I had a college art professor that was “kind of a big deal” in the New York art scene of the 60’s. He also had a bit of a cult following on my campus. His signature works were big canvas, 10,000-brush stroke abstractions. No preconceived concept tainting the moment by moment flow of creative energy. Very Zen.
The first meeting of that class consisted of him talking for two hours. If memory serves me, I raised my hand at one point to offer a thought; he looked at me oddly. “They speak?” He seemed truly puzzled, and then refound his footing on his long, meandering, destination-less talk to us 19- and 20-year olds.
Fortunately, I was able to turn to a sage on the mountaintop for advice on the interesting predicament of working under a professor who, despite his decades of looking, did not see me (or any of us) with any real sense of who we were – my mom, a teacher herself. After listening to my litany of complaints, she asked one simple question – I remember this today as if our phone call were yesterday:
“Even if he’s not the greatest teacher ever – what can he contribute to your learning? What unique thing can you learn from him?”
20 years later, I have fond memories of that class, and good feelings about the out-there grey-bearded Abstract Expressionist who did in fact help me learn that complex, layered, unique work could arise from an empty, non-fixated mindset. I learned from him that committing to the creative process gives rise to new, unforeseen ideas – as the author Colette so beautifully said: “Writing leads to more writing.”
My Leadership School 2.0 starts with this course because of the danger this very scenario presents. As people, we tend to decide very quickly what we think about something, or someone (see Gladwell’s Blink). Students start making judgements about their teachers within seconds of meeting them; at times, those initial judgements can have a lasting effect on how they think about that teacher. Any dean or assistant principal who handles discipline has had this conversation with countless students (one, in fact, very similar to my mom’s phone advice to me in college); something happened that has convinced the student that this teacher is no good, this teacher doesn’t like me, I don’t have any chance of being successful in this teacher’s class.
Adults are no different. In fact, I don’t think I’m stepping out on too-thin a limb when saying that we adults are far more prone to drawing lines in the sand, digging moats, erecting fortresses of solitude, and burning all bridges (please, please, excuse this awful metaphor jumble) when we feel threatened, under attack, misunderstood…or if we simply don’t like someone.
So what is the school leader to do? Our job is to get our organization thinking as one so that, collectively, we can strive toward some agreed-upon effects with a sense of collective purpose. How do we lead when it is highly likely that some people don’t like us? And to be completely fair – we also will not “like” everyone on our staff. We, too, in our humanness, will find our ability to take the high road challenged by some of our colleagues. And, sadly, things we do or say (or don’t do, or don’t say) to individuals we don’t like can cause permanent damage to a working relationship that could very well last for years. It is highly likely that that individual’s negative experience with us will also influence how their close colleagues see us.
We have to find something to love in everyone – even in the people we don’t like.
I don’t think my college art teacher was a particularly good teacher. If, by “teacher,” I mean someone who consciously creates an experience in which a “student” emerges more self-confident, more able to confront unknown situations, and wiser for having been exposed to different kinds of thinking, then I don’t believe my art professor was very good at doing those things with conscious competence. The key in that situation was the mindset I adopted, thanks to the counsel of a great teacher. I walked away from that class richer for the experience because I chose to focus on the lovable parts of my teacher, and not the parts that spoke nonstop for two hours without recognizing that the young, curious, questioning individuals in front of him might have had thoughts of their own to contribute.
By choosing to see the good in people, we aren’t somehow writing off bad behavior for the sake of false, surface harmony. I believe we invite a deeper level of accountability and commitment to the collective work because we recognize that this person does in fact have something important to contribute to our organization. We do away with the “back-row mentality” of subtle (or not-so-subtle) subversion from those that may have chosen to “quit and stay” due to any number of reasons: professional burnout; personal crisis; bad experience with past (current?) leader.
“Keep your enemies closer…” No, that’s not it. Our colleagues are not our enemies. They might have some truly misguided attitudes and practices. They might say and do some very unprofessional things. So, rather than make a snap judgement and develop a fixed mindset about who they are (after all, we hope that people won’t think that way about us in our leadership roles), get to know them better. Find out what’s going on in their life. Understand what drives them to do the work they do and bring that commitment to the surface.
We must approach our colleagues as my professor-of-old approached his blank canvases: open to whatever the process of doing brought forward. Leaving behind past practice (past experiences) and letting this experience be
Questions to consider for leaders in Course I:
1) How do I maintain awareness about my own emotional triggers when working with all members of my staff?
2) What does adopting a stance of loving leadership look, sound, and feel like?
3) Who are the individuals that I have written off – and what do I need to do to build a bridge to them?
4) Who are the quiet individuals I haven’t paid enough attention to? How do I help them envision and carry out their unique contributions to our school?
5) What time and space will I create for staff to learn, wonder, question, build, and celebrate together?