Be open and honest - SmartBlog on Leadership 9.26.2014

“To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful.” ~ Edward R. Murrow

One of the hardest talks that I had to give took place right before the beginning of my third year as head of school. It was at the back-to-school full faculty meeting and I needed to clear the air about an issue that was on many people’s minds.

The issue was me. Not that I necessarily did anything so terrible that required addressing. But I knew that our insular, largely veteran faculty was still struggling with the transition from their previous boss and the relatively new style of leadership that I represented. My message was simple and direct. I validated the feelings of those who continued to pine for a bygone era and let them know that I was prepared to do whatever I could to ensure the smoothest pathway forward.

After the talk, a veteran teacher approached me. He thanked me for my words and told me that I had said what needed to be said to acknowledge and validate. It was now time to move on to what we needed to achieve. And we achieved quite a bit that year, perhaps more than my previous two years combined.

The ability to take an honest look at a situation and take the necessary steps to rectify it — even if it means admitting error and/or acknowledging weakness – is crucial for leader effectiveness. Frequently, however, we see just the opposite occur. In many instances, our first response is to deny problems or mistakes or conjure up excuses to justify their occurrence. Nobody wants to appear as foolish or ill-informed. This is particularly true of leaders, who tend to feel that they must always act justifiably or lose credibility.

Fans of the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days” fondly remember the heroics and antics of Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. Fonzie was the quintessential cool guy, and always seemed to show up at the right time to save Richie and friends from trouble. But even the great Fonzie made mistakes, and when he did, he demonstrated a deep inability to admit his errors. The first two words, “I was,” came out without issue. When he reached the key descriptor, “wrong,” his face became contorted and pained. Try as he might (and he did try), the Fonz simply could not proclaim error. “I was wrrr-rrr-rrr” was as far as it went. Through comic relief, Fonzie exemplified a human weakness that is oftentimes expressed most deeply by those in positions of leadership and perceived strength.

Error is as central to the human condition as any other quality. We all make mistakes, and will do so every day of our lives. We must be willing to accept them, and have the self-confidence and integrity to admit it when we do. Our ability and willingness to do this, perhaps more than anything else, will allow us to build and maintain the trust of those we lead.

Business leaders routinely make decisions based upon imperfect information and judgment. They may get blindsided by a competitor’s response or underestimate the challenges in developing and selling products. Wholeheartedly accepting our errors, rather than avoiding responsibility or offering up excuses, limits potential damage and sets us on the right course.

What prevents leaders from apologizing freely, from owning up to mistakes and taking full responsibility for them? One contributor, no doubt, is the cultural axiom that leaders, particularly aspiring ones, should hide weaknesses and errors. However, we need to realize that it is not only healthy for leaders to admit their wrongdoings, but such practice can be a powerful tool for them, increasing their legitimacy among their co-workers. People need courageous leaders in order to feel there is someone to make the tough calls and to take responsibility for them; they need to know that the buck truly does stop with the leader. With a dauntless leader, people feel protected, knowing that the person in charge really has their back and will take ownership when things go awry.

Moreover, when practiced regularly, such admissions can help to build a culture that increases solidarity and openness to change, positive features of organizational life. And courage begets courage: followers are more likely to make their own tough decisions and to take responsibility for them when their supervisors model that same behavior. Have their backs and they will more likely have yours.

In terms of the actual apology, follow these rules in order to maximize its effect.

  • Apologize sincerely. Saying “I am sorry” must communicate genuine regret for your behavior and a wish that you had acted differently.

  • Take complete ownership. Avoid shifting the blame (“I apologize that you misunderstood me,” “I am sorry that you felt that way,” etc.). Doing so greatly diminishes the apologizer’s effectiveness. Stating that the other person was partly responsible for what occurred or for his hurt feelings places the listener on the defensive and causes them to consider you to be disingenuous and perhaps even accusatory. And that is no way to apologize.

  • Avoid excuses. State your error directly, without justification. To the listener’s ear, excuses not only feel like an attempt to validate the wrongdoing, they may even sound like an attack, as if the plaintiff was inconsiderate to hold him accountable in the first place.

  • State how you intend to fix things. Articulating your intent to correct matters, including an action plan of intended steps, will do wonders to convince the listener of your sincerity. It should be simple, realistic and detailed.

  • And then follow through. Few things damage morale more than when a leader sets expectations for personal or organizational change and then does not follow through. In many ways, it is worse than not having apologized in the first place. When leaders do not act as promised, employees question not only their courage and will, but also their trustworthiness.

Lessons from the fisherman’s boat - SmartBlog on Education 9.23.2014

I recently had the pleasure of going fishing with three of my children on Lake Michigan. We chartered a fishing vessel and set sail from the dock with a captain and first mate at 5 a.m. for a five hour trip. This was our first such fishing charter and it turned out to be a great experience all around.

As an educator and educational coach, I am always looking for insights to bring back to my colleagues and the classroom. The following represents a partial list of lessons I gleaned from our time out on the water, a trip that we are sure to remember for quite some time.

Adjust your paradigm. As I noted above, we left early that morning. To get to the dock on time, I had to awaken at just after 3 a.m. Two of my boys were already up, making it easier, but the abrupt change in my nocturnal habits made for some tough sledding at first. Why did we go so early? The answer is that fish are most likely to bite during their early morning feeding time. If we were going to have a successful day, I would need to adjust my habits in order to get out on the water when they were likeliest to bite. The benefits for us were quickly apparent, as we had two “fish on” successes within our first 30 minutes.

While the goal for teachers can never be to “catch” students in the fishing sense of the term (by setting them up for any form of failure or misstep), it is our goal to catch them doing things right and succeeding in various ways. Sometimes this means adjusting our thinking processes in order to ensure success and fulfillment, such as by offering different pathways to achievement. It may also include changing our daily routines in order to take advantage of student energy levels and interests.

