Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Leading inspite of myself #SAVMP

I am the oldest of three siblings . Birth order does matter. I have an engrained take charge reflex. Sometimes taking charge is not the right course of action! Sometimes leaders do have to take charge. Certainly, this was my experience as a first time department chair. Our department had experienced a challenging personnel situation the previous year and had lost our ability to work together for the benefit of our students. In this case, I was clear that there were issues we needed to tackle and work on together. I set an agenda for the year, first rebuild trust and relationships, second agree on standards for reading and grading essays, third develop our student's capstone research project. By the end of the year we had regained our collegiality and trust and done real work to strengthen our program. Then we got to the second year. What was the agenda going to be?At first, I again tried to set an arc for us for the year. But as I listened to my colleagues gamely work through what I thought was the next important thing to tackle, it became clear that group didn't all agree that this topic was where we needed to focus our energy and talent.  In listening and reflecting back what I was hearing we arrived at a new sense of where our students and our program most needed our focus. In this case, re redesigned our course offerings.

As I have taken on other leadership roles within Westtown School, I find myself doing an interesting dance along this continuum from taking charge to listening and facilitating. On my bulletin board I have a Canada Fisheries and Oceans navigation chart of the Benjamin Islands (#2207-1), a tapestry my daughter brought me from Tibet, a papyrus our exchange student brought us from his home in Egypt, a chart on managing complex change, and two reminders. One is a quote from Peter Drucker that I first heard while attending the 2011 Hathaway Brown Innovation Summit, the other is an expression common among, though not exclusive to Friends(Quakers) "Way Opens". The Drucker quote is "The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths making our weaknesses irrelevant." This was particularly apropos for the Innovation Summit as the workshop leader was Ronald Fry at Case Western helping us learn about and employ Appreciative Inquiry in our work as change agents at our various schools. Both of the reminders push me towards facilitated leadership. They both also encourage me to ask a few questions of my work:

  • Does this task/project/problem advance the mission of our school?
  • Does this task/project/problem build on existing strengths (conversely am I overly focused on fixing a problem)
  • Do I have the right people around the table?
  • What are my blinders and assumptions that might get in the way of the best way forward?
  • Is there someone else on staff who might want to do this work, might be better skilled for this task, feel passionately about assuming the leadership for this?
My dual responsibilities for faculty professional development and curricular review and innovation are predicated on a growth oriented model for staff and program in the service of our students. With 110 teachers on staff, all at various stages of their professional lives from teachers with 30+years of experience to fresh from college interns, a collaborative approach to leadership is a necessity to my ability to thrive. As such I have two more reminders hanging on my walls. Both were created by lower school students working with  visiting artists. Both are greater and more stunning than the sum of their parts. What you see of the lizards is only a portion of the six foot piece of drift wood stretched across my wall with 19 basking lizards. The rain forest water color is the work of first graders. An art teacher colleague pointed out to me that very young children understand instinctively how to best fill a space -- an understanding lost before adolescence and not regained without effort. Both works of art provide daily reminders to look for and cultivate leaders from within my faculty for all of our professional development and curricular development programs: peer coaches, new faculty mentors, 360 evaluation team clerks and members, curricular review facilitators and the list goes on and on. Its thrilling to have lived through this transformation from a one person Dean of Faculty and three divisional principals to one in which we all see ourselves as leaders sometimes and team members always.