Sunday, September 7, 2014

Unusually Excellent

John Hamm's book, Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills required for the Practice of Great Leadership, made me think about the various bosses I've had over the years. Since I have taught in several districts, two states and for more than two decades, this is not an insignificant number. I have worked for two truly great administrators, two truly awful ones and many average ones. I appreciate how challenging it is to be truly great and how a school culture tends to breed greatness, mediocrity or poor performance.

John breaks down these skills into three groups: credibility- being authentic, trustworthy and compelling; competence- leading people and bringing talent to teams, leading strategy and leading execution; and consequence- communication, decision making and impact. Leaders I have worked with who are great encapsulate the big three. They might not be perfect, but they admit their mistakes, make improvements and move on. Leaders who do not encapsulate the big three have had morale problems on their teams, poor performance in their schools and toxic work environments.

One of my biggest beefs with the field is with talent and teams. Education struggles because assembling talented teams is often a neglected effort. Although most of the suburban areas around where I live do not suffer from a lack of applicants for positions, I know this is not the case over the nation and through all subject areas. So the first challenge is filling positions. Often schools take the best of a group of limited applicants in order to ensure there is an adult in front of the classroom. Because of salary ladders and limited funds, new to the district teachers are often either newbies or teachers within their first five years. Highly talented teachers are not headhunted the way highly talented professionals of other fields are. Add tenure to the mx so that even promising young things can sit in the passenger seat and cruise rather than continue to grow and develop. Then you add seniority rights which mean that even if the new hires have more desirable skill sets than the more experienced staff members, they go when staffing cuts are made. This combination almost ensures a mediocre profession. Unusually excellent administrators navigate these challenging waters, motivate their staff to continue to grow, provide mentorships to improve skills and fight to keep the best and at least sideline the worst.

I am not a trusting soul. Administrators who fail in the credibility field are forever tarnished in my world. John sights several examples of leaders who were seen as inauthentic or two-faced only once for them to lose credibility forever as well. Our leaders need to realize how high the bar is. They need to be as transparent as possible. They need to be up front when there is a mistake and take ownership of their role in it. One slip up ruins them in the eyes of their staff and creates a culture of cover ups.

John talks of consequence as a question of legacy. We have all seen schools that have rooms, buildings and/or filed named after one beloved leader. We all would love to be the leader that lives on in the eyes of the community because of the immense contributions made to the organization, but this is hard. Some things that impact our legacy are decisions, successes and reputations. Reputations are built by subordinates who cast judgments. It is not that bosses should butter up their staffs continually, but that they should always act in ways that create a positive aftertaste. This is done through rewards, respect, awards and education. Rewards and awards are difficult in the public sector. This is changing in some districts, but in general this is difficult. Our leaders cannot bestow raises because someone went on and beyond the call of duty. Not that I want every staff member to get an award at the end of the school year saying what a great job he did, but there should be recognition for the individual challenges overcome by staff members given in ways the individual appreciates. Betty may need an individual handwritten note, John may want recognition at a faculty meeting and Sally may need both. Great leaders know their staffs and respectfully acknowledge meaningful accomplishments. Being given the opportunity to serve as teacher leaders, mentors and trainers offers a way to recognize talent. Sending people to trainings so they can come back and share their new understandings allows some teachers to be recognized. Administrators need to work to identify ways to reward meaningful feats. It can be done.

John's discussion of legacy left me thinking about how the leader works to develop culture. If a leader creates, supports or encourages a culture of growth, hard work, respect and clear communication, the legacy is likely to be positive. If back-stabbing, telling people what they want to hear rather than the truth, playing favorites and observance of the status quo are parts of the culture, then the legacy is likely to be negative. What brings these together is the way these behaviors will reflect the success of the organization as well. If you promote a positive legacy, the organization will be more successful as a whole. Our leaders need to find ways to be unusually excellent so that unusual excellence can be developed in the staffs of our schools and the educations we offer our students.

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