Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Covey’s Influence on My Work

This post has been brewing in my mind for sometime now, but it brought me to the keyboard today as I look back on the influence Stephen Covey has had on my work as a school leader. Covey, author of  several books on leadership, passed away on July 16th, 2012. On the news today I heard several people mention his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, yet, I remember him for a different book.

I am not sure where I first heard his name but it was about a decade ago when I had just started my training to become a principal. I think I stumbled across a book authored by him as I wandered through the bookstore at Miami University in Ohio. While buying textbooks, I used to enjoy browsing the shelves to see what was on display for other courses. Often I left with used copies of titles which piqued my interest.  That is how I found a copy of Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’. It seemed to fall right into the realm of the overarching leadership themes and focus on vision that played through the educational leadership program. When we talked about ‘leadership’ as opposed to ‘administration’ I was fascinated by the ideas I was learning, but it was Covey’s book which gave me a picture of how this notion of leadership within a community could play out. His book opened my eyes to new possibilities were I to have the privilege of leading a school.

I was fascinated. The world of business seemed to have more warmth and connections through Covey’s lens than I had realized. He emphasized building relationships and I was keen to consider his perspective within a school setting. Today, I spent a few minutes skimming through my portfolio, created at the end of my leadership program, and sure enough I had multiple references in my writing to what I had learned from his work – I had reiterated his idea of ‘Principle-Centered Leadership’ and his notion of life-long learning.

“If you don’t experience your life, you’re not going to come up with solutions for anything. Every intention, every achievement has come out of dissatisfaction, not serenity. No one ever said, “Things are perfect, let’s invent fire.” ~ Fran Lebowitz

There was a time when I used to shy away from conflict, but then I learned from him that it is in airing our disagreements and different perspectives that we can be stretched in our thinking. Covey emphasized that to move ahead, we have to deal with restraining forces before addressing the driving forces. He spoke of how just pressing down on the gas pedal will not allow us to move forward unless we take our feet off the brake. As a school leader, I see that change is always ’round the corner, and I also see that my crew members have different reactions to the changes we encounter. We will not be able to move forward unless we engage with each other about the things that hold us back from ‘implementing’ the change sincerely, or as we say these days in education, ‘with fidelity’. In my book, engaging is about about ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’. And that cannot happen without taking the time to build relationships.

In an era of accountability in education, another notion of Covey’s resonates for me. He said that proactive people would take responsibility for their choices without placing blame on external factors. That is something I have tried to emphasize with my team – a sense of taking responsibility for our charge, learning from our mistakes and moving forward. I started my career with my 3 R’s – and now I recognize that two of them, Relationships and Responsibility, quite likely grew out of my meanderings in Covey’s books . A vision can unfold more meaningfully when there is a collective sense of responsibility, and that cannot grow in a vacuum without relationships either.

I wonder if some might read my blog and think to themselves, “OK, Subha, this relationship building, warm and fuzzy stuff you speak of is well and good but what about raising student achievement? Isn’t that your bigger job?” If I heard that question, my response would be that both can co-exist, and actually need to co-exist. Using tough tactics to require the implementation of instructional ‘best practices’ without building relationships might allow us to see the ‘actions’ and ‘behaviors’ we want to see, but they will probably be inconsistently implemented and will likely not be sustainable over time. If people don’t believe in something and if they feel like it’s being ‘done to them’ they’re going to be in fight or flight mode for the most part.  On the flip side, if a school is all about being warm and fuzzy and building a sense of community without  focusing on rigorous and sound curricular practices, then yes, we will have a caring community but student achievement will not go off the charts upwards.

Strong relationships and rigor in instructional practices can help build successful educational organizations. It takes time for good practices to ‘stick’. People will be more willing to work at something if they understand the rationale for it, and if there is an atmosphere of trust and relationships to cushion their journey as new learning takes place. Covey has written a lot about building and regaining trust. Trust is something we cannot expect as leaders. It is something we have to earn. And trust cannot be fostered without relationships.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people who came before us, stumbled and reflected, then took the time to share their learning and influence others. We get to hear and read what they experienced and make sense of it all by adding our perspectives and experiences to the mix. Covey opened my eyes to the big things that one wrestles with over time. I have learned to reflect on and refine the ideas, see how things fit and where they fit in my life and work. I can question big ideas and make new meaning for myself. Covey is one among many who influenced what I do and in some sense he and others have made my work exciting – it is not in auto-pilot mode and I do wrestle daily with the issues that come my way because these giants have given me food for thought. They have taught me that there is no quick formula in my work… that I have to be willing to work hard, keep my compass steady and build connections because leadership is a ‘people’ business.

