by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Early experts in the field of leadership theorized that leadership was something that only a few, special, unique individuals had. Their theories focused more on leaders rather than the act of leadership. It followed the mythological ideals of hero worship. The assumption was that these ‘great men’ were simply born to be leaders and would be leaders no matter what. The early theories did not address or accept that the situation could impact the effectiveness of a ‘leader.’ What these early theorists failed to understand was that it is not about leaders, but rather the action of leadership.
Simply put, leadership is not a full time job. Individuals are not leaders twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and even on holidays. Individuals who show incredible leadership in a particular field or situation will not necessarily be leaders in other areas of their lives. An individual might be a leader in their work organization, but are probably not the leader of their church, social group, or family. So much about leadership depends entirely on the situation and the particular forms of leadership that are needed in those situations. Take any great leader in history – Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln – and think about whether they were a leader in every aspect of their life. Would Steve Jobs be a great leader on a NFL football team? Would Martin Luther King, Jr. be a great leader in the Armed Forces? Would Abraham Lincoln be a great leader at Qualcomm? The answer to all three is probably not.
Yet, in our organizations, we often expect individuals to be leaders in every aspect of the organization. Part of this flawed reasoning stems from the notion that we assume that people in management who have authority in the organization are the leaders. We assume that authority naturally comes with leadership, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Leadership arises from all levels of an organization, not just from those in management. It is one of the reasons why organizations are built with multiple levels of employees who can be sought out by the management to fulfill leadership roles in particular situations.
When we expect an individual to lead every aspect of the organization, then we are setting them up for failure. Their skills do not align with the leadership that is needed in every area of the organization, and thus soon this leader will be replaced with a new leader who everyone hopes will be able to lead on a full-time basis. This cycle will continue on until our organizations adjust our perspectives and expectations for leadership. Great organizations understand the role of the situation and know that one person cannot be relied on to be the leader all day, every day. There are particular people who are best at talking to the public, heading up a development project, leading staff development days, tackling a product problem, or working with clients.
The key is to adjust our perspective on leadership, by taking the pressure off of individual leaders and not expect them to be a full time leader. When leadership is distributed based off the situations where the leadership is needed, the organization is at its peak effectiveness. This is something to ponder in our organizations, and most importantly for us to ask ourselves, what are our expectations for leaders?
by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Everybody knows who LeBron James is: NBA superstar, King James, NBA champion, league MVP, basketball legend. Now how about David Blatt? No, you don’t know him, that’s okay because outside of real NBA fans, the name will probably ring empty on most of the public’s ears. David Blatt is the recently fired head coach of LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blatt is no slouch as a basketball coach, as he has earned worldwide recognition for a stellar coaching career throughout Europe and in the Olympics. With David Blatt as the coach of the Cavs and LeBron over the last 1 ½ seasons, the Cavs won 83 games with only 40 losses. Blatt, LeBron, and the Cavs won the NBA Eastern Conference title last year before losing in the NBA finals to the Golden State Warriors. At the time of this firing this season, Blatt’s Cavs were 30 – 11 and in 1st place in the conference. But the Cavs, Blatt, and LeBron could not beat their nemesis, the Warriors, in a couple of games this season. Despite the great record, Blatt was scapegoated as the problem and fired in the middle of the season. For the Cavs, and so many organizations in the world, it was the leader’s fault that things weren’t going as well as they wanted.
Leaders are the easy target when struggles occur within an organization and often pay the consequences. As the face of the organization and in charge of the direction of the organization, leaders are the tip of the spear. They become the focal point for adversaries and critics. They become the reason why struggles are happening. Suddenly everyone forgets about all of the leader’s successes. They turn a blind eye to the resume behind the leader that got them to where they are. In the case of Blatt, the Cavs upper management focused all of the blame for not beating the Warriors on Blatt’s shoulders. It wasn’t management’s fault for not bringing in the right mix of players to match up with the Warriors. It wasn’t the players’ faults for playing subpar basketball in those games. And it definitely wasn’t LeBron’s fault, well because you know it can’t be the star’s fault. So the leader of the team, the head coach, gets chopped. Easier to replace him and blame him then actually admit there are bigger problems in the organization.
Organizations throughout the world fall into this same trap. From businesses to schools, and everything in between, they seek a focal point where blame can be placed. It is a reality of the role of a leader. They will get a lot of credit when things are going well, but they better be ready for the criticism when issues arise. Is it fair? Did Blatt deserve to be fired in this case? Probably not, for a leader can’t possibly control, know absolutely every component of what is happening in the organization, or watch over every employee to ensure they are productive. Nevertheless, everyone expects the leader to know and be everything.
