…and don’t be afraid to follow

teambuildingLeadership does matter. As I wrote in my last post, it is important for leaders to not be fearful of leading. We can talk all we want about quiet leadership or leading by example, however, if you don’t have people’s attention they might miss your lead or example altogetherOne of the reasons you’re in your position of leadership is because of your experience and expertise. It would absurd to not use that experience and expertise to the benefit of your school or organization.

That said, leadership is not about always being the leader either; sometimes it’s just as important to follow. Sometimes you are the expert and sometimes you’re not; sometimes it is important to allow others with more expertise to take the lead or at least build the capacity of others so that they may eventually do so.

So what stops us from doing this? So many of us understand and can talk about the importance of shared leadership, so why don’t more of us do it? What gets in the way of leaders being able to step back and allow an implementation process to unfold without having to be the center of attention? For me, it’s all about ego.

First, let me say that there is always some level of ego involved with any leadership role. Every effective leader has a fundamental belief in their ability to make a positive difference within the context in which they are leading. I see a healthy level of ego more as confidence, which can be defined as the sweet spot between arrogance and despair (Rosabeth Moss Kanter). It’s in the arrogance or despair where our ego loses balance and negatively affects our ability to follow. Although most of us think of ego as a kind of inflated sense of self-importance, ego also drives the leader at the opposite end of the continuum. Let’s look at each separately.

The ego of arrogance is the leader that believes that nothing can be accomplished without them, or at least without their input. The leader whose ego is out of balance in this direction believes they are the smartest person in the room and that their experience is more credible and relevant than anyone else’s. They are the leader who is not afraid to lead on steroids. Not only are they not afraid to lead, they have to lead and take credit (or at least partial credit) for everything.

The ego of despair is the leader who leads from a desperate feeling of insecurity and believes that nothing should be accomplished without their input. This leader believes that they must continually prove why they have been put in a position of leadership; they see all successes and failures as a direct reflection of their ability as a leader.  This is why these seemingly polar opposite positions of ego are more similar than we might think. Insecurity leads to control-based leadership where the leader works to make sure they are the smartest person in the room (again, other overlap between the two extremes). This characteristic is much more difficult to spot since it often appears as arrogance.

The arrogant and desperate leader has difficulty following; the confident leader doesn’t. The confident leader knows they are the leader but has no burning desire to continually prove it. The confident leader has just enough arrogance to believe they can make a positive difference, but just enough despair to admit they don’t know, to seek the input and guidance from others, and allow some to emerge as leaders themselves.

Don’t be afraid to lead…

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Leadership matters! We all know it – some may not want to admit it – but leadership does matter, especially when we experience ineffective leadership or worse, when we are the ineffective leader.

As a leader, sometimes you have to articulate a vision and set the direction. Sometimes you have to share your perspective. Sometimes you have to be the leader and let others learn from your experience. As the late Stephen Covey once wrote:

It doesn’t matter how hard you climb the ladder of success if your ladder is up against the wrong wall.

That’s leadership – making sure our educational ladders are up against the right wall.

While much has been written about shared leadership and the advantages of shared responsibility, leaders can’t allow themselves to be marginalized; shared leadership doesn’t mean no leadership. Sometimes leaders lead by example, but there are times when leaders must lead through purposeful articulation. Leading by example only works when you have people’s attention; without their attention the lessons in the example go unlearned. As John Kotter, author of Buy-In, writes:

The single biggest challenge people face when they need to gain buy-in for a good idea is simply getting people’s attention.

Sometimes…

  • …you have to directly address practices you know are far from ideal.
  • …you have to push back against practices that are punitive, unreasonable, or unfair.
  • …you have to make it clear what you can and can’t support.
  • …you have to be comfortable with others’ professional discomfort.

The real question is when; when can a leader be the leader and lead? It really comes down to two things: trust and credibility.

If those you work with trust you and believe you have their best interest in mind they will be more open to being led. Without that trust, people are cautious about following and can’t be sure that you fully support them. So first, leaders must earn trust by proving they are trustworthy. Trust is critical, however, it’s incomplete.

The second component is credibility. Credibility is established when you have shown that you know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t mean that you must have done something; often great leaders have not served in every role within a school or organization. However, it does mean that you have a level of expertise, have done your due diligence, have considered the most favorable course of action, and have the experience to navigate the inevitable bumps and challenges.

Credibility and trust are both earned. Leaders can’t be afraid to lead, but without the necessary levels of trust and credibility, the potential influence of that leadership could be compromised. With high levels of trust and credibility, others are less likely to take challenges to the status quo personally, resist the clearly articulated vision, or feel unsupported.

Implement THAT! (Part 3) – Plan with a ‘Short Pencil’

Every implementation effort needs a plan.  Without a plan we are left to meander our way through any implementation without any sense of our desired outcome, actions, purpose, or process. However, there is such a thing as  over planning by being too prescriptive and/or trying to look too far into the future. We don’t really know what our needs will be in 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years; none of us can predict the future. The future is really an illusion constructed from our past experience, our current context, the latest research trends, as well as our bias for where we’d like to see education go. Having a plan matters, but from my experience, the most effective implementation plans are the ones written with a ‘short pencil.’

We need to plan in pencil because we must have the ability to adjust our plans as we go.  We might find that we are exceeding our expectations in terms of timelines, acceptance, and successes with the new idea, practice, or process we are implementing.  However, we might also find that our initial plan was inaccurate; that what we thought was going to happen and how we thought it might unfold was slightly flawed or just dead-wrong. Planning in pencil allows us the chance to ‘quickly’ erase-and-adjust as the implementation plan unfolds. Planning in pen makes the adjustments either too messy or too much work.

The pencil should be short in order to avoid planning too much or too far into the future. Having a long-term detailed plan looks visionary and might satisfy some of the political pressures (small ‘p’) leaders face, however, most of us know that the size of our plans is inversely proportional to the success of the implementation. A short pencil forces us to be efficient with our words and to plan more for our immediate actions. A short pencil will allow you to identify your vision or desired outcome (after all, your plan will need a title) but the details, the specific actions, and the monitoring should focus more on the immediate and short-term future.

Once our vision or desired outcomes have been identified, planning with a short pencil will focus our attention more on what is within our immediate influence and will make any adjustments, additions, deletions, or re-routing far easier. Yes, you need to know where you are going, however, successful implementation comes when the plan focuses more on immediate actions and results.