Posted by: principalsintraining | June 11, 2013

Course 5: How To Be A Beginner – Forever.


I love doing things I’m bad at.

That’s not to say I love every second of doing those things.  Being mired in the deep, visceral, exhausting frustration of finishing 18 holes of golf, for example, is not what I would call buckets of fun.  That said – and I believe I speak for hack golfers the world ’round  – there are few feelings more uplifting than a perfectly placed shot worthy of the pro circuit.  Moments when the body is relaxed, the mind is quiet, and the outcome you envisioned happens.

I experience this rarely while playing golf (and I rarely play golf!), but they serve as motivation to wade through the struggle.   By approaching the new/unfamiliar act with an open mind (not attached to any outcome), we allow the experience to show us something new about the world and our perception of what is possible.  If we add a little expert guidance to the equation, it is surprising to see how quickly we develop greater fluidity and comfort in this once-scary undertaking.

Carol Dweck marvelously illustrates this point in Mindset with her story about portrait drawing.  For some people, drawing someone in a representatively accurate way is an extremely stressful proposition!  (In fact, I hear “I’m not creative” or “I’m not good at art” so much that I might make my fortune in the growing realm of memes!)  Dweck discusses how people who draw two-dimensional stick figure portraits are able to rapidly advance their skills with careful guidance.  After a very short period (a few days I think) of instruction and feedback, they begin producing drawings that really do resemble their subject!

What goes through a child’s mind when they paint or draw?  A look at my daughter’s work above (done when she was four) reminds me of why I love to paint.  Colors are fascinating by themselves – or overlapping!  Paint on the tip of a brush does all kinds of surprising things.  Over time the child painter may develop more pre-conceived notions of what they are putting to paper, but at first they are simply and totally absorbed in the magic of the medium and the process.

A fundamental premise of Leadership School 2.0 (terrible title – needs immediate fixing!) is to combat the fixed mindset that can creep in when we achieve a certain degree of technical and interpersonal expertise in our leadership roles – or when we’re feeling punch-drunk from being in the ring for too long.  People with a fixed mindset will avoid new challenges for fear of failure – and leading in fear is a sure recipe for failure!  Our most important quality as educational leaders must be our willingness to model risk-taking, openness to new practices, and a deep commitment to seeing our frustrated golfers and scared portrait artists through their struggles.

Course 5 posits leadership as a way of being, a way of looking at the organization not as something to be maintained, but to be sculpted, grown, deconstructed, and re-engineering according to the needs of the learners – students and adults.

Course 5 poses the following challenge: rather than consider others as resistant to change, look in the mirror at your own behaviors to assess just how adaptive you are as a learner.  Maybe throw in some yoga just for the sake of it.

You will move around as a leader.  Every new place you land will challenge you to reconsider what you know and make you relearn your job, even if (especially if) you are 30 years in.  How successful are leaders/teachers with a fixed mindset when dropped into a new environment?  Yep.

“Leadership School 2.o” isn’t meant to be a title hung over a brick and mortar space; rather, it represents the ongoing learning, reflection, and personal growth that is the lifeblood of good leadership.  So class is never technically over.  There is no certificate that comes with it.

It simply asks you to draw a self-portrait at frequent intervals to see how far you’ve come along.

Questions for leaders to consider for Course 5:

1) How do I show my beginner’s mindset to my staff, student body, parents, and community?

2) How do I support my staff to adopt a beginner’s mindset in ways that complement the mission/vision of our school?

3) How can we involve students in providing feedback on new practices – e.g., “things we’re bad at?”

4) How do we build a culture that supports and nourishes risk-taking, inclusion, and emotional safety?

5) How will you as a leader document and share your learning with your school community?



  1. What I appreciate about this post is that you are dovetailing with the renaissance of the Maker/DIY movement. A significant part of this movement is to TRY something as a beginner and be open to failure. It’s easier to mess up a soldering project than to botch a day-long professional development seminar. I’m thinking of a Maker project as a good entre’ to the value of failure (and the necessary attempt to succeed) as long as there is learning and reapplication at the end of the day.

    It’s tough to work with a leader who never a) accepts outside input or b) asks for post-activity feedback. Be open. Be a beginner.

    • Terrific point you make about DIY movement as a perfect example of the beginner’s mindset in action. The “Genius Hour” concept is also really interesting – what if ALL of us in education (staff, students) spent 20% of our time with a blank canvas? I think there might need to be some parameters there, but without it we run the risk of rote repetition – and “units of study” ending in a project or essay. Thanks for the feedback.

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