Leadership Contradictions

“Doing things better is good. 
Doing better things is even better.”

The more I serve as a leader and study the world of leadership, the more I believe that leadership is a venture filled with contradictions. At times, I find myself believing in what can seem like completely opposing ideas. Even the quote above is an example. Although I believe we should be doing the things we currently do in schools better tomorrow than we are today, I also believe this is no longer enough and that we should, in fact, be doing better things tomorrow than we are doing today. Here are four other contradictions I wrestle with when it comes to school leadership:

Contradiction #1:

  • Test scores matter.
  • We should not focus on test scores.

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Although not everyone reading this will agree, I actually believe that test scores do matter. We are public servants paid by taxpayers and we should be accountable to these taxpayers in many ways, including student achievement on accountability tests. Whether it is fair and whether we like it, many parents use test scores as a primary reason for moving (or not) into a certain school district. Test scores matter. They may not matter to every educator, but they should, if only because they matter to many of our students and parents. At the same time, I believe we should not focus on test scores on a daily basis. Instead, we should focus on providing meaningful and engaging learning experiences throughout each school day that are aligned to specific learning standards and targets. If we do this intentionally and consistently, our students will learn and grow and show evidence of this on any test they must take. As a leader, I believe: Test scores do matter and we should not focus on test scores.

Contradiction #2:
  • If everything is important, then nothing is important. (Patrick Lencioni)
  • It’s all important. (Steve Jobs)

For many years as a school leader at the school and district level, I invoked Lencioni’s well-known adage often, suggesting we should not try to do it all and that less is more and that we must focus on what is most important. Over time, my thinking has evolved on this. I now believe that everything we do in a school is important and we must give it 100%. If it is not important, of course, we should stop doing it. But if we are doing it, we must give it our all. Here is the thing, though: Although we must consider every single thing we do in a school equally important in terms of our commitment to it, not everything we do in school is equally important in terms of how much time we should devote to it. As an example, I happen to believe that advisory programs are important components of any school. As leaders, we must ensure that every staff member in place implement any advisory plans with 100% commitment and fidelity. However, reading is even more important than advisory programs, in my opinion--not in terms of our commitment to it (in both cases, the commitment must be 100%), but in terms of time. We should dedicate significantly more time to reading each day than we do to advisory programs. As a leader, I believe: If everything is important, then nothing is important and everything is actually important. 

Contradiction #3:

  • Trust in the process.
  • Trust your instincts.

This leadership contradiction rears its head in a number of school areas, in particular when it comes to the hiring process. It is important to have a process in place when selecting talent for any school staffing position. There must be procedures in place for recruiting candidates, screening candidates, interviewing candidates, and contacting references. Having said that, we cannot rely solely on the process or any associated quantitative measures about each candidate’s qualifications and probability for success. As leaders, we are not houseplants; we were hired because we are smart, qualified, insightful, experienced, and we exhibit sound judgment. Although a clear process for recruiting and selecting new employees can help guide us in making the best possible hiring decisions, we cannot be afraid to trust our instincts. We know our school community, we know what we need in every hiring decision we make, and we can typically discern which candidate among several seemingly similar candidates is the best fit for the school or district at any given time. As a leader, I believe: We must trust the process and we must trust our instincts.

Contradiction #4:
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  • Education is constantly changing.
  • Schools today are largely the same as they were decades ago.

This fourth contradiction is interesting. So many things have, indeed, changed over the years in our schools. Yet, so much remains the same. I could list hundreds of things that were different about my daughter’s high school experience from 2008 - 2012 compared to mine. However, I could list just as many things about her experience that were not at all unlike my own some thirty years earlier. We have made significant improvements to our schools, yet we have miles to go before we sleep. After all, here we sit in 2018 and we still have a 180-day student school year with an extended summer vacation in virtually every school in the land. Doing things because we have always done them can be a stubborn thing to overcome. As a leader, I believe: Education is constantly changing and schools are largely the same as they were decades ago.

