How to Lead: More Questions Than Answers

When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt.  Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.

“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”

“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”

“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”

“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”

The list goes on and on.  My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile.  It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it.  By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.

  • Listen to your baby
  • Trust your judgement
  • You know more than you think you do

Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life.  Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?

Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about.  However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership.  And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.

As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children.  And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.

Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.

Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?

Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?

Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?

The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.

I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers.  However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.

  • Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
  • Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
  • A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman

They are presented here in the order in which I read them.  This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.

Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.”  Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.

It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.

Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task.  She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role.  She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)

Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning.  She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure.  She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)

Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business.  In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.

Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:

  • Empathy is a valued asset
  • Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
  • The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control

In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring.  This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis.  To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.

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Conversational Capacity

In Conversational Capacity,  (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort.  He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity.  He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)

From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19)  Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.

Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other.  He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.

He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:

  • We remain silent when we should speak up
  • We argue when we should cooperate
  • We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)

Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.

To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise  by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).

Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.

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A Failure of Nerve

Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)

Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation –  or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.

He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12)  He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.

In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members.  He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.

Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.

Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety.  And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.

Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.

Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety.  He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions.  Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped.  They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.

Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else.  However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.

Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.

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Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well.  Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership.  Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders.  That is a heavy responsibility to bear.

Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others.  And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”

While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies.  Each has informed the way in which I lead.

Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.

Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:

  • Listen to your team (Weber)
  • Trust your judgement (Friedman)
  • You know more than you think you do (Brown)

So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.

click image to enlarge

I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.

As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.”  Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs.  Every situation is different, and requires a unique response.  Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.

Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product.  So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health.  Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.




Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

Read more

Conversational Capacity: Learning How to Lead

Sometimes the right thing comes along at just the right time. Other times, you have to wait for it. My search for the right leadership tool was one of those “wait for it” times.

In the fall of 2012, I took on my first real leadership role – special education department chair. I was nervous about it, unsure if I was really ready. But, I reasoned, perhaps like parenting, it’s the kind of thing that you can’t ever really be ready for until you are in the midst of it.

It didn’t take long before I made my first giant mistake. I was leading a department meeting that had already extended beyond the provided time, and I was explaining, for what felt like the umpteenth time, the administrative directive concerning how to prepare test administrators for giving accommodated tests. It was an unpopular initiative, as it required additional work. As I spoke, a few people were off-task, and others had already begun packing up their materials. I felt frustrated and angry. In the midst of all this, one of my colleagues commented, “I think what we have been doing is just fine. I think we should just continue doing that.” Instead of listening and responding appropriately, I snapped back, and I quote, “It actually doesn’t really matter what you think.”

Ouch. The meeting came to a screeching halt, and we adjourned in discomfort.

I immediately knew I was wrong, and I did the only two things I knew to do to try and fix things. I called Caroline to apologize, (She didn’t answer, so I had to leave a voice message) and I also sought out Jack to tell him exactly what I had done and to acknowledge my error.

Things moved on. We had more meetings, but I never was able to correct things with Caroline. Our relationship remained haunted by this conflict.

After this incident, I began actively seeking leadership mentoring. What I discovered was that there is a dearth of people who feel comfortable with this. Jack often says that the entirety of his induction and training into the principal-ship was a handshake and a hearty, “Welcome Aboard.” When I off-handedly asked him for leadership support, he just looked at me as if I was speaking some foreign tongue.

I next asked one of the academic coaches assigned to our building, who also happened to be a friend of mine. Her response shocked me. She laughed and said, “Krista, you are a natural leader. There is nothing that I can teach you.”

What?! How was I supposed to learn if no one would teach me?!

I settled on a teacher nearing retirement, who had been in a Team Leader role for a number of years. She didn’t actually know that she was serving as my mentor because I had lost the courage to keep asking for help, but I intentionally watched her and tried to learn from her.

So I watched, and I learned, and I stumbled, and I grew along the way.

I knew I was improving, but I also felt like there was something missing – my mistakes always seemed to be made in the same vein, but I couldn’t quite articulate what it was that was happening. I just knew I wasn’t satisfied.

