Saturday, June 05, 2004

What is this thing called leadership?" Dimensions of Leading a Learning Organization

"It's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life that ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is firm."

Fred Rogers (Television's Mr. Rogers)

Leadership is an attitude, a "presence" of mind, leadership is a divining of spirituality (Palmer, 1999). We have tried to capture the essence of what leadership is in succinct definable terms such as: "the office or position of a leader" or "the capacity to lead" or "the act or an instance of leading." But these are terms trying to capture the spirit of an ideal. This is leadership as an act, a position, an embrace that incorporates and defines limits. Recently I came across an item, a thought if you will, that suggested that it is not leaders who define leadership, rather it is the people, the zeitgeist, the time that defines what leadership is. Leaders can be put in place, situated, assigned, etcetera but this is not necessarily leadership. Leadership comes from without (Chaleff, 1995), that sense of involvement, that is purchased by demonstration, by example, by the bartering of needs, desires and wants (Freire, 1994).

Sports metaphors often come to mind when defining good leaders, as a high school wrestling coach I recall one of my wrestlers complaining about the hypocrisy of coaches who demand that their athletes do things that they themselves were unable to do. I had tried to explain that coaches were not being hypocritical but rather they were there to instruct and guide the athletes into being the best possible asset to the team. But this notion stays with me for a misconception on leadership is that people in "the office or position of a leader" often bear the brunt of all responsibility without realizing that a leader can only lead with a team (Lencioni, 2002). To do so otherwise is not leading but rather doing (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2001). A good leader surrounds themselves with competent team members, members whose input is congregated into a single desired outcome (Huffman & Hipp, 2003). In discussion it is ridiculous to assume that a leader has to be the best at everything, but in practice this often not the case. We perpetuate mythological stories about heroes and warriors without seeing the whole picture. Alexander the Great is considered one of the greatest leaders of western civilization. But his actions were through guidance, assimilation, adaptation and change. And we would be remiss to speak of Alexander without speaking of Aristotle, Hephaestion, or for that matter the generals and soldiers who campaigned for him.

Modeling is perhaps the best type of leadership: simply the act of doing. Often a leader will arise because they stood out from the crowd, stayed true to their principles, (Covey, 1991) and offered themselves as the catalyst for change (Gardner, et al, 2001). More often than not, the leader is chosen by the team, by the crowd, and just as often the leader becomes such reluctantly (Osho, 2001). I am reminded of the argument by Buzz Aldrin who believed that since he had a more spiritual, religious background that he deserved to be the first human being to step foot on the moon. (Wolfe, 1979). For, to him, the arrival of mankind to the moon was a significant spiritual event. Aldrin believed that Neil Armstrong viewed the experience almost in a divorced scientific exercise. Buzz believed that he was the quintessential leader. The zeitgeist incorrectly remembers a Neil Armstrong defining the age with "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." (The [a] was inadvertently lost in a glitch in the transmission – a simple word, a meaningless article that changes the meaning, that changes the definition of the moment – and a leader is chosen). We have many temptations to influence us, we are motivated by money, fame, or desire and often a combination of all of these (Covey, 1991). This is an unfortunate happenstance of our capitalist society Good leaders are principle led, they set examples for the good of the cause, they understand the sum of all the parts and understand the strength imbibed within the individuals.

The Change Process has been described as a "bell curve" with Futurists on one edge and Luddites on the other. I realize that I am a "bell-ringer" for change, often seeing or understanding the processes before others can. In many respects I am considered a "visionary" and have discovered that in the realm of education a visionary has the same respect level as telephone psychics (Cottam, 2003). I am aware of this but also understand that time is my best ally (Tzu, 2002). Often these "crazy", "new" methods, such as constructivism (Papert, 1996), bears out under research: over time. This is one tool which I utilize, patience via research. The greatest facilitator towards change however is demonstrating to others how this change will benefit them and their work (Covey, 1991), (Sperling, 2000). As more and more people become aware of the benefits of the change, these people then become your agents for change (Covey, 1991). Given the catalyst, once the spark is ignited the change becomes imminent. As agents of change, we must acquire leadership positions within our organizations and most important, we must build a community of leaders within and between our organizations, to share strategies and offer encouragement. Finally, we must realize that we are the primary advocates who help others to become more skilled in their roles as leaders. This is how a leader changes the process. This is leadership.

But what is moral leadership?

