Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Just Before the New Year

It is about four hours from the New Year and I am sitting with my son playing video games (Star Wars). We just bought it today, on sale at Gamestop while we out purchasing yet another gift for someone. This always seems to happen, does it not? You're in the store for one thing, and you walk out with something entirely different, or in addition to? It does to me, anyhow.

It occurred to me that the reason I walked out with this game, however, was because the night before we attended the Harlem Globetrotters basketball game at the Allstate Arena. My eight year old son brought along a friend, and on the drive there, I heard the two of them discussing what they each got for Christmas this year. I found myself feeling bad for my son, who had to sit there and endure a lengthy list of toys and electronics his friend had been "lucky enough" to receive. I sat there thinking about the kid's parents, who would most likely be paying for this Christmas extravaganza until next Christmas. And then I heard my son speak up.

He went through his much shorter list.
And he was happy.
He did not brag, did not sound unhappy that he couldn't match his friend's list.
He was happy, and still I found myself searching for a game that he would like - unconsciously, or so it seemed, attempting to make up for the fact that my son did not have everything that his friend did.

We teach our children that it is not material items that count. It is family. We teach them this by showing them. We show them by making every moment count, by spending quality time together, by making sure they know we love them. NOT by giving them every little thing they want (although I fail in this area today), but by being there for them when it counts - every day.

One of my goals for 2009: Show people, every day, that I care by being in the moment. More on the importance of being in the moment in a blog posting coming in '09!! Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Looking, Apprehensively, Toward the New Year

"For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning."

~T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

In facing the inevitable second half of the year, I am feeling excited and somewhat apprehensive. I have been reading some great material over this break that all of us "school people" receive, and it is usually at this time that I begin to wonder how to carry this excitement that I feel over to my staff. My boss talks about "sharpening the saw," an analogy he borrowed from Stephen Covey to mean freshen up for the remainder of the year. While I think I have effectively sharpened my saw, I hope others have too. If not, it is up to me as their leader to help people feel refreshed each and every day. So yes, I am feeling a little overwhelmed as I look to the new year. Excited, but cautious. What do I say that will make a difference? Are these things I should be worrying about?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Great Leaders, Part 1

"If the bottom line of life is happiness, then it makes perfect sense to say that it is the journey that counts, not reaching the destination."
~Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What do great leaders do differently from leaders? What separates an average leader from an extraordinary leader? One characteristic that has been weighing heavily on my mind of late is attitude. Great leaders set the example and must remember that everything counts. My office is housed upstairs in our school, and the quarters are, to say the least, cramped. It can be difficult to stay positive 100% of the time when there are days when you feel everyone is on top of one another. I began to notice that if I came in feeling grumpy, by nine in the morning, my whole office staff was on edge, which effects the parents who come in or call, and the teachers who tend to drop by and say hello while making copies. And this, of course, could have a less-than-positive effect on the children in those classrooms. I decided to try a little experiment. After all, I could not possibly have this much of an impact on everyone. Could I?

For one week, I came in bright-eyed and cheery, greeting everyone I ran into, shaking hands with one and all, even bringing coffee into the office staff. They thought I had gone a little haywire, but hey, I could tell that everyone was feeling good about themselves. All right, so this was fun, and I found myself feeling very productive and on top of my game, even though I had forced myself to play this little game. I wrote all of my observations in a notebook.

The next week, I purposefully went out of my way to be grumpy, cut people off in mid-sentence, yell at my office staff (even though it was difficult to find anything they were doing wrong), and just be in an overall foul mood. At around 2:00 in the afternoon, mid-week of the experiment, a teacher came looking for me. I was holed up in my office and hadn't seen her or heard from her all week. She plopped herself down in a chair opposite my desk and said, "So, I hear you're in a pretty bad mood. People are wondering what's wrong with you." I was dumbfounded. I was also happy to know that people noticed my moods.

Whether or not our moods have a positive or negative impact on the people we work with, it is our responsibility to put a positive spin on things. We have the power and obligation to filter what comes out of our mouths, what information we share with others, and to model what kind of behavior we expect out of people. It all starts with our attitude. We set the tone.

In the words of the Hungarian psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives." And if we can accomplish this for ourselves, who knows what we might be able to help others accomplish. It's worth a try, and those we serve are worth it.

Tough Leadership Lessons

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go but ought to be.
~ Rosalynn Smith Carter

This morning my daughter and I went through an emotional time which gave me pause. She is twelve and cannot understand the complexities of a dysfunctional family (not that any child should have to). To give a brief backstory to help in the reader's understanding, my brother and I have not spoken in years. Perhaps as many as four of them. It is not something I am happy about, but it is my reality right now, and my wife and I have never minced words with our kids. We have always wanted them to understand their current realities as well, and sometimes this means dealing with not-so-nice issues.