Then early in this school year, (a mere five years after my initial foray into leadership), Jack saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity,

He said this about it:

Craig’s work related to much of what is explored in Kegan’s Immunity to Change. This is challenging work, where the individual reader or participant seeks to reveal the hidden motivators and obstacles that prevents one from making changes in oneself. It aligns with a key leadership theory in the Harvard Urban School Leaders program: to change a school or other organization you must first change yourself. You must become the leader it needs. Similarly, Craig argues that if you want to have productive conversations, you must read the dynamics of the conversation and change your actions. Doing this creates the most insightful dialogue that exposes the most important information and encourages the right set of possible next steps.

Jack was so impacted by this presentation that he asked if I would like to read the book with him.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Not only did the title promise to help me improve team functionality during high-stress situations, but I also figured that if Jack and I were reading this together, I could trick him into serving as my leadership mentor without him realizing it. As enthusiastic as I was, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.

Turns out that Conversational Capacity was both the challenge and the answer that I had been seeking for so long. Craig cites Robert Kegan in defining the role of leaders. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.”[1] (29)

“Shaping the nature of the discourse” – this was what I needed to learn to do better.

Craig’s premise is that the critical factor for teams is not the much touted establishment of trust and respect, rather it is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15) He goes on to describe moments in which this is happening as the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that while this sounds deceptively simple, our human nature tends to get in the way of our ability to remain in this balanced place when under pressure or when discussing challenging issues. “While it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.” (15)

After having read only the first chapter, I understood several things about this work:

  • It was serendipitous that Jack and I were reading this together because we represent both ends of Craig’s spectrum. When things get challenging, Jack tends to “shut down” while I “heat up.”
    I tend to “heat up” while Jack “shuts down

    This serves neither of us well.

  • Getting pulled out of the conversational sweet spot was exactly what I had been struggling with as a leader, and what I hadn’t had words to describe.
  • This was going to be hard. As Craig says, the development of conversational capacity is not “a simple gimmick or quick fix … if we want to improve our teams and organizations, we have to improve ourselves.” (3)

Jack experienced a similarly immediate and powerful response to the concepts in this book.

 Craig’s work immediately resonated with me. Perhaps this was because Craig admits that he, too, is a “minimizer” – one who works to keep everyone’s feelings intact, and seek out solutions that felt like an emotional middle ground.

It was a relief to hear someone else admit that. Years before, I was in a leadership training program at Ohio State University, and everyone in the group completed a leadership style inventory. We were then directed to stand in the part of the room that corresponded to our results. I found myself essentially alone in one corner of the room. Diagonal from me were a group of administrators whose answers revealed them to be decisive winners of conflict. Decision-makers. Men and women of confidence, and apparently full of correct answers. In my corner, almost entirely alone, a consensus-builder who believed in empowering professional educators to make key decisions.

Although Jack has a tendency to shut down, and I have a tendency to heat up, this is often a non-issue for both of us. Craig notes that it is easy to stay in the sweet spot when discussing routine problems – challenges that we know how to work through. However, we can readily get pulled out of the sweet spot when we are facing situations for which we don’t have easy answers.

Craig argues that these stressors trigger our fight or flight reflexes, or in his language, our urge to “win” (heat up) or to “minimize,” (shut down) and that both of these responses pull teams out of the sweet spot and lead to unproductive conversations. It is important to note that the goal here is productive conversations, not non-conflictual ones. In fact, being in the sweet spot is likely to involve what Craig describes as productive conflict – “productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously, need to be an integral part of a board’s operating culture.” (19)

Of course, not all conflict is productive. The conflict that occurred in the meeting where I was explaining testing protocol was conflictual, but it was far from productive. When I perceived that my authority was being threatened, I went straight to “win” behaviors, and I went there hard and fast. In doing so, I damaged my relationships, but more importantly, that testing initiative never did get enacted. As a team, we never were able to explore how to make our practice in this area more functional.

Minimizing behaviors can be equally unproductive. Jack’s explanation demonstrates what can happen when minimization of issues occurs.

