Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Honoring Leaders I've Followed -- Leadership Day 2010

I've been consumed lately with thoughts about leadership in 21st Century schools. This thinking started when our district superintendent announced she would be leaving for a new assignment--in a district far away. Her announcement to the Leadership Team struck a tough blow. It splintered the present, as we'd enjoyed it, into sparks of the future as our organization moves forward. Our team is seasoned enough to recognize a crossroad. As I glanced around the room following the shattering message, I witnessed what my colorful brother-in law might call a "come-apart." Ripped apart at the seams, it seemed. The district leaders froze and slowly thawed. They self-consciously tried to "shake it off" and slowly, one by one, they dispersed in different directions-- a bit weary and worn--toward uncertainty. Things would never be quite the same. All of this occurred in the first moments of a leadership vacuum. It was devastating. We would miss our leader.

The loss of a good leader gets personal very quickly. Within seconds, I found myself attempting to "mend seams" by examining my sky-high expectations for education leaders. I found myself mentally turning the pages of Lee Iacocca's 2007 best-seller, Where Have All The Leaders Gone? I called up his words describing a crisis in our nation's leadership. I agreed with Iacocca's thought stream. It frightens me to admit that great leaders are rare.

In recent weeks, I've focused inward to assess the personal impact of this recent leadership change. I've reflected on the actions and patterns that have guided the course of my educational endeavors in t
he past, seeking wisdom and direction to inform my own next steps. It became crystal clear in hindsight that I've shaped an entire career by making deliberate decisions to follow and support outstanding leaders. I've chosen to align with those who are visionary, progressive, driven, passionate, and courageous about doing the right things at the right time for the stakeholders they serve.

Reflection convinced me that my future started long ago. I didn't choose my first "leader." By grace, I was born to a first class boss. He was a dashing, hard-charging Army Captain, serving in post-World War II Japan. I'm pretty sure he commanded his troops in the same way he commanded our family--firmly, fairly, and decisively with courageous moral authority, ethical certainty, and high expectations. There was safety in his love-tempered discipline and freedom to thrive within his clear boundaries. I learned life's lessons easily in my father's home. They shaped me in foundational ways that guide, protect and lead me today. It is not surprising that I came to hold the leaders in my adult life to similar high standards. I realize in hindsight that the yardstick provided by my father became my measure for satisfaction with leaders. Once my satisfaction meter registered below Dad's standard, I went "leadership" hunting.

My first real leadership "pick" was a dy.no.mite little principal who landed 2 million in grant funds to dream a math and science magnet school into existence. The time I spent with her convinced me that teachers can reinvent school and all children can learn at high levels in the right kinds of schools with the right kind of leader.

My next "hire" was a charming, charismatic leader for IBM Eduquest. He envisioned using technology to reinvent schools across the entire USA and Canada. He was a dreamer who enabled me to see infinite possibilities amidst gargantuan barriers. With his help, I learned to challenge the status quo and to persevere in the face of obstacles designed to squash armies of technology-inspired change agents.

My most influential "choice" was the Dean of a College of Education. His "larger than life" presence and intellect led him to a university presidency. Then, his moral purpose called him back to educator preparation, a fertile ground for seeding the next generation of school leaders. From him, I gained an infallible commitment to excellence and an unshakable certainty that the leaders of today can build a foundation for the schools of tomorrow.

My most recent, carefully selected leader left our school district on Friday, July 30 on Leadership Day 2010. It seemed fitting that Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant) encouraged bloggers to focus
on leadership on that day. I didn't blog on Friday. I mourned. Next week my former boss will begin leading educators across the globe. She'll share lessons we learned together and taught each other. She'll bring the "burned out" and the discouraged new hope. She'll reignite a spark in those whose smoldering good intentions are flickering and threatening to extinguish. From her, I learned that the will to accomplish the impossible, when combined with an unshakable determination to succeed, is unbeatable.

So, what actions must one take when blessed to have worked with such fine leaders? For today, I'll honor them as a part of Leadership Day 2010. I'll start by quoting Bill Gates in a critically important message to the American Federation of Teachers. Gates said, "Sometimes the most difficult act of leadership is not fighting the enemy; it's telling your friends it's time to change." Let me start by speaking candidly to my many friends in educational leadership.

Dear Education Leaders,

It is time to change. We've walked your school halls and visited your classrooms. Many of them look eerily like those in the schools you and I attended. Those schools don't work today. I urge you to follow the wisdom I've gained from four exemplary education leaders. Each of them has moved traditional schools toward relevance in our modern age. Please use their imprint to cultivate modern learning environments for the students in your care. Optimize the responsibility you've been given by ensuring that students learn and thrive in the 21st Century. You can make changes if you will follow my leaders. Here are their lessons.

1. Convince teachers that they can reinvent school.
2. Convince students that they can learn at higher levels.
3. Confront and embrace the infinite possibilities for 21st Century learners.
4. Confront and eliminate the barriers that protect a 19th Century school system.
5. Commit to excellence with a certainty that empowers YOU to build the schools we need.
6. Commit, with unshakable determination, to accomplishing what seems impossible.

Try it. Try it. Try it. A thousand times, TRY IT! For the love of our profession, LET'S ALL TRY IT! In 2010, it is way.past.time.

Photo Credit: America's Pastime, Aesthetic_Ryan's_photostream, June 17, 2006