I remember listening to Covey narrating one of his audio books some years back and thinking that this was someone who was passionate about his work. In his voice, I could sense his excitement and his respect for the work we do. People are fortunate when they have the opportunity to work on something they love. He seemed to be some who thoroughly enjoyed his work and connecting with others even more. Covey’s ideas are beyond warm and fuzzy – they’re easy to accept and challenging to implement. I am grateful to have engaged with his ideas so far through the lens that he shared. I do believe that in the years ahead, many more leaders will continue to stand on his shoulders as they take responsibility for building relationships and a shared vision with their crew.

Do What It Takes!

In my mind, leadership and collaboration are inseparable, so it seems natural for me to shy away from giving importance only to leaders with titles. I see leadership as something that everyone has responsibility for within an organization. Sure, the buck has to stop somewhere and that is where people with titles come in, however, a different kind of power comes into play when multiple individuals step up to play a leadership role when the situation calls for it.

On this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we’ve heard about ordinary people demonstrating incredible courage to help others on that tragic day – people who were moved to respond to what was happening. In between listening to stories of courage and heroism by those who helped so many escape from the burning buildings, I heard about people coming out of buildings around the World Trade Center to hand water or peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches to those who were fleeing. They may not have known what to do in such an overwhelming tragedy but found a way to help others in need without being asked.

I also heard, for the first time, that over 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan by sea that day, given that bridges, tunnels and subways had been shut down. Apparently, people fled to the water’s edge to get away but there were very few boats to transport them. The coast guard, seeing the crowds growing, put out a call for other boats to come in and help, and within minutes an incredible array of tug-boats, ferries and private boats came to the rescue. The story of this rescue in the words of the people who manned the boats was very moving. In a world where we sometimes complain so much about being “too busy” or “too stressed out”, here was another example of how people set aside what they were doing to respond to the needs of others in a crisis. They went back and forth, evacuating people from Manhattan for over nine hours. This was not rehearsed… there was no plan in place. But, during a crisis the people on the boats saw a need and stepped in to demonstrate their leadership.

In stories of tragedy and despair we’ve often heard of people who step up and ‘do what it takes’. Whether a crisis is man-made or one wreaked by nature, we hear of strangers who come together and work shoulder-to-shoulder to make a difference. I believe this human capacity for doing what it takes is another way to define leadership. How powerful it would be if this potential were unleashed within our organizations everyday, by people feeling a collective sense of responsibility to make a difference, working together and stepping up to do what it takes.

Why then, within organizations, do people feel ‘tied down’? When titles come into play do hierarchies gain importance? Do people with titles work deliberately to foster leadership across their organizations? In education, a lot has been written in recent years about fostering teacher leadership. But, if we stop to talk to teachers or people in other organizations, how many of them would consider themselves as leaders? Everyday I see teachers at my school taking leadership for small and big projects to make a difference for the children in our care, and I wonder if they recognize the leadership role they are playing. Yes, I am the leader of a school, yet, if someone else has an idea worth implementing, I am happy to follow their lead. Does that make me weak? I don’t believe the question should be about my strength or weakness. It should be about what brings strength to our organization.

I want to end with a truly inspiring story of a courageous man who directed security at the offices of Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center. He was concerned about security threats to the World Trade Center and apparently set up two evacuation drills every year – making everyone join in the practice. Consequently, when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, despite hearing messages that people could stay put, he put his evacuation plans into action, calmly directing people to go down the stairs two at a time, just like they had practiced numerous times. Richard “Rick” Rescorla and 13 others lost their lives that day, but over 2500 other Morgan Stanley employees escaped to safety. They all knew the plan – he had ensured that. Rescorla played a leadership role well before that fateful day. I can’t help feeling grateful that no one came in his way to hinder his drills. I will always remember his story and his name.