Here is a final contradiction for now: Education and leadership are challenging undertakings in part because there is so little that is black and white and so much that is gray. At the same time, this very fact that makes these endeavors so challenging is precisely the reason they are also so rewarding. What we do is more art than science. At times, that can be discomfiting. Yet, it is a productive struggle and one we must recognize, embrace, and learn from. How can we thrive in an atmosphere where there are so many contradictions and so few obvious answers? Recognizing these contradictions and understanding that there is seldom one right way to act is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Being Great: Choosing the Down Escalator

“If you are not successful, then I fail.” 
Johnetta Wiley

Last Sunday during our church service, the pastor began her sermon with the following question: “Why do you work so hard?” What an apt question to ask of so many educators I know around the world, who are among the hardest working people on the planet. She went on to spend much of her remaining time exploring the question, suggesting that the answer for many is that they wish to become great. She then devoted the bulk of her remaining time exploring what greatness really looks like. Frankly, much of what follows is taken from her sermon along with my own thoughts on how this applies to educators and leaders.

So what is greatness, or success? Too often we hear the term, “Climbing the ladder of success.” Rather than think of greatness as ascending the ladder of success, we should, in fact, think of it as

descending the ladder of service. The truly great and successful people I have encountered across the nation in hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms epitomize this concept, consistently focusing on the latter and not worrying much about the former. Somewhat ironically, but not surprisingly, these same great people who are keenly focused on others, rather than their own success, are the ones we most often look up to as truly great. They embody the spirit suggested in Wiley’s quote above, worrying less about their own success and more about the success of those they teach and lead. Moreover, they understand that no matter how “successful” they become, they ultimately fail if they have not helped others to become great.

An overriding trait of truly great and successful people is a focus on service and serving others, not themselves. Such service is displayed through many actions and by many character traits. Servant educators share with others, they care about others, and they love what they do and with whom they serve. They create environments marked by joy and belonging and they model vulnerability. They treat others with dignity and respect and practice authentic empathy. They are present in the moment and assume the best of others. They give--without expecting anything in return. By serving in these and other ways, they often, in time, become recognized by those who know them as truly great educators yet that is never their “why” behind what they do. Their “why” is to ensure that those they are serving become great. They ascend by descending the ladder of servanthood.

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“Great” is a word employed so frequently in our society that we risk rendering it meaningless. But my friend Dwight Carter--an educator I consider not only a “great” educator but a “great” person--took the time to define it, partly, in fact, because he, too, feared that telling others to “Be Great” held no real meaning over time. Dwight has written and spoken extensively about his model for greatness, using the following acronym to describe what it means to “Be Great”:

Be Grateful

Be Relational

Be Enthusiastic

Be Authentic

Be Teachable

Obviously, Dwight expands on each of these at some length when discussing the topic, but simply put, being grateful, relational, enthusiastic, authentic, and teachable are indeed characteristics of great educators. They are also characteristics of servant educators. Great teachers and great school leaders know that it is not about them. Instead, great teachers know it is about helping their students become great and great school administrators know it is about doing everything in their power to help their teachers become great. Rather than focus on themselves and climbing up, their laser focus is always on how they can best serve others, right here, down on the ground all around them.

So why do you work so hard? I suspect that for many of you reading this, the answer is you want to be great and you want to achieve such greatness through service to others. It seems that we throw the terms “great” and “successful” around pretty loosely in all areas of society, including in our schools. The truth is, in all likelihood, that Jim Collins is correct in suggesting we have a whole lot of really “good,” but not that many truly “great,” organizations. Those that are truly great achieve their success because they are staffed by individuals who choose the down escalator of service rather than always looking up to the next rung on the “ladder of success.” These people know--as the Ditka quote above suggests--that success is not about having, but about being, including being a servant educator, eschewing the climb up the ladder in favor of the journey down to servanthood. Choosing the down escalator to serve our students and each other in our schools is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture

“To inspire meaningful change, you must make a connection to the heart before you can make a connection to the mind.” 
via George Couros

#EdWriteNow 2018
This July, I took part in what has become an annual educational event and a highlight of my year. Along with nine respected friends and colleagues, I gathered in Chicago prior to the National Principals’ Conference and wrote a collaborative book in just over 48 hours. This is the second year we have undertaken this project called #EdWriteNow (Officially, Education Write Now). This year, we wrote about connections, relationships, and school culture, resulting in the upcoming book: Education Write Now: Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture.

