What Did I Learn?

As we come toward the end of the school year in Australia, it’s time to sit back, relax and reflect on key moments and learnings from the year.

Connections and relationships make or break your leadership

Enough said! It’s possible to fall into a trap of maintaining quality relationships with people above you in the hierarchy whilst ignoring those lower in the org chart. This can only lead to problems. It’s not about being popular – it is all about respect and valuing the contributions of everyone in your organisation.

It’s not sneaky, it’s strategic…

My principal (@DarwinRose11) is a shrewd operator and a great inspiration to me. On a number of occasions I have observed her strategic thinking come to the fore. It was on one of those occasions that I commented that she was being sneaky. Her response, “I’m not being sneaky; I’m being strategic!” This has resonated with me throughout the year and has influenced me in a number of situations dealing with challenging issues within my team.

Doing what is right is often the hardest thing to do…

We are often faced with challenging situations that add significantly to our workload and can often take people away from their core business. I have been involved in performance support for a colleague that was not meeting expectations. The easiest option would be to ignore the person’s issues and support them to move to another workplace. But… can you sleep at night with this decision? Leaders need to be willing to do that hard yards and stand up for ‘good’. That can impact on your ability to undertake your normal responsibilities and be detrimental to work-life balance. It’s also the right thing to do. Poor performance in schools impacts the entire community. It is also a matter of perception. If your team do not believe that you are going to address inadequate performance or inappropriate behaviours then you are likely to be seen as a leader who can be walked all over, manipulated or ignored.

Look after yourself…

Sounds like common sense but too often we push our bodies (and minds) beyond their limits all in the name of work. This year I contracted Shingles as a direct result on intense stress. Admittedly, my family has been through the process of building our first home this year, but this was not the major stressor in my life. It was my job. I didn’t want to let people down. I wanted to be seen as strong and resilient, particularly because many of my colleagues were visibly struggling with the pressures that resulted from some big incidents. I ignored all of the warning signs because my principal was surviving and I believed that I could too. I didn’t. For anyone who has had Shingles, you will remember the excruciating pain and debilitating nature of the disease. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Since recovering, my wife has been my guardian angel, helping me to realise when I am overdoing things and when I need to take a rest.

Never, ever build a house and start a new job at the same time…

It’s really easy to take on too much in our lives. In addition to the above, I have grieved the loss of my grandmother (97 years old!) this year. She has always been my biggest supporter and believed in me. Sadly she didn’t ever get to see our house finished.

Your children are only young once…

I have missed all of my children’s school events, performances and celebrations this year because I was too focused on work. In fact, my only engagement with their schooling has been to attend a meeting with the principal when my son was getting himself into some trouble. Things have changed in the last few weeks. I am very excited to be going to see my daughter perform a song & dance act with her pre-school class tomorrow. It will be fun and work will survive without me.

As leaders, we can often take our work life a little too seriously. Life goes on if you miss a meeting. We have to look after our own wellbeing if we are serious about the wellbeing of our teams. There are times when we have to put in the extra hours to see something through to completion but this should not be the norm. Go home. Spend time with your family or just relax by your self. Enjoy these moments because there will be times when you have to take on the big issues. And always keep learning…

Don’t Forget the Introverts

I left our fortnightly staff meeting this afternoon feeling completely exhausted. I tried to look back on my day to get some insight into what may have led to this feeling. A quiet, reflective drive home got me thinking about extroverts, introverts and their responses to schooling. I think our education system favours extroversion. This includes our students and teachers. For many introverts, schools can be a daunting and exhausting experience. As I look back on today’s meeting, a few observations spring to mind.

The education profession, by its very nature, attracts extroverted people as teachers. Let’s face it, teaching is very much a performance and that is much more appealing for those with tendencies toward extroversion. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great teachers out there who are introverts. It’s just that schools can be a very tiring and confronting place for a teacher with a predisposition toward introversion.