When we tell children they are the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ we are referring to the roles they will play to shape the world. We are not talking about them holding titles – we just know that who they are will make a difference in how the world runs. Somehow, once these children become adults, many of them focus on doing what people with titles want of them. We need to shake that notion. I truly believe that when individuals see themselves as leaders – when leadership is shared – the organization is stronger. The power lies in what we do with the role each one of us plays – whatever it may be – to do what it takes!

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” — Mother Teresa

“Are You Indispensable?” Hint, Hint… Please Say, “No!”

“Hope you’re feeling better! Things here are going well today.”

That was in an e-mail from one of my teachers this afternoon – I was ill today and had stayed at home. “Hmm! So it takes my being ill for things to go well, huh?” was the first thing I thought, grinning at my own joke! I believe in the adage, “No one is indispensable.” And, that was the next thing that popped into my mind.

As a school leader, I’ve always believed that my school is not about me or the person who sits in the principal’s chair. It should always be about the school community. Indeed, no one is indispensable, and so, if someone in a leadership role leaves, ideally, that should not rock the boat of the school. I thought about that again today. Obviously things hummed along pretty well at school in my absence today. Not only did the daily routine of school move smoothly, but my staff probably made good decisions, problem-solved through issues that came up, consulted people who needed to provide input, and generally managed the myriad details that crop up on a daily basis and need to be addressed. They know they can call me if they have questions or need me, as they have done sometimes. Two teacher leaders even took up the responsibility of facilitating a committee meeting. They took the information I would have presented had I been there, and ran with it. I had no qualms about leaving this responsibility in their capable hands. Until now, I would say that I have taken all of this for granted.

However, today, I heard from one person new to our school, who plays a leadership role. This person said it made a difference that I trusted the people at work – trusted them to make the best calls in my absence. We talked a little more and I’ve been mulling over that conversation this evening. I’m not surprised it found its way into my blog.

It was an unexpected comment which allowed me to reflect on the things I sometimes do in auto-pilot mode. It is very rewarding when things we do quite naturally are appreciated. If I look deeper into that comment, it was really feedback about something important. It was a comment that said people appreciate it when leaders don’t micromanage from afar – when they don’t hound their employees on day-to-day issues. When people feel they are entrusted with important responsibilities, they are eager to step up and do more – they are confident about holding up the fort whether or not the leader is present.

I love quotes, as you’ve learned by now, and found one by Michael Ende (quite possibly lines from one of his books), that fits beautifully.

“She became so important to them that they wondered how they had ever managed without her in the past. And the longer she stayed with them the more indispensable she became, so indispensable in fact that their one fear was that she might some day move on.”

If anyone, in any role, is in the position of being the only one holding the fort up, that would be unhealthy for any organization, because life happens! It might be an illness today, a new and exciting job opportunity tomorrow, a move out of the city, or a tragic family event. Life happens, and people move on or away. Wouldn’t it be sad if we hire people because we believe that they are the best for the job and then bind them up with so much cotton wool that we suffocate their creativity and independence? Cotton wool, you ask? OK, call it bubble wrap if you must! If we are unwilling to let our employees stretch to make professional decisions without padding them up on all sides because we worry about something going wrong without our rubberstamp on it, then we are slowly sucking their energy, creativity and confidence dry. When the moment calls for it, they will be so busy second guessing themselves that the professional skills we hired them for will simply become words on their resume.

As much as the feedback today was rewarding, it was also an important reminder to me and anyone in a leadership role, that our roles begin and end with other people. Leadership is a ‘people’ business. And, fostering the leadership of others is an important charge. Keeping it all to ourselves is not meaningful to our organizations. It is critical to give team members the freedom to think through issues, work through problems, come up with solutions, and know they have our trust to tweak and refine what they do. And should things go wrong, as they sometimes do, if we are consistent in our responses they will come to us and let us know, rather than opting to hide mistakes from us out of fear. Together we can work on figuring out how we respond as an organization to fix them, learn from them and put things in place to prevent future mistakes of the same nature. It then becomes an integral part of our culture.

I believe that it is in giving trust that we earn more of it. This is an important lesson for me to remember, too. In writing this, I’ve just realized that ‘learning and growing’ as a school principal doesn’t happen only on the job. Sometimes, stepping back (or staying away as I ended up doing today) teaches me as much about what is important in my role as being at school.

