What Does Leadership Look Like?

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” ㄧ Lao Tzu


Leadership looks like Kim Lysne, founding teacher and curriculum coordinator at Woodlawn School, who led our middle school team meetings. She prompted us to dialogue about our collaborative work; provided structures for us to plan with; acted as steward of our resources; monitored our collective workflow to eliminate any unnecessary obstacles and ensure our work had continuity and purpose; and (I now realize) modeled facilitative coaching in every conversation. I left our meetings with a sense of satisfaction, excitement, determination. And I left our meetings feeling competent.


Our team buzzed dynamically through our work like a well-oiled machine, integrating and collaborating. Kim wasn't the machine operator, but the custodian of the machine, moving along behind the scenes applying oil, adjusting the gears, evaluating the output, watching the big picture. Her leadership moves were almost imperceptible, and she felt much more like an integrated member of our team than a boss. There was joy and reciprocity in our friendship despite my relative lack of experience. When I reflect back on her work now, I find myself in awe of her humble and powerful leadership.


Seeking to Understand: Begin with Ignorance


"One of [system leaders'] greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts." — The Dawn of System Leadership, by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania


Leadership depends on the kind of wisdom that develops only from recognizing ignorance. I learned this as I suspect many people do: by assuming I knew everything.


Through years of growing and learning as an educator, I certainly developed a strong teaching philosophy and a giant bag of tricks. But I still remember the blank stares and defensive postures of my new colleagues when, a few days into my first year at a small middle school, I suggested we transition to an online calendar instead of Ye Olde Laminated Wall Calendar. Certain that they just needed a few more details about my plan, I continued: I usually used a wiki  that was perfect for class announcements! I could go ahead and create a mock-up for them to play around with if they liked? Oh, and maybe we could transition our student notes over to an electronic system as well?


They weren't bad ideas, but they were good ideas in a vacuum.


I didn't yet know Rose: the sarcastic but secretly sentimental science teacher who shepherded chickens, introduced seventh graders to a new level of accountability, and would have been my pioneering ally in going digital. That is, if I had taken the time to notice that she was more comfortable when new ideas were introduced privately, with time to mull them over and, preferably, with a way for her to participate meaningfully in their implementation.

I didn't yet know Vickie: the quiet , thoughtful history teacher who had a much better idea for the digital platform our calendar should use but wouldn't share alternative ideas unless invited to. Vickie avoids offering what she sees as unsolicited advice as part of her communication style, but once I purposely engaged her for brainstorming sessions, she was a wealth of important wisdom.


I also didn't yet know Veracross, the digital system we already used for grades and attendance. What were its capabilities and limitations? How were teachers' already using it as a digital communication tool? Perhaps most importantly, I didn't yet know that this team was struggling to recalibrate after the appointment of new head of school with a top-down leadership style.


I had a bag of good tricks, but I hadn't taken the time to know the system. Once I realized my ignorance, it became a powerful tool for seeking to understand. Understanding a new system requires building and prioritizing relationships, asking questions, and observing without judgment. While I had initially pegged my new team as resistant to change, I eventually found that we were making big changes together that served the students. I still enter new spaces with my experiences, my philosophy, and my bag of tricks — but also with a posture of seeking to understand.


Creating Meaning Together: Proceed with All Voices


“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool — even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don't agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.” — Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson


If a path forward can't be right if it isn't right for the system, choosing a path should consider viewpoints from all constituents of the system. Seeking to understand the system of a school itself is a starting point, but this machinery is interlocking and constantly in motion. Maintaining it effectively involves ongoing attention to surfacing and honoring multiple viewpoints. The dance between hearing every voice fully and still efficiently moving forward requires skilled and thoughtful facilitation.