It is the reality of leadership, a reality that many inexperienced leaders are not ready for. They are not prepared for the criticism. They are not prepared to be the focal point of the critics. However, it is a reality that all leaders must come to grips with in order to be effective leaders. Leaders have to be ready for the blame. Leaders have to be constantly moving forward. Leaders have to be able to do their work without constantly looking over their shoulder for the next wave of blame. Easier said than done, but it is absolutely necessary for the possibility of effective leadership.
Having recently completed a Masters in Leadership Studies and moved into the role of principal at my school, I have come to see the importance of the language that we use while leading groups. During staff meetings, conversations with colleagues, and evaluations, the language that is used will be interpreted by those on the other end of the communication. Once the words leave our mouths, we lose control of how others will receive the message that we are intending to send. This reminds us to be intentional with the words that we choose. It can be difficult to have quality conversations with others when a term is being interpreted different ways. We can also run into issues when moving into fields in which we may not be an expert. The jargon of our respective fields, especially when not well defined, can lead to vague ideas and confusion. And worst of all, we sometimes can come upon situations where we do not have to words to have the conversations. All of these situations can inhibit the growth and progress of our organizations.
Part of the role of the leader is to clarify the words that are essential to the work of the organization. At my school, we realized the need to increase the rigor of our classroom instruction. Rigor tends to be a common area of growth for schools. Unfortunately, it is also a vague term. There is no one way to be rigorous, and the ideas of ways to be rigorous vary significantly. So, it was important that we had a common language and understanding of the term before we attempted to improve anything. To begin our process of finding a common language for rigor, I presented Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK). We reviewed the four levels in Webb’s system and discussed examples of each level. As a way to continue to turn the DOK terminology into our common language, I included it in our observational protocols and added it to our curriculum mapping software. I quickly began to hear an increase in the number of conversations about rigor. Since the teachers had a common measure and could understand their colleagues’ ideas easier, they were able to have a discussion. We have seen significant growth in the rigor of our instruction, and I attribute much of that to having the words to have the conversation.
Unfortunately, some ideas are difficult to define. The jargon of any field is filled with ideas that are essential for the work but are also cumbersome and vague. When we are faced with these ideas, we often speak as if we know what it is or we shy away from ever speaking about it. In education, there are terms like differentiated instruction and student-centered instruction. These are highly important terms that describe where good teaching is moving, but there has yet to be one simple definition for these ideas. The ideas themselves are too complex for a simple explanation. In these situations, we can try to find the best explanation we can and turn it into a common language. In some cases, this works fine and the organization is able to grow and improve with the new understanding of the term. Other times, the lack of clarity breaks down communication and prevents conversations from occurring. This in turn limits growth. One alternative that I have attempted to use at my school is to coin our own term. My teachers were hesitant to work with terms like differentiate instruction and student-centered instruction. I often heard comments like, “What does that even look like?” or “I kind of understand, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.” These comments prevented them from engaging with the ideas, so we created our own term. We decided on discovery as our term to combine pieces of student-centered instruction with differentiated instruction and inquiry. This allowed my teachers to create an idea of what a good discovery lesson looked like. They were able to discuss how to make it rigorous, while engaging the students in different ways. Although we are still working on defining our term, we are having conversations. We can work together to define the idea, rather than stay away from them and avoid the conversations altogether.
Unfortunately, there are conversations out there where we simply do not have the words. In my graduate studies, a colleague would often say, “We don’t have the words for this.” It took me some time to understand what he meant, but it is an important idea. There are conversations about race, gender, religion, how someone annoys us at work, how the system prevents us from expressing ourselves that we have difficulty discussing. We have difficulty discussing these topics because our emotions and pride get in the way of the conversation. Rather than being able to discuss with your coworker their habits that frustrate you in a calm and respectful manner, we avoid the conversation and hold onto that frustration. We are afraid that if we have the conversation they will get emotional and prideful. We do not want to create turmoil, so we brush it under the rug. The problem with brushing it under the rug is the frustration is still there. If you continually brush things under the rug to avoid the conversation, it will come out in other places. Although these conversations are always different and need your complete presence, there are some ways that might help to make the conversations go smoothly. Naming your own flaws or part in the frustrating behavior helps to prevent the other person from feeling attacked. Also, explaining that you know the conversation will be difficult and might be hard to hear helps to set the scene for the discussion. This can help prevent the other person from feeling blindsided. But most importantly, we need to attempt to understand the situation better. If we get to know the situation on a deeper level, we can have greater compassion while having the difficult conversations.
In the end, the conversation is the important part of helping our organizations to grow. We do not always need to have a perfect conversation or understanding of a term. We just need to allow those in the organization to discuss the topics that need growth. If we are trying to increase rigor, we need to be discussing rigor. If we want to provide more support for diversity, then we need to be having those conversations. Using language is how we can create and sustain change and growth.