It is easy to blame the depravation of our world on leaders or entities gone bad (Freire, 1994). The popular perception of leadership is one that leads. Therefore, we create an image of someone who should be the epitome of all things for us individually. This perception becomes harder to maintain as more and more individuals throw their hat into the ring in support of their leader. The leader has to maintain their image to all people at all times. This is folly in its simplicity and arrogance in its complexity.

Our dilemma with "moral Leadership" is that we are not moral followers (Chaleff, 1995). We expect our leaders to stand to an ideal that we often scoff at in its purity. I think of the constraints we put on our leaders: we want leaders who are well rounded in their education; leaders who can bring experiential concepts to their leadership; leaders who are caring, wondrous, and wise. Yet! We want these same leaders to not drink, smoke, 'cuss'; to think only the way we want them to think in accordance with our religious, cultural, traditional beliefs (Gonthier, 2002). We want leaders who have never done anything wrong, illegal, unscrupulous, or upsetting. In short: we want experienced, autonomous educated leaders who have experienced nothing, will do exactly as we say, and lead us only by what we think they should lead us to.

We are whitewashing our ideology and our morality. As followers we want our leaders to be representative of our group think and to be accountable for our mistakes and misinformation (Chaleff, 1995). This is what we want as followers. And when we get leaders who do as we, as a collective, instruct – why is it we then scream that what we really want is a moral leader? What we need is moral followership. We have moral leaders, these are the leaders who stand for what they believe in (Covey, 1991), who question the status quo (Sperling, 2000), these are the people who have experienced life and are willing to sacrifice their livelihoods for what they believe to be true and right (Palmer, 1999). We decry these individuals as something foul and seek those familiar who purport our ideals of "morality." Instead we should follow and seek guidance from those who demonstrate truth goodness and beauty in their everyday existence.

What is the nature of human capacity for learning and achievement?

Human beings, much like other species, succumb to authority, whether this authority is illusionary or not is irrelevant. Granted there will always be those outside this influence but for the most part we want a guarantee of authority. It is a difficult and unfair irony, for we will hold people in contempt for being "book learned" and then again we condemn those who are "self-educated" (Cottam, 2003). It is a ‘damned if you do or damned if you don't proposition. I often have to explain to people that I am a self-educated computer expert and have been building, programming, and developing computers for nearly 15 years. These people are in awe of my expertise but these same people will then seek the guidance of someone who is "certified" regardless of their experience. As an educator I am often condemned for pursuing academic degrees for I am told that "the best knowledge is through life experiences." These are the "Catch-22s" of our social makeup.

We are social creatures we survive, play and war in a social strata that bears witness to our individual talents (Gurian, 2003). I am reminded of the question I often ask when I speak at critical thinking seminars: Which came first: the teacher or the student? The dilemma which occurs from this simple question, this simple act of critical defiance, (Brookfield, 1987), is that in order to have a teacher a student needs to exist, and of course the inverse is just as true in order to have a student a teacher must exist. Can these be one and the same? Yes, obviously, which is the fun in the irony: both must exist at a singular moment in time: a quantum equation of existence (Gross, 1999). It is our propensity to learn, our appetite for knowledge that provides us with the motivation to pursue other outlets (Wadsworth, 1995). This same propensity however stimulates us to share this knowledge. Socialization, (Dickmann & Stanford-Blair, 2002). Anton Chekhov once wrote an interesting story investigating this premise. In The Bet two would-be entrepreneurs discuss the validity and necessity of social environments. One of them claims that there is no need for social enterprise while the other wages that an individual would wither away without the social accruements. Hence a "bet" is made where one of them goes into seclusion. The outcome is that we do need to share out talents, we do feel the desire to measure our worth against others. This is the friendly and healthy concepts of competition (Lencioni, 2002). The unhealthy measure of competitiveness is of course aggression and war against those social beings we need to measure ourselves against (Gurian, 2003).

What are the attributes of a learning organization?

Learning organizations exist on a common trust, an agreed upon code of ethics. Lencioni states that there exists five dysfunctions of a team (2002):
  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to Results

These concepts propel the need for a proclamation of ethical civility: respect, understanding/agreement of differences, voicing opinions, teammanship, desire, engagement, and a shared vision is needed to be established and agreed upon in order to provide an environment of safety (Bolman, & Deal, 1997), (Gonthier, 2002), (Huffman & Hipp, 2003), (IMHOTEP, 2004), (Lencioni, 2002), (Zmuda, Kuklis & Kline, 2004). For, without safety learning cannot take place within an organization. That is not to say that there will not be those outriders who learn and challenge in unhealthy environments, rather for an organization to develop as a whole; there needs to be a measure of understanding that all participants will help or assure each other in their development. Assurances in differing opinions, in giving all a voice (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002), in making sure that there exists a learning environment as opposed to the dictatorship of a few loud individuals.