The simplest way to phrase it misses the point. Some say that I just “want to be liked”, and that drives me to be unwilling to make decisions, especially substantive ones. But it is more complex than that. If people are invested in opposing viewpoints, say about placing teachers in certain classrooms, or a response to a certain misbehavior, I believe that they are using their best judgment. I believe they have put together the best argument that they can. I worry: if they “lose,” will they be less invested in the whole project? What else will be lost in terms of their morale and self-confidence? Whether they like me or not is secondary to my concern as to whether they will still be invested in the school.

 However, I know that my “minimize” behavior is based on an oversimplification all its own. Making an argument and having a stronger or more persuasive case prevail is not likely to cause someone to choose a new career. That does not make sense in a rational mind.

Minimization emphasizes caution over candor and runs the risk of having important issues not discussed in order to maintain comfort. “When our need to play it safe overwhelms our clear and noble intentions, we sacrifice progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety.” (39) Jack’s visceral response to this quotation:

So. Many. Examples. And they all hurt someone. Ugh.

Conversely, when, as Craig describes it, “we are hijacked by our need to win, … our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative.” (45)

Yuck. That felt so uncomfortably familiar to me.

It is said that “knowing is half the battle,” but I’m not convinced. I think knowing might only be about one-fourth of the battle.

After reading chapters one and two of Conversational Capacity, I knew what my battle was, but I didn’t yet know how to win it. And, of course, for me, the answer was quite the opposite of “winning.”

Jack was similarly drawn in.

Conversational Capacity became a page-turner for me. I wanted to figure out how to improve the conversations in the building. I was committed to creating a culture in the school that matched the one we were trying to create in the classroom. I wanted to make it okay for teachers to help each other get better at what they do. The fact that Krista texted me two days later and announced that “all the answers to everything” were in the book, of course, prompted me to continue.

Both Jack and I were eager to engage in the work of finding the sweet spot. To this end, Craig notes that no one universally operates on one side of the spectrum.

Everyone demonstrates both “win” and “minimize” tendencies; however it is helpful to determine where one generally falls along this continuum and what is one’s default mode when things become challenging. Recognizing this helps us understand what behaviors to watch out for and what strategies to implement to help us move away from the ends of the spectrum and toward the central sweet spot – that place where an equilibrium exists between candor and curiosity and the “dialogue is open, balanced, and nondefensive.” (15)

Craig notes that in order to increase conversational capacity and be able to stay in the sweet spot more consistently, we must balance the strengths of our natural tendencies with the intentional cultivation of checks on this tendency. I have mentally relived that terrible moment from that department meeting over and over again. I know I could have done it better, but what was the right way?

How could I move myself away from “win” and toward the discipline of conversational capacity?  How could Jack move away from “minimize” and toward that same discipline? I was grateful that he was going through this process with me, and that he too, was taking a critical look at his foibles.

Together, we explored the list of identified “win” and “minimize” behaviors that Craig describes, and noted those that we each typically engage in. We were both surprised to find that we demonstrate many behaviors from our “non-default” side of the spectrum. While it was important to be aware of these as well as our natural tendencies, the focus of our change efforts would revolve around the behaviors to which we were most habituated. For me that was those in the win column, and for Jack it was the behaviors that fell in the minimize column.

It did not feel at all good to admit that I regularly exhibit the following “win” behaviors:

  • State positions as fact
  • Dismiss alternate views and perspectives
  • Solicit support
  • Fail to inquire into alternate points of view
  • Interrupt others
  • Use dismissive body language

Jack experienced similar humility when identifying the “minimize” behaviors to which he is most prone:

  • Cover up your views, ideas, information, or concerns
  • Ease in – water down your concerns to make them more palatable
  • Avoid issues
  • Make excuses to let people off the hook
  • Use email or voicemail to express concerns
  • Feign agreement or support

So, what next? How could we both do better?

Craig addresses the method for improvement in a brilliantly simple manner. He says that people demonstrating a minimizing perspective exhibit low candor — or the willingness to speak forthrightly in the face of challenge. Those demonstrating a winning perspective exhibit low curiosity – or the willingness to actively seek out views that are different from one’s own.