As I approached Year 2 of #EdWriteNow, I assumed there was little chance of matching the work (Here is a link to that book) of the inaugural team, which included Tony Sinanis, Thomas C. Murray, Sanee Bell, Kayla Delzer, Joe Sanfelippo, Bob Dillon, Amber Teamann, Starr Sackstein, and Joe Mazza as contributing authors. I was wrong. This year’s crew was just as awesome and I believe our final product
#EdWriteNow 2017
will be a book that stands as a positive contribution to the education community.

Once everyone arrived at the hotel, we met as a writing team. First on the agenda was sharing information about the Will to Live Foundation, a non-profit foundation to which we donate all proceeds from book sales of each #EdWriteNow edition. Will to Live is an organization dedicated to preventing teen suicide by improving the lives and the “Will To Live” of teenagers everywhere through education about mental health and encouraging them to recognize the love and hope that exists in each other. You can learn more about their work by watching this compelling video that our team watched to kick off our own work.

Our next task was to decide what to write about and how to turn ten individual 5,000 word essays on education into a single cohesive book. We quickly decided on an overarching theme of “Relationships.” As we began writing, we realized we were focusing on the connections we make within the schoolhouse as well as overall school culture and how relationships and connections impact the culture. Each author wrote about a specific topic related to these broad themes. My own contribution was to write the opening chapter, a piece focusing on how we can create “cultures of connectedness” in our schools that I titled, “Connecting the Dots,” a nod to something Seth Godin mentioned several years ago that has always stuck with me. Each subsequent chapter focuses on a specific aspect of education and how we can impact it in a positive way through relationship building. For example, Dr. Randy Ziegenfuss authored the second chapter titled, “Relationships: The Foundation of Learner-Centered Environments.” Learn about Randy’s insights in his own blog post next week (access Randy’s blog, Working at the Edge, here).

Once we determined our writing topics, the rest of our time was spent writing alone, coming back together as a whole team to share our work, meeting with writing partners to provide critical feedback, and gathering "after hours" for great food, conversation, and much laughter. When we came together as a whole group, we actually read parts of our chapters aloud. It was a bit scary, reading our work aloud to nine friends we all respected not only as amazing educators, but also as excellent writers. However, when we did so, we were thrilled to learn that our individual efforts were coming together nicely as a unified book, with our voices sounding much more alike than different from chapter to chapter.

For my chapter on connections, I wrote that the more we can do to get our students to connect to school and investing in their own learning, the more likely it is that we will fulfill our purpose of creating schools that are for students. Here is a short excerpt from that part of the book:

“...Students, teachers, and administrators who not only have, but are on, a mission are invested, committed, and future focused. They are also connected: to the school, to each other, to networks of people on social media, and to the world around them. School connection increases when those in the school believe that others in the school care about about them as individuals. Students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected to school. As educators, perhaps our top priority today should be to ensure that our students feel connected to our schools. Our students follow the lead of their teachers in so many things, even when we suspect they have tuned us out. And, teachers often follow the lead of their administrators. If administrators feel they are truly connected to the school community and, especially, the teachers they lead, teachers, in turn, will feel more connected to the school. In schools where teachers feel authentically connected to the school, including their administrators and their students, students will also feel more connected to the school. 
        Schools in which students and staff feel connected are schools that succeed. They succeed by connecting what they are doing today to something they will do tomorrow. They aspire to something grand and connect with others who can help them achieve their goals and dreams. They connect what they are learning to what they are doing. They connect academic learning to a purpose. They connect attendance and behavior expectations to group norms and citizenship. They connect social emotional learning to lifelong learning. They connect students and staff members to other students and staff members, both within the school and schools around the world. They connect science, literature, fine arts, physical education, mathematics, and history to current world events. Educators connect with the parents whose children attend the schools--not because they see it as their duty, but because they know connecting with parents increases the likelihood that students will feel connected.”

Next week, please look for Randy Ziegenfuss’s thoughts on our writing process, as well as an excerpt from his chapter. I was honored beyond words to partner with Randy and eight other amazing writers and thinkers on the Education Write Now project. Of course, we could not have hosted this education writing retreat without the support of our sponsor, Routledge, who will publish this book, due out in December.