There needs to exist a bond of trust and respect. These are not mere platitudes – as we have often discovered, professionalism is an overused and undervalued term (Bolman, & Deal, 1997). The relationship needs to be professional but based on a personal understanding and acceptance of others’ identities. In order to create these bonds it is necessary to be personal (Lencioni, 2002) – in a sense; we can utilize a nautical analogy for this: the captain of a ship cannot effectively sail his ship without a capable crew; but it is possible for a capable crew to sail without a captain. The learning organization needs to be invested or engaged in the processes of the organization and the developments of the learning system (Huffman & Hipp, 2003). There exists a need for communication, effective communication (Gonthier, 2002), which bolsters the individual’s needs as well as the social atmosphere. The members of a learning organization need to feel safe in the challenges that will be pressured against them. I find it remarkable that in our school systems, both in the K-12 system as well as the post-secondary educational environments, we do not foster this propensity for safety (Cottam, 2003), (Sperling, 2000). This concept that it is safe to make mistakes while learning: we learn from our mistakes! Instead we propose unachievable perfection which leaves us floundering.

Again I return to the critical thinking seminars I facilitate for clarification. Mahatma Gandhi is known for saying: "you must become the change you seek in others." What is implied here is an emotional wage guaranteed against (Kirby & Goodpaster, 2002). I remind people that while we need to "think" by removing emotion from the equation – emotion cannot be removed. It is a permanent baggage that influences our vision, our morality and our values. But understanding that this emotional tie exists allows us to further this phenomenon by understanding that within our learning organization emotion-ality exists and will influence our decisions.

As a Principal of Exemplary Systems, Inc. School

There is an old stratagem used to help students remember the different spellings of "principle" and "principal." It states that your school principal is both a "Prince" and your "pal." What is meant by the term "Prince" are the qualities that we perceive a "Prince" to have: truth, integrity, dignity, justice, and accountability. By "Pal" we suggest someone who is approachable, someone you can count on, someone who is friendly and safe. Above all a principal needs to be a good communicator – not just in expressing ideas but being someone who listens. A principal is the cornerstone of the school. They need to be someone that all members of the educational community; teachers, students, and families believe they can trust. The principal needs to establish credibility in their knowledge, integrity in their leadership and overall professionalism in their daily routines inside and outside of school. The principal represents the entire education community.

The principal needs to be multi-modal in the delivery and expression of ideas, they need to communicate effectively and often. And not always in formal discourse. The principal is the negotiator, the authority – the captain of the educational community. Therefore the principal needs to be accountable for their actions – but in order to be able to be so they need to demonstrate respect and civility towards their crew. A principal is only as good as the crew working with them. This symbiotic relationship then needs to be developed, nursed and encouraged.

… it is easy to say that the Principal represents the organization – but that is exactly what the Principal is. A representation of the values, truth, justice, dignity, integrity and accountability of the organization they lead. The Principal needs to be someone that others can rely upon, count on hence the term accountability. The Principal needs to be a great communicator – not just in expressing ideas but by being someone that all members of the learning organization believe they can trust. The Principal needs to establish credibility in their knowledge, integrity, in their leadership and overall professionalism in their daily routines inside and outside of the office. The Principal is the representation of the school. They presents an image of what the organization stands for. While we can argue the fundamental constructs of just exactly what this is – we are an institution of social mores, not one that merely proclaims to be so.

Leadership strategies and practices for achieving meaningful purpose.

What is the role of the moral and mindful leader? Dickmann & Stanford-Blair in their Connecting Leadership to the Brain (2002) suggest that shifting through the existing paradigms: through our perceptions, performances and desire for persistence will lead us into a context of mindful leadership. Leaders must find the balance between nature (how the physical brain functions) and nurture (how the mind has developed) (Dickman & Stanford-Blair, 2004), (Gurian, 2003), (Wadsworth, 1995). According to Bolman and Deal in their Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership (1997): those stories and relationships that are felt or understood without clarification within the organization suggest the ensuing culture. It is the unwritten or unspoken rules, the “culture” within the organization, that governs the every day. In the change process, it is assigning meaning that is the most difficult and the most significant concept. Too often vision becomes unfocused or blurry because the "true" existing culture is not understood. Perceptions were not given thought during the visionary implementation. Each symbol within the organization means something different depending upon the perspective of someone. The core assumptions (the defining meaning) then of the culture are often overlooked.

