Monday, December 20, 2010

Friends and Tough Questions

I tweeted Friday night that I enjoyed having dinner with members of the 2008 All-Iowa Cohort. This tight-knit group of school leaders had again gathered to celebrate their graduation.

I learned a few things that I didn't know while I had them in class, which is probably a good thing for everyone. I also learned that in one of my earlier posts I unintentionally spilled the beans about a pregnancy in the group. This apparently caused a little disappointment among some who expected to hear this great news from a source other than The Balcony View. Hmmm. And I thought no one was reading.

As I listened to them banter and tease each other, I remembered how they challenged and pushed each other as students. After just a few weeks together, it became easy to anticipate the positions certain members of the cohort were going to take on particular issues. Exploring, unpacking, questioning, and reevaluating those strongly held beliefs became an important part of the experience.

And that got me thinking about something I heard Dr. Bill Callahan, former Dean of the UNI College of Education, say in a doctoral class one time. We were discussing openness and honest communication when someone said, "I have good friends who can tell me anything." Bill didn't disagree with the point and as I remember, congratulated the person for having such good friends.

Then he pointed out something I'd never really thought of before. He acknowledged that many of us have a list of folks who make our "Good Friends List." We share history, common interests, maybe the same sense of humor, etc.  Bill challenged us to think of how many of those folks would honestly and directly challenge us if and when they thought we were really out of bounds, off track, or screwing up. How many would be truly willing to tell us things they know we wouldn't want to hear? Then he said, "Often times, my friends are my friends because they say nice things to me."

I've thought a lot about that point on and off over the years. It's such a good one for leaders. We know how lonely leadership can be. I think it was Harry Truman who referred to the White House as "the prison." New principals talk often about how lonely they find their positions. And that professional isolation often breeds a lack of communication, or at least not enough honest communication about the things that matter most.

How many of us have invested the time to cultivate relationships in which our friends (or associates) will not only forward us a joke they know we'll like but will also come at us with the awkward, unvarnished, straight forward truth we so need to hear?

How many will instead keep it light and stick to the comfortable stuff? How many will tell me, if I ask? How many of us have chosen to keep things on the " comfortable friendly level" and shied away from seeking awkward but clarifying conversations about what we're doing, how, and why? As leaders, we ought to be asking ourselves these questions.

I hope the fun crew I had dinner with Friday night will keep it up. I'm thinking they will.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Passion-Driven Leadership

It was a treat when Amy Sandvold, a former student in the UNI Principalship Program program, asked me to guest blog about being a passion-driven leader. I’ve been called a lot of things, I suppose, even today. But I welcome the label and am grateful for the opportunity. This is cross-posted at her new blog on passion-driven leadership.
I remember as a college basketball player hearing my African American teammates talk about leaving their Starter jackets in the locker room when they went home for the weekend. Some of their jackets were the wrong color for the gangs that roamed their neighborhoods. As a kid from small town Iowa, that got me thinking.
My first “real” job after college was with the Missouri Department of Mental Health in Kansas City. Though Sarah Palin would probably dismiss it in the same way she mocked President Obama’s work as a “community organizer,” my job as a “Clinical Casework Assistant 1” was to help individuals with serious, chronic mental illnesses navigate life in the city. My twenty clients suffered from a host of mental illnesses, but schizophrenia was the most common. A few years earlier, they would have been institutionalized.
Their stories were heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. One man, Julio, who spoke no English, was one of Fidel Castro’s “boat people,” loaded onto rickety boats and sent toward Florida. Another, Ali, had been shot during constant war in Ethiopia and had cared for the bullet wound in his hip himself until arriving in America several months later.
One man, Mike, lived in a federal housing project we referred to as the “no fly zone,” to which the probation and parole department no longer sent officers and ambulances would not go unless the police arrived first. Idealistic, foolish, committed or all three, I went there all the time. Mike often talked about how his dad used a “2 x 4 to make us men.” His brother jumped into the Missouri River from the Paseo Bridge while Mike lived on to struggle through chronic paranoid schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and crack and alcohol addiction. It was often one step forward and a couple steps back.
Another guy, Lance, who also suffered from schizophrenia, swore he received all kinds of urgent messages from outer space, warning that Communists were secretly overrunning America. If only Lance could get someone to take him seriously, he felt the country could be saved. The same man would regularly walk twenty blocks in the rain to a disability services job that paid him a few bucks a week assembling brake lights for cars.
The only thing I saw that came close to their desire for a better life was the limit their illness put upon their opportunities. The tenacity with which they got up every day, wondering what the voices would say or whether others also heard the gunshots, was stunning.
One day at the stoplight at 47th and Main I realized that, although I was humbled and awestruck by their stories and toughness, that particular job was not where I was supposed to be. I changed course and became a teacher and coach, later a principal, and now a professor who teaches aspiring principals. If I am in fact a “passion-driven leader,” it is in large part because I am reflective enough to know that those guys would really think it a waste if I didn’t do everything I can to help others seize opportunities they never had.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Teaching, Coaching, Leading, Learning