To combat a minimizing perspective, one needs to exhibit greater candor, and to combat a winning perspective, one needs to exhibit greater curiosity. Craig delineates just two critical skills to cultivate in each area.

Candor Curiosity
1. State a clear position 1. Test an existing view


2. Explain the thinking behind a position 2. Intentionally inquire about differing perspectives

Easy, right?

Well, not exactly.

As soon as I read this, I knew the answer to my concerns about my leadership. I had to demonstrate greater curiosity, and I had to reign in some of my candor to provide space for that. And, of course, for Jack the opposite was true. He had to fight against his tendency to minimize and push himself to exhibit greater candor.

For about a month, I reminded myself of this before every meeting I walked into.

No change.

My Conversational Capacity checklist

I invariably found that after the first few minutes, I lost sight of my goal and promptly returned to my old patterns of behavior. I was so frustrated with myself that I designed this visual to help me remember. I even went so far as to embed scripted language prompts into my chart.

I’ll be honest. It didn’t help much. I was successful with dialing back my usual level of candor, but I really continued to struggle with increasing the curiosity that would allow me to truly shift.

I had the opposite problem. I often withheld my opinion or position on a matter. I did this for a variety of reasons, mostly hinging on the idea that I had positional authority over the teachers engaged in the conversation. I worried that stating a position early on would bias the discussion, and cause dissent to remain unexpressed. My goal was noble: I wanted to hear dissenting views. The result was not noble. Too often, I exerted my opinion near the end of a conversation or discussion, and this had the effect of summarizing or “deciding” the matter.

We found reassurance in Craig’s words at the end of the book, “If we’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. When we fall back into our old habits, we should say yes to the mess, see what we can learn, and move on. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our minimize and win tendencies. Recognize that they’re a part of us, that they often conflict with other intentions, and that we have to keep an eye on them. It’s also important to adopt a constructive learning-oriented mindset by taking note of our strengths and not just bemoaning our weaknesses. A conversation I had with an executive in Seattle provides a case in point, ‘My win tendency is too strong,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be overly hard on yourself,’ I suggested. ‘Try reframing it this way: you’re exceptionally good with the candor skills. Your goal now is to put in enough practice so you’re just as proficient with the curiosity skills.’” (179)

Okay, so I’m “exceptionally good with the candor skills.” However, I need to keep working at building curiosity.

In a meeting just last week, I think I did it. I think I found balance and stayed in the conversational sweet spot. Jack was proposing that we significantly move up a deadline for the completion of a huge, school-wide task. In typical fashion, I responded with candor, stating my clear position that it was too much, too fast, and then explaining the reasoning behind my thinking.

But then I heard myself say, “Now tell me what your thoughts are.” There it was — an expression of inquiry!

Jack shared his position, and then, taking both perspectives into consideration, the committee was able to develop a plan for moving forward that embedded some extra time and seemed feasible.

Craig notes that the whole group benefits when any member improves his or her conversational capacity. I suspect that exhibiting the skills of inquiry is easier for me in the face of Jack’s increased candor.

Here are his thoughts about his transformation in progress:

Recently I have adopted Craig’s advice, stating my position clearly at the beginning, but inviting dissenting views. By putting my ideas out early in the conversation, I cannot serve as the final decider. Also, by inviting dissent, I clearly make it okay to provide counter arguments. It turns out that the teachers are more than willing to disagree with me!

Even these small shifts feel great. Now let’s see if we can keep doing it the next time. Or maybe the time after that.

Personal change is hard. It’s so much easier to keep doing what we’ve always done. Conversational Capacity is a powerful book that pushes us beyond our comfort zones into a higher level of functioning. I cannot say it better than Craig does himself, “Be warned, this book will present you with a choice … will we let our experience reinforce the primal, self-centered aspects of our nature, or the nobler, more purpose-driven aspects of our humanity? Will we grow more candid or more cautious? More courageous or more timid? More curious or more critical? More humble or more arrogant? Far too many people opt for the lower, easier, less rigorous route. This book will encourage you to take the higher, more adventurous road – the road less traveled.” (9)

Learn more about Craig’s work here.

[1] Weber, Craig. Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013. Print.