I am already looking forward to next year’s retreat, which will be Year 3; Sanee Bell and I will continue to lead the work as co-editors and we will invite eight different educational writers to join us next summer. Please let me know if you would like to be considered as a participant. 

As Onica Mayers often reminds us, "Relationships matter, People!" Writing about education issues that matter right now is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Final Note: Huge thanks to the second Education Write Now team for donating their time and energy to this project. They are all outstanding and passionate educators. More importantly, they are just about the nicest friends a person could ever hope to have and I am humbled to have had this opportunity to work with them:

Sanee Bell
Randy Ziegenfuss
Rosa Isiah
Elisabeth Bostwick
Laura Gilchrist
Onica Mayers
Winston Sakurai
Sean Gaillard
Danny Bauer

Learning By...Watching?

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, 
in order that I may learn how to do it.” 
Pablo Picasso

My father was an amazing man and taught me much about life. He was a successful businessman, working for forty-three years as an executive with a major corporation. Although he was quite successful in his career, his true passions were his family and working on all kinds of projects around our home. We had quite a large home with five acres of land and I do not recall a time when Dad was not taking on a new project, whether it was building a gazebo, new decks, and stone walls outside during the summer or adding a playroom, remodeling a bathroom, and finishing our basement inside during the winter months. I realize I am biased because I loved my dad so much, but, honestly, he could build anything and fix anything. He worked hard all week at his “real
Dad working on a marketing campaign
job” wearing a three-piece suit every day and driving many miles into the city, but he may have worked even harder every evening and every weekend around our house.

As I mentioned, my dad taught me a great deal about many aspects of life, lessons I will never forget and lessons which molded me into the person I am today. One might think that he would have also taught me a lot about flooring, wallpapering, installing drywall, building stone walls, woodworking, and automotive repair since he was a master at all these (and more) trades. Alas, I am not now, nor have I ever been, very handy at any type of manual labor endeavor. I actually learned very little about such skills from my father, but it was not because he did not try to teach me; in fact, he was a stern taskmaster who insisted I take part in his home improvement projects. Unfortunately, his teaching technique in this area was far less successful than the many lessons he taught me about life in general. As soon as we finished dinner in the evening or woke up on the weekends, my dad launched into project mode and summoned me to join the fun. However, my role was a passive one and consisted primarily of watching him do the real work. If I did anything at all, it was mainly to hand him a tool, clean up some mess, or run out to our barn to get him another tool or supply. I recall one time when he was laboring on a stone wall outside on a sweltering summer day with his shirt off that my sole job was to swat flies and mosquitoes off his back so he could focus on the wall he was building. In each of these projects, it was astounding to see what my dad could accomplish. It actually looked like fun, too. My role, however, was far from fun and I eventually began to resent these father-son projects. I left home after college, having acquired no significant home improvement skills from my father even though I most certainly spent more time watching such tasks being done than any other childhood friend I knew.

I fear that school lessons are oftentimes not unlike my childhood home improvement lessons in which my dad did all the real work while I sat by passively. Much like my experiences, too often students in classrooms (and teachers in professional learning settings) are expected to “learn by watching.” Sadly, no matter how attentive we are when watching others, there are definite limits to how much we can possibly learn while doing so. To truly learn, we must apply what we are learning. We must not only watch, but do.

Like so many educators around the world, my professional practice has been deeply influenced by Rick and Becky DuFour and I remain shocked and saddened that they are no longer with us. I devoured every book they worked on, but none more so than Learning By Doing. This handbook is a practical roadmap filled
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with action steps and resources for actually doing--not just learning about--Professional Learning Communities in our schools. At one PLC institute I attended, I even recall Rick gently chiding attendees, suggesting they stop attending the institutes and actually go back to their schools and just do PLCs. Learning By Doing is their handbook designed to help educators actually act upon what they learned.

As important as it is for educators to learn by doing in professional learning experiences, it is even more important for students to learn by doing in our classrooms. Although our profession gets better every year, I worry that students are still watching more than doing. Modeling can be an important teaching technique, but it only takes us so far. We need to release control of the learning to our students, ensuring they are doing the real heavy lifting involved in acquiring any new knowledge or skill in any grade level or subject area.