This semester as I have done before, I invited UNI men's basketball coach Ben Jacobson to speak to my class of aspiring school principals, and not just because Panther Basketball is in my blood. The reason is there are so many parallels between teaching and coaching and leading a team and leading a school. Listening to Jake talk with my students for the fifth semester, I was struck by several things. Chief among them is how much leaders in other fields can learn from some, but not all, coaches. I'd be the first to say that one couldn't and shouldn't drop just any college or professional level coach into a graduate class and expect it to work. But Jake's message always does.

Since reading Reframing Organizations by Bolman and Deal, I've believed their assertion that, over time organizations take on the personality of their leaders, for better or worse. Jake's teams are as good of an example of that as I can think of. Focused, methodical, not prone to knee jerk reactions, fundamentally sound, very cohesive, tenacious.

He talked about the importance of "listening aggressively." Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations calls that "paying fierce attention" to each other. Talked about valuing people's time, getting to know the janitor and concession worker in the McLeod the things in their lives are just as important as the things in his and that, as people they're eager to share.

Five years ago as a rookie head coach, he talked about the importance of toughness, which is fairly boilerplate and cliche for any coach. "Not winning? We're probably not tough enough. Things not going well in life? You're not handling them with enough toughness and grit" were the answers back then. He'll get no argument from me about the importance of toughness, whatever the task. Being a principal is tough. Teaching is tough. Selling Dodge Durangos in a dismal economy has got to be tough.

Since that initial toughness message five years ago, however, Jake  now realizes how much more is necessary. Of course he still values toughness (what coach doesn't?), but the importance of teamwork and trust make up the other legs of the stool. His point was that as leaders, we have to understand the danger in seeing every problem as having one solution. That's when we become  hammers masquerading as leaders that see nothing but nails.

I almost laughed out loud when he described how he challenges assistant coaches to do more than point out with great passion and frustration what the players do poorly. He wants them to come to his office with solutions. I immediately remembered being a principal and assembling the stencils to spell out the word "solutions" above my office door. The reason for the planned redecoration was not (as some seemed to hope or expect) that the wise principal had all the answers, but rather to send the message that our problems are very well known and easy to identify. What we need are ideas, creativity, and insight about what to do about them (That I never got around to painting the word because a crisis of some sort erupted is beside the point and something every principal will understand).

Jake also talked about the importance of differentiation, though he never used the word, which is probably overused as a term and sadly underused in practice. He talked about the range of players on his team with different backgrounds, personalities, and skill levels. Some perform at their highest levels when they are aggressively pushed with tough love. For others, the issue is much more related to feelings of efficacy, building confidence, and encouragement. The need for the same kind of differentiation has been present with all the teachers and students I've tried to assist.

Finally, he reflected on how easy and clear cut things appeared from the assistant coach's office. Sitting in the big chair is different. More complicated. More difficult. Yep.

Yes, he gets to recruit players that fit his team and approach. Yes, he enjoys a very healthy salary. No question that in many ways, the emphasis placed on  athletics in America is out of whack. And no, I won't be writing a book entitled "Everything I Needed to Know About School Leadership I Learned from Listening  to Coach Jake." But when it comes to effective leadership, those who "get it" advocate and practice a lot of the same things, whether they're leading a school, congregation, family, business, or team.