Lead Change by Changing


The Barrow sisters arrived at Gamble as a group three years ago, although they were in separate grades. Bright and engaged and outspoken in class, they were nonetheless a task to manage there, and an absolute disruption when together in the hallway. If one of them got upset about a bad grade or an argument with a friend, the three responded as a unit, storming down the hall, feeding into each other’s anger. When any one of them was angry, I saw them collectively as Pig Pen, only instead of a cloud of dust, they hurricaned down the hall in a frenzy of frustration and anger. One morning they had been brought to the office by Mr. Sinden. Well, he got them near the office, anyway. They kept talking themselves out of actually entering – one would say okay, and then another would initiate another complaint and they would collapse again into angry pacing and threats. After twenty long minutes, we settled that matter and returned them to class. One at a time throughout the morning they each ended up at the office again, having been removed from class for misbehavior.

Something was going on. I pulled Alicia, the oldest, into the hallway. “What’s going on?” She started to talk about how her teacher removed her from class for nothing.

“No, what is going ON?” I emphasized the last word to suggest bigger dealings, and pointed out that she and her sisters had separately and collectively been removed from class multiple times, and we still were not at lunch time. “Nothing,” she started. “It’s just that …” She paused, and I waited until she spoke again. When she stopped talking several minutes later, she had revealed that the sisters had been separated the previous night in an effort to find warm places to sleep, and still one of them had ended up in another sister’s house where the electricity was off. They were cold and tired, and glad to be back in each other’s company, until they learned that a friend had made some disgusting allegations about the youngest sister on Facebook. They were eager to settle the score as a group, in person, but were trying to not get in trouble for doing it at school.

Several among my staff expressed frustration that I had not simply sent the girls home on suspension at the first incident. I had cause to suspend them, in a strict reading of the rules. However, if I had done that, I would not have learned about their collective situation. They would have not gotten any instruction for several days, and school would have remained an adversary rather than an opportunity for these students.

I learned a lot that day, and from similar experiences before that. Over time I have learned to look at unusual misbehavior as a sign of larger concerns, as Krista explained in a post that student behavior really reveals hidden issues. I have learned to ascribe charitable explanations to the misbehavior – not as an excuse for the child, but as a way to understand the child. Besides, it never hurts in a relationship with a student to inquire about her life beyond the walls of the school. Simply asking, “Are you alright? Your actions here do not seem like you,” sends a student a message of caring and concern and tells her that you understand her best self, even if she is not feeling like her best self at the moment.

This is significantly better than asking, “What is wrong with you, don’t you know how to behave?”

CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.
CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.

In the summer of 2015, Cincinnati Public High School Principals participated in the Harvard program “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership.”

In the program, we explored many different facets of school leadership, taking classes from some of the leading researchers, teachers, and school leaders in education today. At first I believed the common message was the declared theme of the conference: every child can learn. A passionate argument was made time and again about the power of the leader to send this message about every student, and a recognition that education professionals take every lost student as a personal challenge. I found myself already primed by my experience and my beliefs to fully embrace this message. They were preaching to the choir.

Soon though, I realized a subtle but more powerful message had been intentionally woven through our courses: In order for an organization to change, the leader must change. This “change” was not the simplistic one-size-fits-all “fire the principal of the underperforming school.” (That was, actually, one of the three turnaround models provided by the State of Ohio under the School Improvement Grant, as developed under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Seriously. “Replace the principal” was an entire strategy.) No, in order for an organization to change, the leader must be willing to change himself or herself.

The first giveaway was our introduction to the book Immunity to Change, by Harvard School of Education Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Dr. Kegan walked us through the process they developed to identify hidden motivators that undermine our efforts to be our best selves. In the process, you set a particular goal and outline the steps to achieve that goal. Then you examine your behaviors that work against your goal. Finally, you investigate your choices to see what competing commitments you have – what is important to you that prevents you from doing the things that need to be done to reach your goal. Then you take steps to eliminate or disempower those competing commitments. You can see a brief explanation of the process here. This process explained how to take what was hidden in yourself and make it plain. Again, it prepared you to make a change in your organization by making change within yourself.

