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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
August 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 11

The Lessons Are in the Leading

The best professional learning experiences help aspiring leaders integrate skills, knowledge, and personal meaning as they perform.

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In her seventh year of teaching middle school, Tanya found herself the chair of her school's Learning Assessment Committee. She had developed strong collegial relations with her fellow teachers and an easy give-and-take with the principal. But she had never thought of herself as a leader until her friend Stan said one day, "You know, Tanya, a lot of people here respect your opinion; you're so good with kids, and you're so involved in things; you bring so much to our faculty."
After that, Tanya began wondering about her potential as a leader. Did she have a natural ability to lead? What did she really know about leadership? She hadn't taken any courses; she knew little about management, budgets, or the law. But she recognized what Stan was saying about the role she had grown into at school. She was proactive. She pitched in. She loved the challenge of designing better instructional approaches. And she realized that many of her colleagues valued her opinion.
Tanya is like many teachers who, without planning to become leaders, find themselves doing something that feels like leadership. In a reversal of the traditional learning paradigm, these teachers grow into leadership practice and then learn leadership in more formal ways.

Like Learning to Ride a Bike

One of Tanya's colleagues noted that "learning to lead is more like how my son is learning to ride a bike than it is like learning history or math."
Precisely! Teaching and leading are performance professions. Like riding a bicycle, they involve coordinating mind, body, and heart in sometimes intricate ways to create a successful lesson, meeting, or ride.
Prospective leaders can study helpful models and descriptions of effective leadership, just as 7-year-olds can learn that they must hold the handlebars, sit on the seat, pedal, and steer. But theperformance of leadership involves much more, just as actually trying to ride a bike involves much more. Balancing. Calming fears of crashing. Making sense of one parent's encouraging "You can do it" and another's "Watch out for the curb!" Summoning up the courage to finally push off.
Leading includes a lot of preparation—reading and discussing others' advice and models, planning specific strategies, and anticipating what will happen once you begin. But as with bike riding, you never really know what's going to happen until it happens. You never know whether you can ride a bike until you've wobbled 15 feet in the general direction you'd hoped to wobble. Tanya's confidence that she could lead and her understanding of what made her successful didn't emerge until she had tried leading and had learned from those around her that her performance made a difference.
Learning to lead is also distinctly different from learning to ride a bike. Eager 7-year-olds must eventually integrate the several parts of their performance task—balance, steering, pedaling, emotion—into a moving system that makes their bikes go. Leaders face the same task, but with one huge difference: The parts they're trying to integrate are already moving, and often with a will of their own. The members of the school faculty, the superintendent, the angry parent, and the upset teacher are not evenly spaced gears on a sprocket driving the wheels. Leading them requires an amazing amount of insight into what people want, mean, think, and feel.
So learning to lead takes a lot of interpersonal learning—coming to understand how your own words, behaviors, and moods shape and are shaped by those of the people you seek to lead. This is complex work that requires, as Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2002) put it, "practice, practice, and more practice" (p. 103). For Tanya, it meant practicing in real leadership situations, surrounded by the interpersonal dynamics that held the keys to her success as a leader.