My dad was a brilliant man and an incredible father. But in his 

Saying a few words about Dad at his 80th.
He died a few weeks later.
quest to teach me all he knew about home improvement and auto mechanics, he took the wrong approach. Picasso, on the other hand, had it right. To truly learn how to do something we currently cannot do, we simply must start doing it. It goes without saying that we need to be taught some fundamental skills, whether those skills relate to installing drywall, writing a persuasive essay, shooting a basketball, or painting a portrait. But then we must pivot, moving from direct instruction to
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guided practice, providing targeted feedback, ongoing support, and consistent encouragement every step of the way. Moving from Learning By Watching activities to Learning By Doing activities in our schools is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Most Important Relationship Word

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational 
principle that holds all relationships.” 
Stephen Covey

Almost every time I speak to a group of educators, I ask the question, “What is the most important relationship word?” Although several viable answers are offered, almost immediately, someone will suggest the word, “Trust.” Like most things in our noble profession, I am not sure there is a right answer, but I am sure that “Trust” is my answer. Whether we are talking about superintendent-principal, principal-teacher, teacher-student, husband-wife, parent-child, or friend-friend, the “essential ingredient” in the relationship, as Covey suggests, is trust. The people I have most admired and respected in my personal and professional lives have been people in whom I have complete trust.

This trust comes in many forms, but at its core is a calm and confident response of, “Yes” to the question, “Can I trust you?” This broad question can be broken down further, of course, when deciding whether we trust our colleagues. Here are but a few examples:
  • Can I trust you to do what you say you will do?
  • Can I trust that the decision you are making is based on what is best for kids?
  • Can I trust you when you say something will or will not work?
  • Can I trust you when you recommend someone to me for a position in our school or district?
  • Can I trust the feedback you are providing me?
  • Can I trust that the answer you are giving me is the same answer you are giving someone else?
  • Can I trust that you have the knowledge, skills, and capabilities to do what is needed in your role?
  • Can I trust your work ethic?
As educators, we are in the trust business. Our parents send us their most precious gifts and trust us to do what is right by them. Our students, in turn, trust that we have their best interests at heart. Our school culture is strengthened or weakened by the level of trust each staff member has in each other. What are some things we can do to create and maintain a community of trust? Many years ago, in our book, The 4 CORE Factors for School Success, Todd Whitaker and I shared the “Top 10 Trust Traits.” When teachers and administrators engage in these behaviors, those with whom we interact will more likely place their trust in us:

1. Be There

2. Show You Care

3. Provide Resources

4. Communicate Regularly

5. Involve Others

6. Celebrate Success

7. Value Diversity and Dissent

8. Support Innovation

9. Address Underperformance

10. Demonstrate Personal Integrity

I believe these traits hold true whether you are a classroom teacher or a school or district administrator. Which of the ten resonate most with you? Obviously, I consider each of these to be critically, and perhaps equally, important, but one of the ten seems a just a bit different than the other nine. Many of these seem like positive and even “fun” things to do. Number 9, however, is not so fun, yet if we fail to do it, the students and staff we lead will no longer trust that what we said was important was really all that important. We must hold everyone--starting with ourselves--accountable for doing what we said we would do.

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Many years ago at a small church I attended, I was charged with leading the children’s message each Sunday morning during the early service. There were typically only a few children at this service, one of whom was always my daughter, who was 3 or 4 years old at the time. One Sunday, in trying to drive home the point that we should trust in God, I told my daughter we would start the message with me throwing her through the air about 6 or 7 feet to Danny, a high school student I had taught and coached for several years, who would then catch her. Then and now, there is no one I love as dearly as I love my daughter, and I would never do anything to place her in harm’s way. Although this feat was not exactly a dangerous act, Danny was probably the only student I knew who I would have trusted to catch her. Everything I knew about him from years of working with him told me I could trust him to do the right thing in any instance--including catching my daughter when I tossed her his way. My daughter, however, had no such trust in Danny. When I told her what we were going to do, she was a bit nervous, but she agreed--not because she trusted Danny, but because she trusted me when I told her not to worry and assured her that Danny would catch her. Our little performance went off without a hitch, leading to the larger message we were trying to convey during the children’s message.

