George Lucas Educational Foundation

Three (+1) Leadership Ingredients I'd Take To A Desert Isle

Three (+1) Leadership Ingredients I'd Take To A Desert Isle

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I'm more of a mountain person, but for a moment I'll humor that archetypal summer disaster (Hollywood does it - why can't I?) and strand myself on a single palm desert isle - a dollop of sand in a vast expanse of blue.  What wreckage washes up with me?  Three leadership tenets I don't leave home without.  The Swiss Army knife that Tom Hanks forgot to pocket before his plane went down in Cast Away.  Let's just hope there are some calories to be found.

1) Aggressive inclusion

A few people are bold enough to step up to the leader and ask for what they want or to share what they think.  The 80-plus percent are too polite, stoic, or (sometimes rightfully) paranoid to do so.  The leader needs to go TO people, not wait for a visit or for the phone to ring.  If a leader is to be blamed for aggression, it should be the aggression of rousting people out of their comfortable niches - or trenches - to participate in the bigger conversation.

2) Co-operative risk taking

Don't just tell students and teachers to "take risks!"  Do it yourself. Do it WITH them.  And refer to the point above to move closer to your people, allowing positional boundaries to drop away over time (it will take time).  Principal Curt Rees says it best in this post:

3) Ongoing public reflection

What are you seeing, experiencing and learning?  If you aren't sharing that with your organization - and, in the case of schools, with your broader community - then you are committing the deepest of hypocrisies: assuming the boss role in a learning organization without revealing who YOU are as a learner.  When you share your learning publicly, you create a vehicle (eventually, a culture) through which others feel permission to reflect openly and honestly about their ideas and struggles.  Your example enables a greater comfort with shedding the shackles of "expertise" - a mindframe that often keeps us from trying new things or even entertaining divergent ideas.  That gets us back to points one and two.  This post has come full circle. (So why isn't it ending?)

Oh, wait, one more thing.  One more vital component too often overlooked - or too often looked down upon - by leaders determined to win respect through mirthless piousness and positional muscle-flexing: giving life every day to a culture of recognition and celebration.

YOU are the official Hype Man/Woman of your school - a veritable Flavor Flav.  If you are a leader and do not feel proud of your team - if you are not grabbing the pom-poms and getting people fired up about the great things they are making happen - then I believe you need (pardon the sports analogy) to take a little "time out" and think long and hard about your present situation.  Maybe you need a little desert isle getaway; maybe you've been in the maelstrom too long and it's tough to crack a smile after all the battles.

Are you under-appreciated?  Probably.  Have people leveled criticisms at you that are less than fair?  Likely.  These are realities of the leadership landscape - and let's not forget that teachers experience this as well.  Those could be reasons to make us want to retreat, or, possibly worse, get mad and lead mad.  This is precisely why building and sustaining a culture of celebration is the ultimate antidote to toxicity and anger.  Theorist Robert Kegan calls it the "language of ongoing regard" - a way to breathe life and energy into a system, to always bring it back to our shared humanity, our essential humanness.

What the organization needs are leaders (be they administrators, teachers, teacher leaders, mentors, etc.) willing to set a tone of positivity and collective endeavor.  Leaders that are able to rise above the tangle and chaos of each day to help the organization stay focused on what matters while also staying attuned to people's wellbeing and esprit de corps.

This sense of equanimity is ultimately what keeps us afloat as leaders; it is what we turn to when we ourselves need renewal (seeing as "rest" isn't always an option!).  It will also come in handy if we ever do find ourselves on that desert island.   


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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

These are some great qualities. I'd agree and add one more- a solid sense of humor. We can take this work seriously without taking ourselves too seriously and sometimes the only choices are laugh or cry- and the former is more productive than the later.

Eric Saibel's picture
Eric Saibel
Middle School Principal, Global School Play Day, writer, painter, CUE Rockstar faculty.

I agree wholeheartedly, Laura - in fact, the first principal I worked under said that very thing. It took me a while to understand what he meant - it's not humor with an "I could care less" attitude, rather an "I choose to find joy in things" mindset. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I smiled bigger with each of your three tenets because I recognized them in my own principal. I've taught long enough to see a lot of administrators cycle through our offices, and I've been fortunate to work with many good ones. But our current principal (follow her on Twitter @egdunnagan) is one of the best. She models life-long learning in her daily work, she supports us in our attempts to try new practices, she sends us to conferences, she finds funding for us, she puts herself out there in front of the kids, she laughs every day, and she shares and celebrates our work with the community via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and an online newsletter. I appreciate her efforts to keep her focus on what matters, on what is good for kids, and on what supports her staff. She makes me want to work harder! Thanks, Emily!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

Eric, I love the way you use the word "aggressive" in #1. You are right, 80% are to respectful or timid to speak candidly in the face of a leader. Many will say what they think leaders want to hear. That's why I think the ability to ask probing questions is central to leadership. You don't want to surround yourself with people that will just reinforce what you think and say, you want to ask them the questions that will challenge your thinking and force you to see things from another perspective.

Eric Saibel's picture
Eric Saibel
Middle School Principal, Global School Play Day, writer, painter, CUE Rockstar faculty.

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, Brian. Consciously avoiding the echo chamber effect is really critical - we could have lots of people around the table helping to make decisions, but are they only our buddies? If so, we're in danger of what you point out - no one challenging each other, and, in truly toxic scenarios, no one daring to say something that will upset the "boss." I wrote more about how we can disrupt the echo chamber here:
Thanks again!

Eric Saibel's picture
Eric Saibel
Middle School Principal, Global School Play Day, writer, painter, CUE Rockstar faculty.

Hi Laura - these comments of yours are a wonderful gift to your principal! Words of genuine appreciation are certainly the greatest gifts I have ever received. I hope you and your colleagues have a terrific year, and perhaps I'll get a chance to visit and learn.

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