In today’s staff meeting, we were met with an outstanding presentation about Connecting with Community. The presenters had the audience creating radio shows, acting out and responding quickly to prompts. Two of our team performed an inpromptu, 3 minute radio show based on upcoming events in our school. No scripts; no preparation; just live performance. My skin crawled when they asked for volunteers and I made every effort not to make any eye contact with the facilitators. Following this, we had to move into small groups to create and record a similar radio show. The extroverts in the room shone through this experience. As an introvert, I found much of the meeting confronting and overwhelming. As facilitators called for volunteers I was aware of myself trying desperately to be invisible. I left this meeting feeling like I would struggle to stay away for the drive home. At the same time, many of my colleagues bounced out of the event, laughing and commenting on the energy they had taken from the experience

Secondly, I noted one of the facilitators had a big, sparkly birthday message for a student in their class. I heard a number of my colleagues commenting positively about the teacher’s dedication and caring nature, with further comments about how special this child must have felt after having this message displayed on the IWB during class. At the same time, I felt sympathy for the student and imagined how uncomfortable they may have felt. Neither feeling is right or wrong; just different.

My son won a spelling bee competition at his school today. He is something of an extrovert and thrives on performing to an audience. The video of the final round also shows a shy (and possibly introverted) young girl looking extremely uncomfortable standing on a stage with an audience of 350 students and teachers. Without taking anything away from my son’s performance, I wonder if the young girl would have performed better without a large audience.

Extroverted students are seemingly better suited to many instances of traditional and modern schooling. Consider the questioning techniques in any classroom. Students are praised for contributing responses quickly. Our schools recognise the achievements of those who put themselves forward and at times the ‘quiet achievers’ float along in the background struggling to cope with the energy required to match the ‘performances’ of those with a more obvious disposition toward extraversion.

A couple of messages come to mind for our schools. First, and foremost, teachers need to be aware of their own preferences toward extroversion/introversion and ensure that they take into account the needs and feelings of those with a different disposition. Allow opportunities for students to delay responding to questions. Give extroverts an opportunity to perform, but don’t pressure introverts into feeling they need to conform to this. Be careful of how and what you highlight about students. Having your birthday broadcast to a large group can lead to feelings of discomfort for come of your students.

Take time to develop an awareness of your own preferences for introversion or extraversion. It is only through awareness of our own perceptions and filters that we are able to acknowledge the impact of our actions on those around us. Most importantly, respect difference and cater for diversity.

Related articles
15 Things That Introverts Would Never Tell YouMaryann Reid

Stop Waiting for an Invitation

Leadership requires initiative. Whether leading teams or leading practice, if you want to lead, you need to take the initiative. In my early career I sat back expecting leadership opportunities to be handed to me on a platter. Not surprisingly, non came. I eventually worked out that you have to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and have a go. Taking risks is a huge part of leadership. You will be wrong. You will make mistakes. That’s ok. It’s better than waiting for something to happen.

creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Scott McLeod

Stop waiting for an invitation to lead. Get out of your seat and do it.

I’m Ready Now

It’s time to eat the proverbial ‘humble pie’.

I made my first foray into school leadership roles in 2005. At the time I was brash, cocky and filled with an immense sense of self-importance. Needless to say, things did not go very well. My principal sent me to leadership courses (which I sat through with a smug belief that I was already a quality leader). I engaged in 360 Feedback processes (but chose to ignore key feedback messages). Instead of learning and taking ownership of my shortcomings, I chose to blame those giving the feedback, convincing myself that they had a personal issue with me. I missed out on so many wonderful learning opportunities.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Laura Billings

Fast forward 8 years and things have changed considerably. I married now with two wonderful children who are not afraid to be (brutally) honest about things. They have really helped me to be more aware of my own behaviours.

Add to this some awesome mentors who saw potential in me and were willing to take the time to help me form a more accurate view of my workplace behaviours – opportunities for growth and areas of strength. I have been so lucky to learn from outstanding leaders in many walks of life.

I have always prided myself on being a learner. I just let my ego get in the way of learning about leadership. Now I love conversations that challenge my thinking. I regularly seek feedback from colleagues and leaders.

In hindsight, I was not ready to lead when I first stepped up. I was looking to lead for all of the wrong reasons – power and respect among them. I was out to prove to people that being older was not a requirement for leadership. I believed that I was smarter than people and a better teacher than most.

Leadership is not about individual glory. If you are leading and nobody is following, you’re just out for a walk. Leadership is about empowering and enabling those around you to achieve success. It’s about influencing and inspiring. And it’s a lot of hard work.

Now, I’m ready to lead because I am ready to learn.