Extracting Lessons from Performance

How do busy educators learn from their leadership performance? "Experience does not necessarily equal learning," say Boyatzis, Cowen, and Kolb (1995). "People will [make best use of experiences] if they are part of an intentional plan for development" (p. 76). In Tanya's case, she joined a leadership development program at the University of Maine. Our work with that program has taught me and my colleagues some important ways to plan and carry out a process that we call performance learning.
It helps if you cultivate an observer's eye—the ability to watch how you perform as you are performing. Olivia, an elementary school principal, used her self-observation skills to better understand how she acted in conflict situations:I've been working on my response-ability, the ability to choose my response to people and events rather than simply react. I try to keep in mind Eleanor Roosevelt's saying, "No one can hurt you without your consent." I cannot adequately communicate how this one phrase has affected my life this year. … I often feel that I respond most effectively after an encounter when I have had the chance to process the conflict and my response to it. … I need time to process internally [and] to rehearse responses.
Ron Heifetz (1994) calls this mind-set "getting on the balcony" to see yourself "in the dance" with those you are attempting to lead (p. 252). This requires learning the disciplines of observation and analysis and drawing on a knowledge base about human behavior and interaction.
  1. Isolate a situation, a person, or a group where you feel a need to extend your leadership effectiveness and skills. Two questions that help are, Where/with whom do you feel most challenged as a leader right now? and Where/with whom do you feel your leadership is working particularly well right now?
  2. Reflect, preferably with trusted colleagues. What particular interactions seem most difficult for you? Most comfortable for you? How are these affecting what we, together, are accomplishing?
  3. Explore, again with trusted colleagues, (a) alternative ways you could behave and (b) ways you are behaving that work.
  4. Plan and practice. Anticipate upcoming occasions that will be challenging; select specific behaviors, words, and skills you want to use from Step 3. Practice performing them alone or with colleagues.
  5. Try them in performance. When the occasion arises, try to follow the planned behavior sequence, words, and skill set.
  6. Ask for feedback from trusted colleagues in the situation or from all participants in the situation, focused on the particular skills you are trying to hone.
  7. Reflect and reset for the next opportunities to practice in performance.
This form of learning starts with a real concern of the teacher or principal, one that affects his or her leadership success. Learners set their own goals and write their own learning plans. With the support of small collegial teams, they study and practice new ways to perform and then try these out in their ongoing work among the adults and students of their schools. The process becomes a continual learning experience supported by fellow learners.

Tanya's Performance Learning

In the University of Maine's graduate program in educational leadership, Tanya is a member of a small learning team consisting of two teachers from her school and a teacher and a principal from two schools in neighboring districts. The team's central purpose is to support the leadership development of each member. During the past school year, it has helped all four educators extend their capacities by learning from their leadership performance in their schools. Here's how it worked for Tanya.
Last fall, Tanya isolated a situation from her work chairing the Learning Assessment Committee that she believed was hampering her success. She had plenty of issues to choose from: One member was often absent, two others frequently argued with each other in unproductive ways, and the assistant principal sometimes dominated the meetings. Her learning-team colleagues helped her recognize that the assistant principal's participation style was irritating her and others to the point where it discouraged their participation on the committee.
Her team helped her reflect on occasions when the assistant principal tended to take over and teacher members started to shut down. Tanya wrote about these in her leadership journal to pinpoint what he did and said at these times. She also wrote about her own behaviors and feelings as chair of the committee.
She and her learning team then explored ways that she could intervene to prevent this unproductive cycle. They read books and online articles that described facilitation techniques and skills that applied to her situation: what to do when meetings start to go off-task, words and phrases to diplomatically confront domineering group members, body language and meeting management strategies to encourage group members who have shut down, and one-on-one straight-talk techniques to use with one's boss.
At a learning-team meeting, Tanya tried out several of these techniques, role-playing with one of her teammates. She selected one strategy that she felt held the most promise: a process checktechnique she would use to intervene in the assistant principal's runaway talking by suggesting, "I'd like to stop right there and hear from other committee members on this idea before we go on." Tanya practiced the intervention, again role-playing with teammates (who by now could "play" the assistant principal very accurately).
Her practice helped Tanya develop a level of comfort with this new leader behavior. At the next Learning Assessment Committee meeting that the assistant principal attended, he came on like gangbusters—and Tanya was ready. Her intervention gave committee members a chance to weigh in on the assistant principal's point. Although startled, the assistant principal seemed to appreciate the responses to his point rather than the usual silence and passivity.
In the next three committee meetings, Tanya used this technique two more times. Each time, she reflected in her journal on how it worked. She took her reflections to her learning-team sessions, where her colleagues helped her decipher her changing relationship with the assistant principal and her committee colleagues. Together, they devised a quick method to seek feedback from her committee. At the close of the next meeting, she asked her committee colleagues to list, on one side of an index card, "Pluses: ways you see me helping to make participation open and equal for all members of our committee" and on the other, "Minuses: ways I could be helping to make participation more open and equal for us all."
At the next learning-team session, Tanya's three colleagues helped her use this feedback to take stock of her performance in keeping all members engaged in the committee's work. In this way, Tanya's teammates became her coaches, helping her reflect on her performance and explore new and specific ways to exercise leadership and supporting her in putting these ideas into practice.
Tanya continues to pursue this and other changes in her leadership skill set. At each meeting, her learning team reserves time for each of the four members to debrief, plan, and practice performance. Reflective writing at each of the seven steps of the performance learning process often helps learners not only document what worked and why but also plan to build these lessons into their repertoires.
The small learning teams are essential to this type of learning. When educators support a leader's self-reflection with encouragement, feedback, and critical questioning, they multiply his or her sense-making powers. Our small teams meet in one another's schools and, when possible, observe one another in action. They then can offer direct observation feedback on the interpersonal dynamics of leadership situations—dynamics that are often difficult for leaders to evaluate independently.

