Creating Cultures of Empathy

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

Oprah Winfrey

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is almost here and I am already beginning to worry whether my beloved Cubbies will win this year’s World Series in 4, 5, 6, or 7 games. I suppose as long as they win it all, it matters not whether they pull off a sweep or need the entire seven games. One reason the Cubs will win the World Series again this year (after magnanimously allowing the Astros and Red Sox to enjoy a brief moment in the sun the past two seasons) is the talent they will have on the field during the games. Another reason, however, is the clubhouse culture they have established. In my 2015 post suggesting Joe Maddon could be an awesome school principal, I wrote that a team’s culture is nearly as important a variable to their winning as is their talent. 
And the Chicago Cubs have clearly established a strong clubhouse culture.

One reason the Cubs’ clubhouse culture is so strong is due to the organization’s strong leadership, specifically manager Joe Maddon and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. Their leadership sets the culture tone for the rest of the team. Serving together in Chicago since 2015, these two leaders have continuously worked to improve the talent on their roster as well as the atmosphere in the clubhouse. In reflecting on what it is that sets the Cubbies culture above most other teams, a few words come to mind, including:
  • Empathy
  • Work Ethic
  • Joy
  • Caring
  • Results
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Priorities
These are all important attributes of any organizational culture, but I was reminded specifically of the impact empathy has upon Cubs' culture when reading a recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlighting how Epstein and Maddon endeavor to see the world through the lens of those whom they are leading.

According to Epstein:

“It’s incumbent on us not to just sit there and say, ‘Players have changed; they don’t get it, they don’t listen, they don’t care.’ or ‘We don’t understand them.’ We have to learn the lens from which they view the world and learn the best way of communicating with them because they’ve grown up with a totally different upbringing than we did and with devices that are omnipresent.”

All the above components of a strong baseball clubhouse culture are also foundational pillars of a strong school culture. In schools with positive cultures, all staff members are focused on results and continuous improvement. All staff members take their professional responsibilities seriously and work hard each day, yet they intentionally find the joy in the day-to-day routines of the school. All staff members sincerely care--about the students they serve, of course, but also about each other. All staff members recognize that everyone in the school is important and everything each person does at the school is important and they are masters at scheduling their priorities rather than prioritizing their schedules. As important as each of these culture builders is, however, the ability of all staff members to empathize with others in the school with whom they interact cannot be underestimated. Let’s revisit Epstein’s quote, making two small changes: replacing “players” with “students” and substituting “teaching” for “communicating with”:

“It’s incumbent on us not to just sit there and say, ‘Students have changed; they don’t get it, they don’t listen, they don’t care.’ or ‘We don’t understand them.’ We have to learn the lens from which they view the world and learn the best way of teaching them because they’ve grown up with a totally different upbringing than we did and with devices that are omnipresent.”

In some ways, students (and baseball players) today are not unlike
students (and baseball players) 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. In other ways, they are altogether different. It is incumbent upon us to not only embrace what remains the same about our learners, but also embrace how they have changed over time. Each of us will always have our own lens through which we view the world, but we must also stand in the shoes of our students and picture the classroom, school, community, and world from their lens. Devices
are omnipresent not only for baseball players but for students--including those as young as preschool. We can pine for “the good ol' days” from now until the cows come home--or until the White Sox win another World Series, perhaps--but those days: 
1) Were not always so good and 2) Are gone forever.

Many things have stayed the same in baseball and in schools over the years. In the upcoming baseball season, players will hit home runs, pitchers will strike batters out, and runners will steal bases--much like they did when the National League was formed in 1876. In our schools this year, students have been reading, writing, and studying history--much like they have done in our country's schools since the colonial era. At the same time, both baseball and schools are dramatically different than they were at their inception, with many of these changes due to advances in technology. As the Cubs embark upon another World Series season, I am reminded how much their success is based on their culture, including embracing change and practicing empathy. These are pillars of school success as well. How we approach change can significantly impact how successful we will be as educators. Creating cultures in which such changes are embraced as opportunities and in which staff members learn the lens through which their students see the world while learning the best approaches for teaching them are more ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Leadership Priorities

