Monthly Archives: September 2013


I am participating the the School Administrators’ Virtual Mentoring Program (#SAVMP) this year.  George Couros (program founder and coordinator) asked the participating principals to describe how they go about creating innovative practices in their schools.  In reflecting on this question, I realized that I need to decide if I want to write the Reader’s Digest or the Director’s Cut on this topic.  I’m still undecided.

Opinion: if you set out to be innovative because doing so is inherently good, you run the risk of achieving that goal.  If, however, your goal is to affect change through innovation, that can be a powerful difference.  Therefore, never lose sight of your vision and your objectives.  Creating them is a separate process; getting side-tracked from them could happen here, though.

Here are three things I think of as requirements for creating a culture of innovation:

1.  Always, always, always ask “why are we doing what we are doing?”  So many sacred cows could be made into lunch and fashionable accessories if we realized that were aren’t supposed to be eating beets.  We insist on doing things the “right” way because we never even consider the possibility that the folks who made up that way would never make the same choices if they had the tools we have at our disposal.  Keep the baby in the tub, though.  If we already know what our objective is, any decision we make in terms of change and innovation will be in service of advancing towards that objective.

2.  Expect people to think for themselves.  At my school I have literally and explicitly told our teachers that I will not fill in the blanks for them.  We discuss big ideas all the time.  I love discussing teachers’ ideas for how to advance the efforts we are making.  I simply don’t believe things would work as well if everyone would wait to act until I passed out the checklist for the week.  I’ve never met Daniel Pink and don’t expect to.  To my knowledge he has never been a school principal.  With apologies to NCLB and decades of tradition in the American educational system, his ideas about the way that leadership and relationships work are exactly correct.  We can not simply mandate our way to excellence or get their by fiat.

3.  Accept failure.  This is the twin of the last point.  As I have opined in a previous post, not only is failure not an option, it is much more likely when folks attempt to be innovative.  Admit your failures, learn from them, and move forward.  Team members who live in fear of failure will never innovate.  Unfortunately, for most human beings, the fear of failure has been systematically established throughout their lives.  Leaders who wish to foster a culture of innovation must just as systematically (and explicitly)  work to free those under them from this most debilitating of fears.

There’s more (recognize the efforts and the achievements of the team; hire great team members; learn from others; etc, etc) but I have to go: I’m working on a way to keep all three children asleep all night …

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The Importance of Trust

From my perspective, leadership is not possible without trust – only obedience.  People might do what you say, but unless you have established trust, you aren’t really leading.

A very wise man that I worked with a few years ago once shared this progression with me: Heart -> Connect -> Trust -> Follow.  You have probably heard the idea this represents before.  Understanding and applying it has shaped who I am as a principal.  First, you must show people your heart.  Too many leaders believe that having all the right answers is the most important thing.  People don’t want to know what, though, they want to know why.  They want to see your heart.  Simon Sinek explores this idea of the importance of why in a Ted Talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.  If you haven’t seen it, it is worth watching.

When people around you see your heart they will connect with you.  It has been said many thousands of times, but relationships are what matter.  When you connect with someone, you begin to form a relationship.  As a leader, my goal is to foster relationships akin to family.  We may not have chosen each other nor our circumstances but we can chose to support each other and to work towards a common goal.

I must value the input of everyone on the team – that builds trust.  I must find a way to say yes as often as possible – that builds trust.  I must shield others from as much bureaucracy as possible and back them when our superiors and outsiders question them without good cause – that builds trust.  I must allow others to make mistakes in the pursuit of growth and excellence – that builds trust.  You see where there is trust, people follow.

If you want people to follow you, show them your heart, connect with them, and earn their trust.

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You Must Be Willing to Fail

If you have been anywhere near public education in the last ten years, you have probably heard somebody declare with great conviction “Failure is not an option”.  In most cases, this sentiment is expressed by very well-meaning educators and has served as a mantra to symbolize our collective desire to ensure that no student receives anything other than our best effort for his/her success.  Too often though, it seems that this rhetoric is applied with haphazard ubiquity.  The effect I have seen it have is that educators get the message that we can not afford to tolerate failure of any kind.  That misapplication of a very well-intentioned message leads not to relentless excellence but to cautious risk-management and a slavish adherence to the status quo.  The students we serve need us to abandon this mindset.  They will not be adequately prepared for the future they will face by adults who play it safe and teach them to avoid failure too.

I propose a new attitude about failure and the risk of failure.  Every educator and every student should be given explicit permission – and indeed challenged – to act in ways that include a high risk of failure.  Here (in no particular order) are a few reasons why.

Failure is inevitable
When we act as though failure can be avoided completely, we reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of nature.  It is simply not possible to never fail.  We sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that failing is an integral part of learning.  The only way to never fail is to never try.  A baby who is learning to walk is in fact falling more than he is walking.  Preventing him from falling will not teach him to walk.  Showing him how to keep from falling will.  The greatest tragedy is not falling down; the greatest tragedy is not getting back up. 

Failure is a better teacher than success
As a teacher, I have seen first-hand students’ obsession with getting the right answer (so they can get a good grade) instead of a passion for learning.  We have instilled in them the wrong message.  Being right the first time every time leads to far less learning than being wrong over and over at first.  If I do not lead a student to a place that requires growth, why did she need me in the first place?  Failure-as-learning works for adults too.  Innovation can not possibly be accomplished by individuals who are afraid to fail. 

The higher the goal, the greater the potential for failure
We have set for ourselves the goal of shaping the course of young people’s lives.  I can not think of a task more risky or difficult.  How can we possibly believe that this task will be accomplished by a strict adherence to irrelevant traditions or a careful implementation of the latest program … to fidelity?  If I am not free to fail though, I will almost certainly act in a way that is known to work.  We must take risks if the education we are offering this generation has any relevance to them in their adulthood at all.

History will forget you either way – you might as well try to change it
I may be alone, but I often find comfort in this thought.  What use does history have for those who play it safe?  Also, how arrogant do I have to be to believe that I was born to build and protect my own puny reputation?  If I am truly serving the interests of others, any cost to me personally will be justified.  Actions that echo through history are unlikely to be without cost to those willing to take them.  The unwillingness of so many to take meaningful action makes such sacrifices necessary.

The cure for a fear of failure is failure
What I am proposing is not easy.  I have been trying to nurture this paradigm since I became a principal in 2011.  Old habits die hard though and I am often reminded that removing the cause of a fear and removing the fear are two different things.  The best way to lose one’s terror of failure is to fail … and to survive the failure to try again. 

Give those around you permission to fail.  Nurture the kind of courage that accepts the possibility of failure in the pursuit of excellence.  Pick yourself up with dignity (and humility) when you fail yourself; hiding your own failures will diminish this message.  When you understand that failure may actually be preferable from time to time, it will no longer have the power to keep you in check.


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