Sunday, July 6, 2014

Learning to Lead

My friends Joe Mazza and Tony Sinanis often talk about the impact of being the lead learner in a building.  They live this title to the fullest extent.  I hold them both in such high regard, because they are truly leading the learning in their area.  If we are going to lead learning organizations, we need to lead the learning as adults.  We need to consistently push ourselves to learn new things and model for our staff the importance of continuous professional growth.  
Having said that, being the Lead Learner should also encompass Learning to Lead.  At a very young age I was told that I had “leadership ability”.  To this day I don’t really know what that means, but I knew it gave me confidence to get in front of a group of people, provide some energy and enthusiasm, and attempt to get people headed in a similar direction.  The confidence that was instilled was great, but I think it also had a negative effect.
We consistently tell kids in Fall Creek that they work hard.  We do not tell them that they are smart.  The theory behind that is that at some point all kids will run into something that they view as too hard.  For those who have been constantly told that they are smart, it may be a let down when they can’t figure something out.  For those who have been told that they work hard, it may be a just another task that they know they can achieve with additional work.
I think I always felt smart when it came to leadership.  Things came easy and I could get by with energy and enthusiasm.  Sometimes I feel like it has been more of a curse than a blessing.  Working to become a better leader is hard.  When things got hard and difficult decisions needed to be made, I often felt like the kid who has been told they were smart for years.  Now what? What if it doesn’t work? What if people start seeing me in a different light? What if the decision is wrong and it impacts everyone’s lives? 

People are often placed into leadership positions because of great interview or because  they had experienced some success in a different role.  The fact is…being a lead learner means taking the process of learning to lead seriously.  Certifications, degrees, and experience can all play a role in that development, but the process has to take you out of your comfort zone and help you move to a different level.  I recently had my leadership teams fill out a survey for me through the Franklin Covey training.  The results were honest, and clearly identified areas that I need to improve.  I am so happy that I have a group willing to tell me I need to get better in certain areas.  The challenge for leaders is we try to get better at too many things and subsequently get better at none. We discuss how we can improve in an area, but rarely find the time to dig deep and get better in our leadership practice.  
We read books and think of ways to implement, and then the day to day operations take over and our growth timeline gets pushed back.

Every year I ask our staff to come with “My Three”.  They find 3 things that they can look to after a day, and when accomplished, walk out feeling good about what happened.  There will be days that they struggle to meet the three and others that they will have them met by the time kids arrive…but it is a constant reminder that little victories can bring big success.  As the year starts, I WILL work on the following as I continue to LEARN to LEAD…

1. Be a Leadership Builder
2. On Time…Every Time
3. Listen More…Talk Less

I am so lucky.  I live in a school district that allowed me to take a Superintendent position with no experience. I live in a school district that allows me to SCREAM the great things happening here in every social media forum I can find.  I live in a school district that was willing to give me time to grow.  We have an incredibly supportive community, a wonderful school board, and a staff that has never said no to an initiative.  They all deserve the best leader, and one willing to work hard at learning to lead.  I could not be happier to call this place home…Go Crickets!


  1. Joe - I know exactly how you feel my friend. Leading a school, district, or organization can be a mind-boggling task some days, but it comes with fulfillment when our opportunities to positively impact others is validated. The fact is we too must take time to model what it means to continually challenge ourselves to be better, reflect on our practices and our behaviors, and then do our best to make the necessary changes. We are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I also think sometimes we have to give ourselves a break. We can be our own worst critic. The pressure that comes with leadership requires a balance, which is why sometimes we need to take time to pause and reflect and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Too many times we don't take the necessary time to enjoy these moments because we are already on to the next thing. By doing so, we sometimes add stress to our students, staff and even our own families. What I admire about you Joe is that you are driven to succeed, but not for yourself, but for others because you know the benefits that will come their way when they strive for excellence. Keep sharpening the saw my friend, but make sure you take time for your own three and to enjoy the moments. - jimmy

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jimmy! Agreed...balance is tough and we can be our own worst critic. I am certainly guilty of looking at the next thing and not living in the moment...will have to be better there. Keep up the amazing are a great model of continuous learning and leadership.

