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

Coaching Teachers Without Asking Why

At the end of last school year, one of the areas of learning that our faculty/staff identified was feedback.  Teacher to student, student to student, leadership to teacher, etc.  The campus wanted to learn more about how to offer feedback that was useful and could be leveraged for improvement.  Having this focus enabled me to return to some training I had received years ago based on the work of Carolyn Downey and the 3-Minute Classroom Walk-Through.  Click here for a strong description.

So what I find most valuable from the Carolyn Downey work is the reflective question.  Essentially, the idea is that after you complete your walk-through, either via email or a planned “bump into”, you share what you observed and then leave them with a reflective question.  Follow that with built in time for them to reflect on it.  Perhaps you tell them you’ll check back in later.  Or simply leave it open-ended.  The purpose is to have them reflect.

John Dewey

I find this most powerful when I focus on a decision that they made.  Perhaps its the strategy they used to check for understanding; or maybe its a choice they made to use segments of a video; or merely directing students to either work independently or collaboratively.  The point is that they select their next steps, they consciously decide to do something.  For many it is muscle memory.

I strive to ask the question in a manner that focuses them on an instant – a decision point.

“When you decided to have the students work collaboratively on the lab, what outcomes were you striving to achieve?”

“How do you think your lesson would have gone for the students if they had been provided guided notes for the video you showed?”

“When introducing a new concept, what do you consider when choosing a formative assessment tool or strategy?”

Each of the questions above works from a premise that they were fully prepared and thoughtful with the questions they asked, or the lesson they designed.  It then moves from there to a choice they made and asks them to reflect on it.

Could I have sought the same information by simply asking “why did you have them work with partners?” or “why did you or didn’t you provide guided notes?”  Maybe.  That’s certainly more direct.  However the word “why” is incredibly powerful.  Generally speaking, it leads the receiver of the question to take a defensive position.  And that is the last thing I want to do when building rapport for feedback.  Asking “why” can lead them to narrow their thinking just as I want them to expand it.

baby pondering

As you work toward having teachers understand the effects of the decisions they make, of the plans they develop, what strategies do you employ?

What would it look like for you to not use the word “why” for the next week with your students or your staff?

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?