Early on he tasked me with setting up interviews for an Asst Principal vacancy we had, and he told me to put together a group of 4-5 students.  These kiddos would take each candidate on a tour of campus.  After all the candidates had been interviewed by the committee, the students would come in to offer their take on each person.  My mentor would always say that anyone could come in with the right answers and impress adults.  However, he would add, kids have a much sharper radar for what can fit on a campus.  He would tell me to trust them.  As with many things this mentor offered, I adopted this practice and I’ve used it for each administrative vacancy.  And every time the students have been right.  If we follow their lead and trust them to sniff out the BS and navigate to what matters most, then we can make our way.  Kids are far more resilient than adults when it comes to change.  Maybe they have to be for reasons out of their control, however taking the time to stop talking to them and start listening with them remains a sound strategy in my book.

Finally, I would add that as a principal, my charge toward unity lies in the work of cultivating a culture that can withstand the hardest of times.  Insensitive comments will arise – either from students, parents, or adults on campus.  It will happen.  And at those very moments we have to believe even more in the community we have established.  We have to have faith that, in some way, the values and commitments we have agreed to will help us respond in the most appropriate manner.

steam-train-344012

I have always believed in young people and what we can learn from them.  I’ve written often about how much more aware they are then we often give them credit for.  Yet at this time, as I try to bring to close the power of resilience, and the faith I have that we will unify and that good will still prevail, I find myself drawn to the words of a rock-n-roll veteran.  If you have never listened to “The Land of Hopes and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen, then I encourage you to sample it soon.  The lyrics are below.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rollin’ down this track
Well, you don’t know where you’re goin’ now
But you know you won’t be back
Well, darlin’ if you’re weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry
Yeah, and we’ll leave the rest

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Oh meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This train…
Carries saints and sinners
This train…
Carries losers and winners
This train…
Carries whores and gamblers
This train…
Carries lost souls

I said this train…
Dreams will not be thwarted
This train…
Faith will be rewarded

Public schools take everyone that shows up at the front door and commits to make them stronger.  During these challenging days, I believe that our school community can be the train for all of our students, our faculty, and the entire staff.  Frankly, I would argue that it may be the only reliable vehicle for both unity and change.

What else are you employing as you work with your communities?