John C. Maxwell is a leadership guru. He has written many books, led many leadership training programs and been a leadership trainer for virtually his entire life. His book, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundations for Successful Leadership, is the latest that I have picked up. One section of a chapter spurred my thinking this morning: "Communicate the message with simplicity and power."
He says that leaders need to "communicate the vision for change" with "reasons for it" (p. 239). Leaders are constantly being confronted with a need for change. If is it a growing or shrinking work force, a new product challenge, market shifts or, as in education, a new school year with new students and regulations, standards and laws. Do our leaders- principals and superintendents- clearly and effectively communicate the vision? At its most basic, the mission of most schools is to raise or maintain test scores so that the powers at be will be happy. That incorporates improving instruction, meeting students physical and health needs, providing a safe learning environment with adequate resources and much more. At our most basic level though, it seems the driving force is test scores. Therein is a problem. If test scores are what the community at large is using as the yard stick, then that is our goal- whether we acknowledge it or not. If school leaders want a different goal, they need to communicate it as simply as possible. Skip the fancy language of politicians and bureaucrats, we need to the core and share it so that everyone understands and is on board with it.
Last year my department spent a couple of faculty meetings on refining and unpacking our mission and vision. We went from a three line of text vision statement to a three bullet point statement. The mere fact that it needed two faculty meetings to unpack the message should have been a clue that we were not looking at the vision and mission from the appropriate altitude. I was trying to find the reference to something I read years ago about mission statements: for many years the mission of Coke was "beat Pepsi." Two words encapsulated the entire movement of the organization. There was plenty of movement around how to do that- create the best, consistent product; develop markets in new areas; increase sales in current markets,... Everyone in the company knew and could provide the mission. I am not sure that my boss, who has the mission on every one of her emails in the signature line could state verbatim the mission. I know the rest of my team cannot. This is not unusual. The mission statement at my children's schools is full of wordy nonsense that cannot be restated and thus cannot be achieved by the team. That is danger of the complex mission- it cannot be the focus of the team. We need a "simple clear message" (p. 239) if we want our message to be consistently demonstrated in our ranks. If you ask me, our department's mission is "to help school districts meet the needs of their students." Words like professionalism and teamwork are the means to the end. Why cloud the mission with the mechanism for achieving it?
We also see this the classroom level. The fancier and more complicated we make our language, the less likely our students are to understand it. We use statements like, "Stop" or "walk" when we see a problem developing because that simple word gets attention. Too many words become the Charlie Brown adult, "wha, wha, wha, wha..." I have had teachers tell me everything they say is important and kids should learn it all. Very rarely is this the case. Let's drill down, find the essential elements of the instruction- that is what everyone needs- you can provide more for the more motivated and higher achieving, but know that everyone does not need to know it.
Simplicity of directions is essential. I have read some ridiculous directions over the years. If what the kids need to do is select the right choice- that is all the directions need to include. If there are many steps, break them down to bullets or a sequence and help kids to accomplish each part. You could and should teach them to do this, but it must me taught not expected. We have more power if we communicate simply than if we complicate it.