I was content to see this as a way for working through my habitual procrastination, but nothing more than that. A salve for a problem familiar to many. I stubbornly clung to my belief that I did not really need to change so much as I needed to learn a few good systems. (And I believe a few good systems can truly help!)

Other readings and experiences grew out of the Harvard experience. Soon thereafter I had the pleasure of listening to and then meeting Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity. His suggestions for creating teams that could function at a high level – teams that could learn from each other and speak about uncomfortable ideas and resolve problems effectively – involved the same sort of work. The team was not expected to work on a new set of procedures or go through a particular set of stages (that will happen anyway, as you can see here), but instead it was expected that the leader would conduct himself in a way to bring about new conversations. Through his or her efforts guiding the conversation, the team would remain in the conversational sweet spot between what he Weber described as “minimizing” and “winning”. That is, in the zone between wanting to avoid the conversation at all costs, and wanting to get your way and appear right at all costs. He explains that we all lean toward one of those conversational mistakes, and those tendencies work to prevent a team from solving problems.


<—– minimize —————(sweet spot)——————–win—–>


Fortunately, through the individual’s vigilance and self-discipline, there is a way to intentionally keep the group in the sweet spot, where they are discussing key issues, raising problems, proposing solutions, and working together toward the same goal. It is not a system or a checklist, as much as some would hope for that. There is a time to back off and let a solution happen, and there is a time to push an idea forward.  But these are not “minimizing” or “winning”. These skills can be learned. It is a discipline.

Once again, the message is that as a leader, I must learn how to do this in order to be what the team needs. I recognize in myself the tendencies to minimize. My same skills that help me to be a careful observer of my students also can prevent me from addressing concerns I have with actions taken by a student or a staff member. I often fail to take immediate action on important items. I most likely do this because I want to avoid conflict. As a minimizer, this means I must learn to push myself to be more assertive and to embrace the possibility of conflict in order to accomplish what needs to be done.

Once again, I am being pushed to change the organization by changing myself.

In Conversational Capacity, Craig made reference to something called the “ladder of inference”. I encountered the ladder again in Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn. Peter Senge is the author of the bestselling systems-thinking book The Fifth Discipline. It is a staple in management courses at universities around the world. Schools That Learn is a version of the book specifically geared towards educators and schools.

The ladder of inference, pictured below, is a helpful way to envision any person’s mental processing mistakes about a situation.

The ladder of inference.
The ladder of inference.

Unlike most mental models provided in trainings, this is not a set of steps to take to reach a desired conclusion. It is, more accurately, a guide on how people get things wrong in a personal interaction. It’s an anti-instruction chart. It’s a map of what your mind does whether you want it to or not.

Weber gives this example:

Consider the experience of two men visiting Chicago for the first time. Traveling together to attend a meeting, they land at O’Hare airport and share a taxi into town. Arriving early, they decide to wander the streets together and explore the downtown area. An hour later, as they walk into their meeting, the woman who summoned them to Chicago knowing it’s their first visit, asks them a question, “What did you think of the city?”

“It’s a dump,” exclaims one.

“It’s beautiful,” raves the other.

One question we might ask is, “Who is right?” But that’s not the most interesting line of inquiry.

In any given situation, such as a visit to a new city, there is a lot of directly observable data. Focusing on restaurants means perhaps overlooking the parks, and people-watching could mean attempting to figure out their profession by focusing on their clothing, or noting the cultural and racial diversity, or looking for people who otherwise stand out to you. There is a lot to see. You cannot possibly see it all. So the men in the example started selecting right from the minute they entered the taxi, and continued during their walk.  So they moved from “reality and facts” to “selected reality.”

From the limited observable data they collected, their unique background experiences – their cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds – filtered what they saw without their knowledge. So they moved from “selected reality” to “interpreted reality.” Without their knowing it, the men had taken the same tour at the same time, and had reached completely different conclusions based on their personal interpretations.

In this case, it was their vocations that helped create their interpretations of what they saw. The first man was a police officer, the second an architect. The first saw a dump, with evidence of crime all over the place based largely on his training and experience. The second saw beautiful architecture in many different styles and eras, and neighborhoods that reflected the eras in which they were built, again based largely on his training and experience.