Shared Leadership – a worthy road to travel!

About a decade ago, I decided to switch gears from being a special education teacher to becoming a school principal. I looked for programs within travelling distance from my home and learned about the Educational Leadership program at Miami University. It was interesting because they were not ready to let me take a few courses and get a license. They emphasized getting a Master’s Degree in this field and then taking several more credits to get a principal’s license.

I was hooked once I saw their guiding principles. They had collectively created a big picture of what they wanted to accomplish and the tone they had set seemed very inviting to me. I became part of a cohort of aspiring principals and we sat through course after course of not School Law and School Finance, but of leadership, ethics, a focus on building community and valuing diversity within an umbrella of themes that spanned race, class and culture. Over a year later, during the nuts and bolts courses on law, finance and personnel issues these concepts continued to play out. We talked a lot about wrestling with ideas, did a lot of journaling (quite uncomfortable a task for me at first, but one that now allows me to reflect on an ongoing basis and blog today), engaged in passionate discussions about issues in education and generally left our classes exhausted. The half hour drive home was energizing for me… my brain hummed with ideas I’d heard in my classes and I was still debating the issues in my head! I couldn’t wait to land my first job as a principal. How time flies!

One of the principles has become an integral part of what I believe in and want to accomplish. Their Principle 6 states, “Leadership is a process of power-sharing rather than power-imposing; it works toward collaboration, emancipation and empowerment.” I have to admit that I was reluctant to embrace this idea at first… after all, I was there because I wanted to become a principal – a school leader – one who had more control over what happened in the school and could chart the course for the school. I was soon an enthusiastic convert! The idea of sharing leadership – working towards a collaborative vision – became very important to me. Having heard teachers and parents say for a long time that they wanted a voice in the process, I figured this would be THE way to go! Little did my idealistic mind realize that this road would be paved with interesting challenges. People far more important than me have written about shared leadership. In an article I found online, Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith said, “…leadership lies not so much in one person having a clear vision as in our capacity to work with others in creating one.” Here, I want to share a little of my experience with shared leadership – I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic again over time.

Our cohort wrestled with ideas… we heard often that there was no specific answer to our big questions. What good preparation that was for the real world of principalship! So here I was, ready to try out the notion of ‘shared leadership’ on the job. I was convinced that all would embrace it. After all, people did want a voice in their organizations, didn’t they? Well, it wasn’t that easy after all. I learned that people were not equally comfortable with this notion. Some were ready to jump on board, to share their leadership, put their ideas in the mix and collaboratively try to make meaning – in other words ‘wrestle’. Others were hesitant. What was this about, anyway? And, why were we doing it? Still others were suspicious – why wasn’t the principal just jumping in and making decisions – calling the shots, telling people what they should be doing? And I was frustrated. I couldn’t figure out why this didn’t work quite the way I had envisioned it? Why was this reaching some and not all?

I have since learned that how we respond to the notion of shared leadership depends to a large extent on our experiences. I could not understand why anyone would hold back on trying this idea. Today I see that there are other things that have to happen for the stage to be set before communities can be full participants. That doesn’t mean we have to hold back on trying it… just that one needs to be patient and understand that this cannot happen quickly. I certainly have more to learn with regard to supporting the development of shared leadership at my school. Having worked in four schools over eight years has meant starting from scratch four times. But as I learn and grow, I know that the idea of sharing leadership will be refined and should blossom eventually.

I want my school community to value collaboration. I want to learn more about drawing everyone into the conversation and building a collective sense of ownership about what we want to accomplish, together. Yes, I do make the final decision but I have been stretched by the contributions of others. It goes back to that earlier piece about things not being written in stone. The perspectives of others do shape the decisions I make. The push and pull of ideas is exciting and exhilarating. Shared leadership here is not in the vein of building based school leadership… but it is about drawing the voices, ideas and contributions of a group of diverse individuals invested in a common goal. It is a good idea, but I wonder whether I have to go back and revisit this idea with my school community… reintroduce or perhaps clarify the idea of shared leadership, and seek to understand how others see it. Over the summer, I will be thinking and learning more about how to move in this direction.

The principalship is about learning and growing – and shared leadership is certainly a concept worth growing!