Nurture/Nature Stratagems

To be a moral and mindful leader we need to understand the culture that we will be leading. To understand is not enough, however, there needs to be a connection between the leader and the team members. This is a connection not only of leadership and "authority" but one of nurturing, and of growth. Dickmann, Stanford-Blair and Rosati-Bojar (2004) suggest these concepts when aligning leadership with the team:

Knowing what matters
Consciously being connected to that which matters to all involved (Dickmann & Stanford-Blair, 2002).

Lencioni furthers this ideal by stating that this is a function of two things: "clarity and buy-in." Lively meaningful debate will lead to an ultimate decision that has the input and buy-in of the entire team. There is danger in seeking consensus because it is too challenging to find a solution that everyone agrees with. Great teams understand that people do not need to get their way. The key is making sure that everyone feels that their input was heard and considered. Even without consensus on the solution every team member should back the final decision. "Get every team member to have ownership into the decisions that are made and then review these expectations often and make adjustments where necessary" (Lencioni, 2002).
Knowing what it takes

Leaders need to understand their purpose and the purpose at hand (Dickmann & Stanford-Blair, 2002), and they need to be able to compile the necessary means to accomplish these purposes.

Participation is a spectrum. On one end the leader makes all the decisions without any consultation – on the other end the leader delegates all decision making to the team participants (Thompson, Aranda, & Robbins, 2000). Few leaders utilize a singular approach – most leaders will fall somewhere in between this continuum. And this then is the understanding that a Principal needs to understand. The strengths in the individuals of the team participants. There are times when it would be necessary to make a "command decision" and other times when the role of Principal is mainly the person who sets up the meeting room. (Refreshments and materials should not be optional.)

Doing something about it

Leaders need to take action realizing the need for a connection which encourages or nurtures the team (Dickmann & Stanford-Blair, 2002); Parker Palmer (1999) suggests that words are many but it is through modeling our actions, by letting our lives speak demonstrating through our daily actions as opposed to our clever rhetoric.

We as people, as humans, as learners need to nurture our capacity for meaningful exchange. Parker Palmer (1999) states, "the great failure is not that of leading full and vital active life, with all the mistakes and suffering such a life will bring… Instead, the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the … experience of aliveness itself." As Principals we need to be that active leader, to move forward in the development of the organization, we need to be the commander and the nurturer (Gurian, 2003): the king and the goddess (Brown, 1999) – without delving into a narcissistic semblance of self.

With these concepts in mind we must realize that the organization's culture is itself a child of its universe. It exists as an entity all of its own. Within this child is a complex system of understanding, meaning, recognization and deliverance. The culture will need to grow – sometimes this growth is a transformation from what was to something that was hereforeto unexpected or unplanned. The child culture with all of its physical endearments then translates or synthesizes these experiences with the nurturing aspect of the organization.

The Mother & Child Reunion And the course of a lifetime runs Over and over again
Paul Simon (Mother and Child Reunion)

Between a Principal (leader) and school staff (organization) there needs to exist a bond of trust and respect (Lencioni, 2002). These are not mere platitudes – as we have often discovered, professionalism is an overused and undervalued term. The relationship needs to be professional but based on a personal understanding and acceptance of others’ identities. In order to create these bonds it is necessary to be personal – still personal ideas need to be eliminated in the decision making processes. This is a delicate balance for the principal, and again the utilization of a nautical analogy benefits my discussion: for it is possible for a capable crew to sail without a captain.

This again demonstrates how powerful the need for effective communication is (Patterson, et al, 2002). Teachers need to acquiesce to the methodology of their principal and the principal needs to encompass the combined intellectual professionalism of the teachers (Zmuda, et al, 2004). The teachers need to be incorporated into the decision making processes as well as the curriculum development. Everyone within the educational community needs to be invested in the vision (Huffman & Hipp, 2003). The essence then is to create a leadership bond that is a servant in nature but retains the authority to maintain vision.

Sharing Visions

Change is not always for the better however it is always inevitable. I like the statement from Star Trek’s the Borg: “resistance is futile.” What we need to do is realize that “plans” are not “dones” but rather guides to where we would like to get to. Many times we do not reach our proposed destinations and this is not necessarily a bad thing. (Think of the innovators of history who had gotten “off track” of their intended goals; and where would we be today without them?) I understand all too well that change is a difficult thing, there are those who negate any type of change and then there exists those who embrace change without thinking through the resultant possibilities.