So my mother and daughter are in town (they live in Arizona), staying in our house, and they plan to go visit my brother and his family for the holidays while they are here. Mom invites my daughter to go with them and I have to be the one to say no, which causes a certain amount of frustration and emotion on the parts of my daughter and her grandmother. When I found a free moment (tough to do when you are hosting out-of-town guests) I called my heart-broken twelve year old into the other room and tried explaining to her why I didn't want her to see her uncle until I made things right between him and I.

While she may not have understood in the moment, it was something I had to do. It is what I believe in, my bottom line. In this case, it was her safety, her well-being, my vision of what I see for her, want for her in the future.

I believe school and business leaders must do the same - figure out what your bottom line is, make sure everyone understands what your vision is, and don't waver from it. All decisions are based on the vision, even if they are tough to make. Don't mince words. Make sure everyone knows what you are all about. They may not understand in the here and now, they may walk out of your office upset with you in the moment, but you will be able to sleep at night knowing that you did what you know was right. Because you have an unwavering vision of excellence. No one can stand in the way of that.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Good leaders make people feel that they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.

~ Warren G. Bennis

Sometimes it takes more than two cups of coffee to get me going in the morning. Sometimes it might take a visit to my favorite coffee house on the way in to work, and then another pot of the brown stuff brewing in my office. All of this before eight in the morning.

Sometimes that is what it takes.

And then, at other times, it takes less prompting, less push to get the machine rolling. On these days, things come easy, the fog in my head is penetrable after only having risen and showered.

It is in this place that I will attempt to make sense of this phenomenon, the unique differences that make up good days and bad days for those at the forefront - those individuals we think of as leaders.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?
~Benjamin Disraeli

Visionary Leadership
(excerpted from an article by Larry Lashaway)

When some future historian tallies up buzzwords of the 1990s, "vision" will be high on the list. Schools everywhere want leaders who have it, and even modest incremental plans are routinely billed as "visions for the 21st century." Unfortunately, the exaltation of vision often leaves one question unanswered: Once you're done praising it, what do you do about it?
David Conley (1996) has found that many school leaders have become ambivalent—sometimes even cynical—about the usefulness of vision. Yet experts continue to regard it as a make-or-break task for the leader.

Why Does Vision Matter?
Robert Fritz (1996) says that organizations advance when a clear, widely understood vision creates tension between the real and the ideal, pushing people to work together to reduce the gap.
This unifying effect is especially important in school settings known for their "isolationist culture." Because teachers typically regard methodology as a matter of individual preference, empowerment strategies do not quickly lead to schoolwide changes in classroom practices (Carol Weiss 1995).
By contrast, schools with a clear vision have a standard by which teachers can gauge their own efforts. According to one teacher in a school that had recently developed a vision, "People are speaking the same language, they have the same kinds of informal expectations for one another, more common ground" (Conley and colleagues 1992).
David Mathews (1996) sees vision as a way of reconnecting schools to an increasingly alienated public. He says communities no longer see the schools as their schools. A vision that reflects the needs and purposes of the surrounding community not only improves education, it rebuilds the relationship between the school and its public.

How Do Leaders Facilitate Vision?
Even in schools that are deeply committed to shared vision, principals remain the key players, both before and after the school adopts a new direction.
Creating readiness is crucial. Conley notes that principals who have already adjusted to new ways of thinking often underestimate the time needed for others to do the same. He says that all participants must have the opportunity to examine their current thinking, develop a rationale for change, and entertain new models. This can be done by forming study groups, visiting schools or businesses that have already restructured, or collecting data that challenge comfortable assumptions (such as test scores or surveys of community satisfaction).
Robert Starratt (1995) emphasizes the importance of institution-alizing the vision. No matter how inspiring it sounds on paper, the dream will wither unless it takes concrete form in policies, programs, and procedures. At some point, curriculum, staffing, evaluation, and budget must feel the imprint of the vision, or it will gradually lose credibility.
At the same time, principals must remain focused on what the vision means in classroom terms. Richard Elmore and colleagues, after an indepth study of restructuring schools, concluded that enthusiasm for new visions does not automatically lead people to see the implications for teaching. They found that it was "extraordinarily difficult" for teachers to attain the deep, systematic knowledge of practice needed to make the vision a reality. Without unrelenting assessment, analysis, and professional development, the vision may remain a glossy facade rather than becoming a vital, living presence in the life of the school.
Above all, principals must create a climate and a culture for change. They do this by speaking about the vision often and enthusiastically; by encouraging experiments; by celebrating successes and forgiving failures; and by remaining steadfast in the face of the inevitable problems and missteps.
Experience has given advocates of vision a new appreciation for the difficulties involved, removing any illusions about a magic bullet. Yet they remain optimistic about its potential. As schools work through the challenges of vision, says Hong, "they discover that they perhaps can make the impossible possible."