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.

Via: goo.gl/F4Ru2V
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:
Via: goo.gl/BZJa3U
  • 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!

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