24 Hours of Free Ideas

A few week ago we had a FedEx day at our workplace. The basic premise of this type of day is to have a 24 hour focus on innovation and creativity. A worthy ideal, but I am wondering why we need a dedicated day to innovate. Surely innovation is ongoing. Surely innovation can happen at any time.

Working in teams and/or individually we brainstormed, created, imagined, played, challenged – all with the same goal of coming up with inspiring new ideas or projects to provide quality professional learning for teachers. The sharing session was an amazing afternoon. I was blown away by the breadth and depth of thinking that had taken place. Loads of great ideas were shared. I left work totally inspired. In my mind I had seen the creative force of our team come to the fore and present a range of ideas to implementation. The day was concluded with a bit of a “We’ll get back to you” response from senior management but still my enthusiasm was there.

About 6 weeks on and nothing has happened. I’m back to wondering why we needed a dedicated day to innovate…

Managing Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are an expected part of leadership (and life in general). They can occur in a range of circumstances about any number of issues. A few scenarios that may lead to difficult conversations include:

  • Discussions relating to performance
  • Project negotiations – especially when giving or receiving feedback.
  • Situations where conflict arises between colleagues / team members
  • Budget and finance discussions

Let’s also include those difficult conversations that take place in the home between spouses or parents/children. ūüôā

I have learned over time that we really can not choose to ignore or avoid the need to have difficult conversations. However, there are a few things that can help us be successful in these situations.

One key learning is that there should always be actions agreed upon at the end of any difficult conversation. This gives all parties an opportunity to move forward.

There are plenty of resources, tools and ideas available to assist with effectively managing these challenging conversations. Some of the useful information I refer to is outlined below.

The Ladder of Inference

I was first exposed to this model approximately 8 years ago as part of an emerging leader project. It’s something that subscribe to and regularly reflect on my interactions using this model to assess my own reactions and assumptions. As educators, we all need to be aware of the implications of making assumptions and forming conclusions based on our filters. This impacts our interactions with students, colleagues, leaders and parents.

Heat / Chill

People respond differently when faced with feedback, a challenge or questions about performance. Some will become angry or hostile, often raising their voice, shaking, becoming red in the face or crying. This is referred to as ‘heat’. At the other end of the scale is chill – shutting down, refusing to speak, the proverbial “nothing” when asked if something is wrong, or withdrawing into themselves. People who respond with chill often resort to email to raise concerns and address an issue. Dealing with heat or chill is critical to success in any difficult conversation.

Step 1: Acknowledge the emotion of the person. Be empathetic. Use¬†perceptual positions¬†to establish rapport and engage with the person. Avoid comments like¬†‘I know how you feel.’ ¬†Try using statements like¬†‘I can see you’re upset with my decision making and the way this project is running.’

Step 2: Explore what’s behind the emotion. What is causing this? Was it a past event? Something you have said? Once you understand what happened (data) and their interpretation of what happened (their assumptions) you will be in a better position to address the issues. Statements such as¬†‘Help me understand’¬†can be very helpful.

Step 3: Demonstrate your understanding. Clarify with paraphrasing with a closed question e.g.¬†“Ok, it sound to me like you think I haven’t consulted enough with you during the early planning phase. Is that right?’

This is not a rigid process. You will most likely need to move back and forth through these steps to achieve effective outcomes.

Three Components of an Effective Conversation

  1. Treat the substantive issue as a shared problem – collaborative discussion about how to achieve desired goals
  2. Separately discuss the relation problem – understand why the person is getting emotional. The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool for this.
  3. (Re)Frame the conversation constructively – focus on purpose.


Start With Why

One of the most influential TED talks that I have watched is Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action.

Some of the great messages from this video include:

  • “People don’t buy what you do. They buy how you do it.”
  • “What you do is proof of your beliefs.”
  • “Leaders hold a position of power or authority but those who lead inspire us.”

In his talk, Simon Sinek outlines what he calls the Golden Circle.

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle

He uses this model to explain why Apple is so successful.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates.¬†“Everything we do,¬†we believe in challenging the status quo.¬†We believe in thinking differently.¬†The way we challenge the status quo¬†is by making our products beautifully designed,¬†simple to use and user friendly.¬†We just happen to make great computers.¬†Want to buy one?”¬†Totally different right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me.¬†All I did was reverse the order of the information.¬†What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do;¬†people buy why you do it.¬†People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

This model has far reaching scope for use in education and facilitates a purpose driven environment.