Cast many lines. I was amazed at the number of fishing lines that were cast from all sides of the boat. Some were thrown far out, others were weighted directly below the vessel. It was a true spectacle to see the crew manage all of the lines and ensure proper placement while avoiding entanglement. Of course, the purpose of this exercise was to try to hook as many fish as possible (including various species swimming in different points and at varying depths).

Similarly, students have different interests and abilities. What excites and stimulates one child may not engage another. Teachers who wish to draw all of their charges into the learning process need to consider the types of “hooks” that they should use in order to make the learning stimulating and meaningful.

Got a bite? Troll! One of the decisions that we had to make early on was how long we would fish. The options were five or six hours, and were largely driven by the question of how far out we wanted to go. The salmon had been swimming closer to shore but had not been biting much of late. Trout and other fish were more abundant further out. After our initial success, we decided to stay close by and troll the area (kind of like treading water with one engine) for additional bites, even after a dry spell. We were fortunate during this slow season to get another five fish, including some sizable king salmon.

In the classroom, we oftentimes rush to try new and different things for the sake of change and diversity or if we stop seeing positive results. Sometimes, that is the best way forward. However, we can often do best by sticking with things that worked previously and may need to simply need minor adjustments. Naturally, there are no rules that govern such decision making and we often have to make the decisions that feel right at the time (using whatever data and input that we have at our disposal) and “ride” with it for a while before determining the best next course of action.

Go deep. Many charters left the area where we were and “ran” out quite a bit farther. They had been unsuccessful at the shallower points and tried their luck in deeper waters. Many fish can be found out deep and so their approach made sense. For us, there was neither the reason nor the time to follow their lead. The only depth that I experienced on that day was the deepening of relationships with my children as we shared a fun but demanding experience.

Depth in an educational context can refer to many things, including the way by which you engage in content. So much learning can occur “well beneath the surface,” as the level of questioning and thinking connects with higher levels of cognition. Depth can also be used to describe the relationships that we develop with our students. You are likely familiar with the adage, “I don’t care how much you know unless I know how much you care.” By demonstrating love, care and concern and finding ways to share in meaningful experiences with students, teachers can “go deep” and build the foundation for learning and growth.

Trust the experts. I paid a pretty penny for this charter. The money went, no doubt, to paying for the materials, equipment, staff, etc. that were needed to make the trip possible. But we were also paying for expertise and guidance. While I had a rudimentary understanding of how to fish and what bait to use, we would never have been able achieve similar results without the help of our new mentors, who eagerly taught us what they could to make the experience most rewarding and informative.

Teachers face many challenges, including how to work with students who do not fit within the conventional profile. There may be learning or emotional challenges to overcome or toxic familial dynamics to contend with. While we certainly know much about children, it is inevitable that we will encounter students and situations which demand new learning or simply heeding to expert opinion. This can be challenging when we think that we know everything that there is to know and that our “tried and true” methods will again reign supreme. If we approach new situations with the humility of new learners we can find that we not only approach the situation more correctly, but even come away with new concepts and skills that will hold us in good stead in other contexts as well.

It’s not all fun and games. Fishing can be lots of fun, no doubt. But there’s a yucky side to it as well, everything from killing the fish to cleaning, gutting, cutting, etc. And there’s also that special odor that seems to permeate everything. While the activity itself is most exhilarating, doing the various things that allow you to ultimately enjoy your catch can be less appealing.

When it comes to teaching, there are two sides: the part that we sign up for (engagement, relationships, imparting wisdom, etc.) and the “necessary evils” (lesson planning, grading, meetings, supervision, etc.) that we can all do without. While there is no sugarcoating the more onerous parts of the job, it can be much more palatable when we recognize how these components ultimately allow us to fulfill our passions.

Maximizing Our Spiritual ROI - 9.22.2014

ROI (return on investment) is something that we think about routinely. Investors want to know what type of return they can expect to receive on their money. Students want to know the benefit of pursuing specialized education. People in challenged relationships seek to understand what they can expect to gain from their investment of time and resources into therapy or other interventions.

In most cases, ROI is measured by the Bottom Line. If the effort and investment result in a meaningful profit or gain, then it is considered to be worthwhile. If not, then the ROI is said to negligible and the enterprise not worthy of future outlay. However, there is one notable exception to this rule. It relates particularly to this time of year, when we stand before our Maker in solemn hope that we will experience a positive judgment.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol II, pp. 96-97) writes that our judgment rides not on our “bottom line” actions, but on the inner desires and motivators that exist within our hearts. He supports his argument by citing Nachmandes, who writes that Rosh Hashana is a “yom hadin b’rachamim” (a day of justice couched in mercy) and Yom Kippur a “yom harachamim b’din” (a day of mercy framed in strict justice).

The explanation to Nachmandes’ words, says Rabbi Dessler, is as follows. Despite the seriousness of Rosh Hashana, we have the capacity to stir divine mercy on that holy day by demonstrating such qualities of giving and compassion towards others. Conversely, we have the ability to transform the compassionate day of Yom Kippur into one of strict judgment if we are unable to engage in meaningful change.

Hashem studies our desires and judges us accordingly. He asks, “What benefit will there be for him if I were to grant him the blessings that he seeks? What is the potential ROI to such a response?” If Hashem can discern a true desire for growth and repentance within us, then He will see the investment as more worthwhile. If not, then He may see the best recourse to be something very different than what we request, God forbid.

As we approach Hashem in the coming weeks, we should aspire to give Him every opportunity to view us as individuals and a community who are on an upwards trajectory, deserving of inscription in the Book of Life.

I wish us all a happy and healthy New Year