  2. Joe,

    Great post; I salute you for sharing your obvious wisdom on this topic. You make the important point that we must tightly align the terms "Leader" and "Learner." I do not think we can lead if we are not learning and whenever we learn we subsequently have opportunities to lead if we choose to take them. In your opening paragraph you suggest that to this day you still do not know what is meant by "leadership ability." You certainly touched on at least much of what it means in this post--including even in the very next sentence---a huge part of leadership is providing consistent energy and enthusiasm necessary to get the job done. Thanks again for sharing,


    1. Thanks Jeff!!! Always trying to grow...really appreciate the connection and feedback!!

  3. Joe,

    Great stuff as always. I love the concept of proclaiming your "big three." We've done this with school goal setting, but I REALLY like the idea of owning and sharing a personal 3. I'm going to reflect on this for's my preliminary trifecta:

    1.) Disregard the Impossible: Commit to an unparalleled level of support & innovation for student learning in a digital age.
    2.) Transform Pedagogy: Empower teachers to champion student learning using current-best practices.
    3.) Shine the Light: Serve our staff and students by humbly recognizing their amazing efforts on a regular basis...whether it's a 1:1 conversation or other authentic acknowledgement; their stories are worthy of being told.

    Thanks for your open sharing and leadership, Joe.


    1. Thanks Brad!!! Love the 3 things you came up with...especially Shine the Light. So many stories...your students deserve to have them heard. Appreciate the feedback!

  4. Well done, Joe. Having 3 things to focus on is something we can all do, so here are my three.
    1. Celebrate a risk with a staff member or student.
    2. Model energy and excitement.
    3. Share out the great things our Merton family is doing.
    Thanks for the push to keep getting better.

    1. Thanks Jay! Great 3 to focus on this year...your staff will love it!

  5. Joe,

    You really got my wheels spinning when you talked about working hard versus informing kids they're smart. This is an approach that I need to focus on with my students at Warner. Thanks for pushing my thinking!

    I also reflected quite a bit when you mentioned the learning we do then gets pushed back because of the day-to-day grind. For me this often happens...I participate in a twitter chat, I read a blog or book and I attend conferences. All of these methods of learning push me...but I also cannot overwhelm my staff by not allowing them to learn and implement at their pace. The balance is very difficult, but I draw peace from knowing that I value people, relationships and leading our school forward.

    I appreciate your posts Joe...keep em' comin'.


  6. To be transparent and accept your are my three:

    1) Take the time to Champion a child each day
    2) Be present - take the time to get into classrooms every day and give timely, heartfelt feedback
    3) Ask questions, listen to answers and be confident in my core beliefs

    Gotta work on being so wordy...that would be #4

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Ben! The day to day grind is tough to overcome, but it is part of what we do and that won't go away. I feel the same way about the much opportunity. Just finished Multipliers and one of the key take aways for me was get better at 1 thing and take one of the best things you do to the next level. I always thought building your lowest attributes was most important...they would argue that. Your "3" are present is one that is constantly on my mind...need to be better there. Thanks!

  7. Joe -- Thanks for your positive post. As a classroom teacher, I often find myself self-reflecting on my own practices and where I need to improve upon to enhance student learning. Being a teacher with some clout amongst my colleagues, my actions in meetings and professional developments of being a "lead learner" or a "non-lead learner" affects the other around me. Thank you for reminding me to constantly "sharpen the saw" (as Covey would state) and be a "lead learner" in my school. -- Brian

    1. No problem Brian! Thanks for the feedback. Our actions certainly impact those around us and I am totally guilty of not being on point when I should. Always a good reminder. Thanks for reading and hope you are having a great summer!

  8. Joe- well written. My kids constantly ask me, "who are the crickets?" as I rock my gear you sent. It is my pleasure to be in your PLN. Fun learning together.