Leading Successfully in Education: Less Talk, More Conversation

Chris Douglas

Change can only be successfully implemented when the people involved are on board, engaged and valued. The great differentiator going forward, the place where school leaders will find a new sustainable edge, resides in conversation—the way to human connectivity. What gets talked about from the boardroom to the classroom, how it gets talked about, and who is invited to join the conversation determines what will happen or won’t.

Conversations surrounding education must be co-constructed by those who will be responsible for carrying out programs and those who are invested and dependent on achieving success. As General Colin Powell said, “Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people—motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered.”

The work of Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman underscores that human beings behave emotionally first, rationally second. To implement change effectively, therefore, emphasis must be placed on developing human capital. A focus on data, programs and systems overlooks the human elements and the relationships necessary to make change happen. They overlook the emotional capital that it takes to create real, ground-level change. That emotional capital is built or destroyed one conversation at a time.

Schools, like all organizations, are emotional as well as intellectual enterprises. They need to engage people on a human level. To build emotional capital and relationships that go deep and endure requires “fierce” conversations that engage people on an intellectual and emotional level, creating buy-in that leads to action.

Leadership that commits to creating accountable cultures with the intention of increasing engagement and connectivity are the most successful in creating positive cultures. Leaders need to adopt a new view of accountability, eliminating finger pointing and replacing it with encouragement as well as a sense of autonomy and ownership. Accountability is an attitude—a personal, private and non-negotiable choice about how to live one’s life. It’s a desire to take responsibility for results, and for that reason, it cannot be mandated. It requires a personal bias toward solutions, toward action. Milbrey McLaughlin, co-director of the Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, has noted, “You can’t mandate what matters.” A culture of fierce conversations inspires and instills intrinsic accountability—a desire to want to take responsibility and ownership. Leading is easier and credibility is built when honest feedback is a central part of every conversation.

The simplest definition of a fierce conversation is one in which you come out from behind yourself, into the conversation, and make it real. There are several reasons why people avoid telling the truth of reality as they see it. Perhaps it has destroyed a relationship in the past, or perhaps they have seen someone lose a job or position due to a failed attempt at truthful conversation. Or perhaps, people truly don’t believe it is their place to say what they notice or feel.

The problem is that not sharing the whole truth has costlier consequences. If you are out of integrity with yourself or others and fail to disclose your truth, it can lead to even more significant losses, inhibit positive change, and fail to take advantage of opportunities for improvement.

Fierce leaders want to know the truth. And in turn, they also have to share the truth. Fierce conversations interrogate reality, provoke learning, tackle tough challenges and enrich relationships. They speak to the heart of the issues, galvanize the people involved, and become catalysts for sustainable change.

You know you’re having a fierce conversation when:

You are speaking in your real voice.

You are speaking to the heart of the matter.

You are really asking and really listening.

You are generating heat.

You are enriching the relationship.

You are different when the conversation is over.

Educational leaders engage in conversations in all directions—with parents, teachers, stakeholders and contributors. Every day, you are having conversations that can change the outcome of a child’s life. Leaders need to remain engaged, get in touch with their own courage and focus on building emotional capital in every interaction.

These conversations are not always easy to have, but the cost of not having them is too great to ignore. Being effective with challenging conversations is like any other skill. The more you practice, the better you will be. Start planning the conversations you need to have that will address real issues, increase emotional capital and creating lasting results.

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HaYidion Leadership Dispositions Winter 2018
Leadership Dispositions
Winter 2018