Relevant, Immediate, and Real

What makes performance learning so powerful?
First, it's relevant. As we're accustomed to hearing in our program, "It's about me and my work, not about someone's theory or the state's new policy." When educators have the opportunity to unpack their own leadership experiences with others' help, they can tease out the turning points in a meeting or a conversation. They can see where their own words and behaviors triggered responses in others and how their own leadership decisions may have advanced or encumbered the decision process. They're not learning in hypotheticals; they're learning in actuals.
Second, it's immediate. The object of study is recent leadership performance. A principal or teacher leader's experiences ("When I said this to Stan, he seemed to really engage and came up with ideas that Carlena and Pam built on" or "When I couldn't answer Jeanette's critique, I just felt personally defeated and lost focus.") become grist for reflective writing and discussion. The leader can develop alternative plans, practice how he or she is going to speak and act, and put these lessons and strategies to use the next day or the next week.
Third, it captures the relational aspects of leadership. Performance learners come to realize that their success as leaders isn't particularly rational. It's dynamic. It's never "done." That's because leadership in schools is about relationships and, as Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2002) report, mood and emotion shape those relationships. Faculty coalitions, intergroup dynamics, and culture are powerful factors in school improvement (Evans, 1996). When leaders learn from their own performance, these realities are identified, not avoided or ignored. Reflecting on performance helps leaders become aware of the complexities of relationships and understand what they can influence and what they cannot control.
Finally, it honors knowledge in action. When learning centers on leadership performance, it cannot become disembodied into separate knowledge bits or isolated skill sets. The real world of leadership won't let it because the test of leadership knowledge only comes when we use it. When learning is performance based, leaders see how their book knowledge, enactment skills, and professional judgment coalesce—or don't—into successful leadership that gets others on board and truly mobilized to improve practices with students.

The Starting Point

When Stan pointed out to Tanya that others saw her as a leader, he was referring largely to her interpersonal skills—her success at forming relationships that brought others together to work on important school problems and tasks. Without these inherent skills, her cognitive knowledge base and her passion for improvement would have remained hers alone. Through the relationships she cultivated, she was able to share her knowledge, unlock the knowledge of others, and mobilize herself and her colleagues to action.
That was the starting point for her learning, not the culmination. Professional competencies need rich, continual performance in which to grow. Whether supported by an understanding mentor, a university program, or a professional development program, leader learning works best when it is learner-centered and collegial. When professional learning grows from the crucible of performance, the lessons are relevant, immediate, real, and integrated. Most important, they enhance the learner's performance and thereby benefit students and the school.

Boyatzis, R., Cowen, S., & Kolb, D. (1995).Innovations in professional education: Steps on a journey from teaching to learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change: Reform, resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Cambridge MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

Gordon A. Donaldson, Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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