In our schools, trust can be contagious in a similar way. When principals trust superintendents, they, in turn, behave in ways that lead teachers to trust in them. When teachers trust their building administrators, they behave in ways that lead students to trust in them. Trust is indeed “the glue of life.” When we truly believe in each other, we ignite a culture of trust in our school communities, and nothing can stop us then. Behaving in ways that make others trust us and, in turn, trusting in others to do the same, is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Confident Leader

“One definition of leadership: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and 
the character which inspires confidence.” 
Bernard Montgomery

Many years ago, I heard Todd Whitaker suggest that the greatest gift teachers can give their students is the gift of confidence. The same holds true, perhaps, throughout the school community: the greatest gift principals can give teachers and the greatest gift superintendents can give principals is also the gift of “confidence.” Successful students, teachers, and principals are, indeed, confident people. Moreover, I do not know a single successful leader who I would not describe as a confident leader. At the same time, these very same successful leaders are also extremely humble people. At first glance, being noted as “confident” and “humble” might strike some as just a bit of a contradiction, but the more I ponder on this apparent contradiction, the more I believe they often go hand-in-hand.

The difference lies in the subtle distinction between confidence and self confidence. I know many outstanding leaders who are confident leaders and who also experience moments of self doubt, nervousness, and uncertainty about their leadership capabilities or decision making. This is not only normal, but also a laudable characteristic of leaders. These are real human beings who struggle with real problems and reflect on these problems continuously as well as their own abilities to work through them along with the help of those they lead. Ultimately, of course, such leaders push through these moments of self doubt and project an aura of confidence when leading others. What helps them push through these inevitable bouts of questioning is not so much self confidence, but their confidence in the work itself, or their mission as a leader. The very best leaders I know may experience moments of self doubt, but they never question the importance of the mission or their confidence in achieving the vision of the classroom, school, or district they are leading. This sense of confidence they project to others comes across not so much as self confidence, but, rather, confidence in their belief that--with everyone pushing in the same direction--the mission must be fulfilled and the vision will be achieved. We admire--and follow--leaders who are confident about the mission more than they are about themselves. Of course, deep down, many of these same leaders who regularly question themselves do indeed possess a great deal of self confidence and do firmly believe they can help others grow and help the organization succeed. As leaders, however, they subordinate in importance any confidence in their own abilities to their confidence in the work and the ability of others to achieve great things.

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In Good To Great, Jim Collins describes varying levels of leadership proficiency culminating in “Level 5” leaders. An important characteristic of such leaders is what he terms the Yin and Yang of personal humility and professional will. These are leaders who are modest, channeling their ambition into the organization rather than themselves, yet who demonstrate an unwavering resolve to do whatever necessary to produce the desired results. In today’s Chicago Tribune, I noted an article by David Haugh in which he shares the five stages of being a major-league baseball player according to Joe Maddon, manager of my

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beloved Chicago Cubs. Although perhaps not as familiar as the work of Jim Collins, there are parallels to leaders of companies as well as leaders in schools. In Maddon’s hierarchy, "Level 1" players are just happy to be in the major leagues. Perhaps Level 1 school leaders are also simply happy to have earned their first teaching or administrative position. At Level 5, however, all these players want to do, according to Maddon, is win. It is no longer about money, fame, mere survival, or themselves; it is simply about winning. Confident school leaders are similarly laser-focused on “winning,” i.e., fulfilling the classroom, school, or district mission and achieving the vision by producing the best possible results for the students they serve. Confident leaders know it is never about them, but never lose sight of the end goal and always project an aura of confidence in the abilities of those they lead to get there.