The main difficulty with change is fear. People are fearful of those things new and of which they are not comfortable with. There is an adage which speaks to this: if you name your fear – give it an impressionable identity – you no longer will be afraid of that particular concept – because now it is known to you by you. We need to give name to our changes, explain the process and the desired results we hope to attain through the change. That we are not changing merely because we can or even should. We need to explain the processes, the rationale, we need to define the change so that it becomes something familiar as opposed to something that was uncomfortably different or new.

The existing culture of the school will measure me by my few and immediate actions – not necessarily my words or ideas – therefore, I want to be visible, engaged and demonstrative. To walk into a culture and exclaim that “there’s a new sheriff in town” usually is met with negativity and resistance (Gonthier, 2002). I would speak with people, informally – I like to walk through the school and have these interviews this allows a neutral atmosphere while emphasizing the reason we are all here: the school. I need to find out who those unspoken leaders are (Bolman & Deal, 1997), those individuals that others look to for guidance. We need to discuss what works, what does not, what are the interests of the teachers, the students, the other staff members. What does the community desire for the school? Are there things that work well? Things that do not? What changes would they like to incorporate? What are their visions for our school? (Zmuda, et al, 2004)

With this in mind, the first “change” I would make would be to revise the mission of the school (Covey, 1991). This is not to say that the current mission is bad or wrong. Not at all, but this change allows for all involved to redefine the mission of the school. It also incorporates the principal as an integral part of the vision while maintaining the vision and integrity of all those involved in the educational community (Huffman & Hipp, 2003). I would also like to implement a universal school-wide educational philosophy to help reestablish our learning and working community. My desire is to make learning fun, the students are already in a “war zone” (Freire, 1994) a place they do not want to be for reasons of discipline or otherwise. We are in a business where our clients are children – we need to share and exult their presence, their work and their ideals: without the students we would not exist as teachers!

There does exist moments when “command” decisions need to be made. Perhaps, because the recurring indecision or argumentative discussion is going nowhere. These times exist. This is when the principal needs to be that authoritative-negotiator. (Thompson, et al, 2000). But, these are moments, not every decision. If we do noteengage others into the decision-making process then those affected by the decisions will not necessarily find grounding, or meaning inside the process. We learn by constructing meaning out of our experiences (Papert, 1996), (Wadsworth, 1995). To incorporate the decision prowess of others in significant decision-making processes is to bolster the communal enterprise of an educational community.
Everyone who will be affected by the decision needs to have a say or a representative say in the final outcome. But there needs to be guidelines or norms (Thompson, et al, 2000) present that state whether a majority vote, or a veto or an authoritarian decision will be followed. If we do not include the voices of our teachers, our students, our families and other staff members who will be affected by the process we are eliminating intelligent or insightful resources that we could all learn from (Huffman & Hipp, 2003). We tend to forget this, that we are the experts. In many ways we are but often we do not need expert executive decisions but rather communal acceptance of ideas.

So We Can Sing

I became a teacher after many years of conflict because I hated school. I did not believe that the teachers (not all) wanted to teach me. Rather they seemingly just wanted a paycheck. Whether this was true or not; their fault or the fault of a system that is more interested in numbers than people is up for argument (Cottam, 2003). I believe the only way you can effectively change something is by working within it. I therefore, became a teacher to change the pedagogy into one that resembled a more accessible and meaningful experience for students (Papert, 1996). My beliefs are less radical than they were when I began, but nonetheless, I want to make a difference in the lives I touch. I believe I do this, I believe that I am a good leader, ethically bound to an ideal of learning, fueled by an integrity that was and still can be representative by educational professionalism. I enjoy working with staff who, regardless of intent, have flocked towards this type of vocation. It is said it takes a special kind of person to teach (Palmer, 1999). I agree. Not that all vocations are not special in their own way, but those of us who do teach do this by choice, we want to be here – for whatever reasons, or demons that propel us, we choose these kids, we choose these schools. In this sense we are all “like minded,” we all share a vision. We bring our special talents, our desire to make a difference in our children’s lives, we bring our accomplishments and our failures and we demonstrate that we, too, learn from mistakes and otherwise.

I would like the honor of being a leader of such teachers who regard their mission of educating children as one of the most important aspects of their lives.


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