Our vocational training is one of many powerful filters that comprise our ladders of inference.

Or, as Weber phrases it, the ladder forces us to ask, all the time, “what else is your mind doing without your permission?” This is an important question for educators to ask themselves all the time as we deal with students, parents, and each other.

With the Barrow sisters, it would have been easy to conclude, “Those girls are out of control.” It would have required no work on my part. There would have been general support for the decision. I could see the misbehavior and assume they do not know how to behave, or that they meant ill will toward Mr. Sinden or me. That ladder is an easy one to climb when we see a student not following clear directions from an adult.

Frustratingly, in a school, there is often a perverse sort of pressure on teachers to view students in just this way: as intentional disruptors who do not want to do well in school. This may be my greatest frustration as a principal. In a vocation where we should be trained to support and nurture students, the urge to punish and suspend a student is oddly fostered and encouraged among some teachers. I ask this question: shouldn’t the vocational training of educators take us in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t we always be giving students the benefit of the doubt? The answer is simple.

Yes we should.

And it is intensely frustrating to know that I am at times criticized for doing just that.

A couple of years ago, Cincinnati experienced a particularly cold winter and a stretch of single digit (Fahrenheit) morning temperatures. One of these mornings I was standing next to another adult in the hallway outside the cafeteria when Donte arrived, late, and headed into the cafeteria for breakfast. School had started 15 minutes earlier, and Donte lived within walking distance. He was chronically tardy. He was wearing a zip-up windbreaker over a hoodie which, I saw as I got closer, was pulled on over a second hoodie. My colleague commented aloud on Donte’s tardiness, and implied a conclusion that he was not really trying to get to school. I’ve made similar comments to and about students as well, but today I approached focused on a second set of observations. “Donte, it is super cold out there, are you warm enough?” He shivered his response, “I’m okay Mr. Jose.”

“You must sure love school to get here on a day like this.”

“I do, Mr. Jose.” He reconsidered, “Well, most of it anyway.”

As educators, we must be aware of how we move up the ladder of inference. It is very easy to misjudge another person’s actions, especially as we have more and more interactions with them over time. It is easy to get it wrong, as I did one particular day, when my student suddenly left my class without permission. I was certain that she was intent on skipping, and I rather publicly wrote her a Saturday school discipline form in front of my class. I soon learned that she had run out to help a teacher who had spilled something in the hallway.

Our classrooms have 28 or more students in them, we see 5 classes over the course of the day, we interact with more students and teachers in the hall … how do we possibly manage everyone in a world rife with opportunities to misunderstand? The answer is, we manage ourselves. We have to manage how we collect information, and how we process it, and what we do with it.

In interpersonal interactions, you must guard against climbing your own ladder of inference. One way to do this by always offering the benefit of the doubt. (We even build this last piece of advice into our Staff Agreement.)

Our staff agreement, final draft

How does that work? Practice. You can do it by yourself, and you can do it with a partner. When a student breaks a rule for the umpteenth time, imagine a variety of possible reasons why that just happened. At Gamble, students sometimes come into the office and shout a request to the office staff as soon as they get through the door. I could suggest, as some have, that this reflects “poor home training.” One could just as easily attribute this to an eagerness to return to class, or a lack of experience interacting with adults, or just above-average adolescent ebullience. Practicing the act of imagining charitable explanations for misbehavior opens the door to new understandings for all student behavior.

With the Barrow sisters, my choice helped set them up for success. Each of them has made the honor roll at least once in the intervening two years, and this year, when circumstances turned difficult for their family, they appropriately sought out the school’s support.

So how can you avoid climbing the ladder of inference?

  1. Observe the scene as fully as you can – look at the child or adult and gather facts
  2. Ask questions to get the other person’s perspective, take notes if necessary
  3. Ask what it is the other person was hoping to accomplish with their actions
  4. Fully explain your own perspective, then intentionally ask, “What am I missing?”
  5. Be willing to abandon your first interpretation of the situation

This is not to say that every action has a charitable explanation. It is wrong, however, to start from the assumption that the person you are dealing with intended to do harm.