“The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” 
Stephen Covey

Since “retiring” from full time public education service in 2017, I have had the privilege to co-author several books, speak to thousands of educators around the country, and work in several schools as a coach. In addition, I have served as a short-term interim administrator. These experiences as an interim principal have been richly rewarding; being back in a school every day--albeit on a temporary basis--rejuvenated me and reminded me just how challenging (and rewarding) it is to serve as an educator in any role. My last full time principal assignment was a decade ago; taking on this leadership role again, I found myself doing many of the same things I did years ago. On the other hand, I found myself doing some of these things quite differently. How I behaved was directly related to my priorities in this new role. I was determined to be intentional about scheduling my priorities as opposed to prioritizing what was on my schedule.

On my first day as an interim principal, I decided to do what I had always done as a full time principal: I went outside to the car rider line and shook the hand of every student arriving to the school between 7:45 - 8:15. As a principal, I always prioritized this on my schedule for several reasons, including:
  • Students and parents seem to appreciate it;

  • It helped me get to know students and their families better;

  • I believed that students were more likely to behave better when I looked them in the eye each morning, shook their hand, and told them to have an awesome day;

  • I believe it is a way to model for other adults in the building what I expect in terms of presence and visibility in the common areas of the school;

  • Somewhat selfishly, I found it to be a fun, positive, and energizing way to start my day.

I am well aware of the many reasons why it is difficult to do this every single day as a school administrator, but I encourage all principals to simply prioritize greeting students each morning into their daily routine in spite of the many competing demands on their time. When I started doing this as an interim principal, several parents actually took the time to get out of their car to thank me for doing this. I had others take photos of me shaking their child’s hand in the morning. One morning, a parent walking into the school told me, “What you do out here every morning is the talk on the streets of our town.” I am convinced that this simple daily routine is a difference maker for school leaders and we must schedule it as a daily priority.

When I was a full time principal, I also met with students who misbehaved, were chronically tardy/absent, or were underperforming academically. On my first day as an interim principal, several teachers immediately asked me to do this, too, indicating a particular student about whom they were concerned. I decided to approach the situation much differently than I had when I was a full-time principal. When I was a principal, I was often so “busy,” that I failed to prioritize an adequate amount of time to these situations, instead merely checking them off my to-do list. Upon reflection, I am not proud of this, but often I would simply call the student in, quickly “address” the issue, and send the student on his/her way. As an interim principal, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of merely checking the task off my list, I decided to make it a priority to actually work with the child to resolve the problem. I spoke with the student for almost fifteen minutes, mostly serving as an active listener. I then called the student's mother and spoke with her for another fifteen minutes, again listening very carefully. Then, I turned back to the student and spoke with him for another ten minutes. Together, we came up with a goal, a plan, and a mutual commitment to follow through. I checked in with this student almost daily to reinforce expectations, see how he was doing, and celebrate success when appropriate. Although meeting with students who were struggling in different areas was something I did as a full-time principal as well as an interim principal, the way in which I did this changed dramatically--and for the better. The difference? As an interim principal, I prioritized doing whatever I could to actually solve the problem, instead of approaching it as a task to be completed.

Many of the things we must do as school leaders should change over time; we must constantly be on the lookout to innovate as leaders not by merely doing things better, but by doing better things. At the same time, there are certain things we must do as school leaders that we will likely be doing as long as we have schools. For these things, we should continue to strive for improvement, doing what we do tomorrow better than we do it today. Being visible during school arrival time is an example of doing a better thing (if, instead, we currently devote that time to attending meetings or catching up on work in our office). Meeting with students to actively listen and then design a plan for success when they are struggling (rather than simply meeting with them to assign a consequence) is an example of doing things better. In each instance, the key--as Covey reminds us--is not to prioritize our schedules, but to schedule our priorities. In our book, The Principled Principal, Anthony McConnell and I make the case that how we manage many competing responsibilities is not only a challenge, but an opportunity. How we approach this challenge can significantly impact how successful we will be as school leaders. Scheduling our priorities is a key to success and another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Gratitude for Expectations

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." 