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When I served as principal of a middle school in Georgia, many teachers throughout the school displayed and regularly reiterated what we called our three critical messages that we first learned about from Jon Saphier: 1. The work we are doing is important. 2. You can do it. 3. I will not give up on you. Confident leaders believe passinately in the work they are doing. Confident leaders instill in others a sense that, together, the work can and will be accomplished. Confident leaders never give up on themselves or others in striving to fulfill the mission and achieve the vision. Leading with confidence--in the work, rather than ourselves--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

We Create the Culture and The Culture Creates Us

“Our success is driven by such an incredible culture with this team—culture on the floor, preparing, attention to detail, how we conduct ourselves off the court.”
Bill Behrns, Loyola (Chicago) Assistant Athletic Director

March Madness may be over, but I am still reveling in the Cinderella run of the Loyola University Ramblers. The performance of this team, led not only by Coach Porter Moser, but also team leaders, inspired everyone in the Chicago area, if not the entire nation, throughout their miraculous season. As one who lives a mere three miles from campus, I took a special interest in watching these young men compete on the court. I was equally impressed by their words and actions off the court. A great deal of the team’s success can be attributed to the culture they created and, in turn, what they became by that culture. In fact, if you watched any of their tourney games, you likely noticed the team’s “Created By Culture” T-shirts. 

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What they became, as individuals and as a team, was created by the culture that they created. We first create the culture and the culture creates us, influencing our attitudes, behaviors, commitments, and overall level of success. The more I watched and read about this team, the more I realized that the culture needed for success as a basketball team is not unlike the culture necessary for success in the schoolhouse. 

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To keep the team’s culture constantly in the forefront of the minds of team members, Moser installed a “Wall of Culture” in the locker room with dozens of words and phrases that are cornerstones of the team’s philosophy. These ever-present textual reminders are not only posted prominently, but also reviewed regularly by coaches and team members as a way to reinforce the daily habits, techniques, and mindsets that lead to the team’s long-term success.

Successful schools are similar, organizations with a strong culture in place, and led by individuals who regularly remind each other what is important, why it matters, and how they must behave to fulfill the school’s mission and achieve the school’s vision. Such schools even make the time to prominently display the school’s values throughout the school and in each individual classroom. During meetings, team members hold each other accountable for group norms and adhering to commonly shared values while always keeping their eye on the prize: student success.

During Loyola’s magical run, I would wake up every morning and read the latest features on the team in my morning Chicago Tribune. After their buzzer-beating victory over Miami in the opening round, columnist David Haugh mentioned that this was no accident, stating that, “At Loyola, they rehearse success.” When I coached high school basketball years ago, we also rehearsed success--in every aspect of the game. Prior to our opening game each season, we even practiced how we handled time outs during games. Many teams we competed against would simply call time out, whereupon players would saunter over to the bench and gather somewhat haphazardly to discuss strategy. On our team, we actually practiced each step of the process, including what a player should say if they needed a time out, how they should protect the ball if they were in possession of it when calling a timeout, how fast they should move to the bench (faster than other teams), where players in the game should sit (facing me, away from the stands), and where players not in the game should stand (behind me, facing the stands). There was a reason for everything we did as team, including small details like how we ran timeouts. At the end of the practice, one parent commented, “Wow, I have never seen a team practice timeouts before. You guys are really ready for everything.” The observation was gratifying and validated how important it was as coaches to prepare our athletes for every single event that occurs in a game. I suspect part of Loyola’s “rehearsing for success” includes practicing every possible event that can arise during an actual game.

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Successful schools rehearse for success also and there is a reason for everything they do and a way they go about doing it as they prepare for every classroom lesson and every staff meeting. Every administrator paints a vivid picture of what success for the school looks like for every staff member and outlines actions steps for achieving the vision. In the classroom, every teacher does the same, pointing and guiding students to an ultimate outcome while celebrating small wins along the way. Both invest intentional time to consistently getting better by reviewing where they are going, where they are now, and what they need to do next to close the gap while often reminding those they lead about cultural keys to success, holding all individuals on the “team”--in this case, staff members at the school or students in the classroom--accountable for adhering to commonly-shared values, norms, and behaviors necessary for achieving the vision.

Whether talking about successful schools or successful basketball teams, a critical key to success is creating an incredible culture. First, we create the culture and, if we maintain and reinforce it consistently, eventually the culture creates us. By creating a successful culture, we ensure that our culture will create success--for athletes on our basketball teams or for the students at our schools. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Sister Jean
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watching over you and cheering you on! Paying attention to the many small details that make up a school or classroom culture is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Leadership Contradictions

“Doing things better is good.  Doing better things is even better.” The more I serve as a leader and study the world of leadership, the...