Developing Deliberately: The Process is the Goal


"[Deliberately developmental organizations] are the most powerful settings in the world we have found for developing people's capabilities, precisely because they have created a safe enough and demanding enough culture that everyone comes out of hiding." — An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey


One autumn day when I was around 8 years old, I expended significant effort hauling my Fisher-Price play kitchen up the slide to my treehouse. I found a few cleaning rags and a big plastic bowl my dad wouldn't miss. Even though the sudsy water made the decals on the kitchen's surface ripple and fade, scrubbing the plastic clean each day became a favorite ritual. After I finished I'd dump the suds and begin my "laundry": wringing out the rags under fresh water and hanging them in the sunshine to dry. On occasion I'd wobble up the slide with my family's broom to sweep the dead leaves from the treehouse floor.


One day I realized that all I ever did in my treehouse was work. Chores were supposed to be something to get through so you could relax, right? Why was I "playing house" by imitating the hard part and not the good part? I hurried to finish up my cleaning that day and then settled in to relax. To rest. To enjoy my day. To . . . sit there. It turns out that relaxing was boring.


I discovered an important truth that day. Having a clean kitchen and clean rags and a clean floor was not important to me. Buzzing busily around my treehouse every day finding new ways to improve is what fed my identity: I am effective, I am a hard worker, I am independent. The product of my work was not what fulfilled me ㄧ the process was.


✼ ✼ ✼


Some people have always known they wanted to be a teacher, but I wasn't sure I wanted to be a teacher until I became one at 22. It turns out that being a teacher offers so much in the way of galvanizing process. There's the process of creating meaningful project work, the process of developing classroom and school culture, the process of nurturing relationships with each incredible student. But I quickly realized during my first year of teaching I was hoarding all this transformative process for myself. My students' experience consisted of short, manufactured processes (answer these questions I already know the answer to) and products (turn in your work packets). As an unintended consequence of this, their class experience was necessarily filtered through my identity and worldview. Their own identity development was squished into the margins between classes and after school. Another unintended consequence was that I expended considerable energy manufacturing student engagement, since the work itself was meaningless. Stumbling over these truths was my accidental introduction to constructivist education, though I didn't know that term at the time. What I did know is that I wanted to experiment with turning process over to students  ㄧ something I have been doing ever since.


It works. When I tasked a group of 9th graders with finding an architectural solution to a community problem, their process took us to tour LEED-certified buildings, confer with builders about sustainable development, and visit city planners. When I tasked a group of 7th and 8th graders with following their passion to improve society, one of them developed and tested cupcake recipes for alternative diets and published a cookbook now available on Amazon. Another researched and built bluebird houses to install around our campus to serve an ecological need. Another began ice skating mentorships for young children at her rink, beginning relationships that continued year after year.


As I ventured into collegial coaching and facilitating adult learning, I unsurprisingly found that my colleagues were just as energized by tackling process, though around the country some schools are handing teachers prepared curricula and some professional development opportunities hand teachers a toolbox. But working together to identify desired outcomes for students, strategies to support them, and frameworks for facilitating their process is the process that honors and fulfills adult learners. Process feeds our identities. And shared process toward a common goal creates shared meaning and belonging.


Deliberately developmental organizations are organizations that prioritize the professional growth of their employees by creating an environment where it is both safe and necessary to be continually in process. Both the individual and the organization as a whole are constantly growing. By meeting the basic human need to develop, these organizations ensure their own longevity: they are more resilient and better able to respond to change. In short, they are committed to process.


I am a deliberately developmental leader. My priority is students' development, faculty's development, and my development ㄧ facilitating these individual processes and highlighting the relationship between our personal and professional growth and the health of our school as a whole.


What Does Leadership Look Like?


Leadership begins with a deliberate posture of ignorance, surfaces all voices in the shared work, and prioritizes continual development. It is most visible in its absence: we see what's not working, what is still needed. We see the unfulfilled goals and unproductive struggle. When it is present, leadership is one component of the broader system, orchestrating and maintaining. It tends to disappear entirely behind the well-oiled machine itself.