Ever since I first became an educator many years ago, one of my
core principles has been related to expectations, specifically establishing high expectations first and foremost for myself and then for every student and staff member I served as a classroom teacher and administrator. Having high expectations for myself and others with whom I interact remains a core value. Having said that, it is inevitable that, at times, we (or others with whom we have a relationship) do not meet our expectations. What happens when we fail to realize such dreams? 

Recently, I attended a concert at City Winery in Chicago featuring someone I consider among the greatest living songwriters in the world, Michael McDermottIn addition to being an outstanding singer, guitarist, pianist, and songwriter, McDermott is also a gifted storyteller. Halfway through the concert, he began telling a story about his initial meteoric rise in the music industry. He was a very young man represented at the time by the top agent and top manager in the entire industry. His first album was a huge success and his manager told him he would be playing the United Center (where the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks play) within five years. Well, things did not exactly turn out as planned for Michael and these lofty career expectations were never met. But McDermott spoke that night about how grateful he was for the way things did turn out for him. He self deprecatingly said he did indeed make it to the United Center periodically--to catch big name music acts. As for himself, looking around the 300-seat venue we were in, he laughed and said, “This is my F***ing United Center!” We cheered him on and then he said something along the lines of, “You know, if we would only trade gratitude for expectations, we would all be better off” before launching into his next song. 

I will never stop having high expectations for myself, for my family and friends, and for any students or educators with whom I work. I will continue to set lofty goals and encourage others to do the same. In fact, I hope we all dream such big dreams that not realizing all our dreams becomes not only possible, but inevitable, at some point along our respective journeys. And when that happens, I hope we will reflect on the dreams we have realized and all the good in our current situations, choosing to be sincerely grateful for all that we do have without bemoaning that which we do not. If we focus on what we do not have, we will never have enough; on the other hand, gratitude turns what we do have into enough.

I respect McDermott and so many others for making the conscious decision to choose gratitude for what one has, as opposed to focusing on expectations not met. In the end, things most always turn out for the better in any case. I recently had a friend interview for an administrative position she desperately was hoping to get only to be told the job went to someone else. It reminded me of how disappointed I have been each time I failed to land a position I, too, desperately wanted--at least at the time. Upon reflection, in each such instance, I now look back with gratitude that I was not offered those jobs; for me, life has had a way of working out perhaps not exactly as planned, but precisely the way it should have for my ultimate happiness. Although it is painful right now and of little comfort, I suspect that my friend, too, will look back five years hence with gratitude that she did not get this position and thankful for the position she does have at that time.

Expectations can be tricky things. Of course we should have high expectations, yet we must realize that unmet expectations can cause conflict, if we allow them to gnaw at us. In fact, Blaine Lee suggested that almost all conflict is the result of violated expectations. But we can also make the choice to not allow unrealized dreams to get us down and, in fact, to express gratitude for what we do have, rejoicing in future possibilities whenever one door closes.

I will likely never see Michael McDermott performing at the United Center, but I am grateful to have seen him play at dozens of small venues in several states the past few years. Although most folks reading this blog post have likely never heard of him, I am not alone in my opinion that McDermott is one of our greatest living musicians. Bestselling author Stephen King has said of him: "Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock n roll talent of the last 20 years.” (Speaking of Stephen King and unmet expectations, when I published my first book, one of my colleagues said, “Jeff, you are going to be on Oprah with this book!” Needless to say, I never did make a guest appearance on Oprah. However, I am extremely grateful that, together, books written by Stephen King and me have sold over 350 million copies!). Despite King’s (and mine, for what it is worth) high praise of Michael’s songwriting skills, he appears destined to continue playing small venues in his career, rather than large stadiums. Although some might resent this, I am glad that McDermott chooses gratitude, not bitterness. And I can guarantee him that the 300 people who heard him at City Winery in December appreciate him as much as--if not more than--the 20,000 people who heard Josh Groban recently at the United Center.

As we begin another new year, I hope everyone continues to dream big dreams and insist on high expectations for themselves as well as others with whom they serve. As important as this is, however, I hope even more that 2019 finds you choosing gratitude throughout the year for everything you have, everything you accomplish, everything that comes your way, and, even, for the inevitable disappointments you are sure to face while pursuing your dreams. Having high expectations--yet trading gratitude for disappointment when such expectations are violated--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Creating Cultures of Empathy

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empoweri...