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March 6, 2011

Leadership for greatness demands simplicity

by Chris Lindholm

This morning I was challenged to reflect on how the call to make a signficant, positive impact on our schools and communities demands understanding the deep wisdom of simplicity.  The message struck sharply against the grain of constant news feeds, sound bites, sales pitches, and so called “silver bullets.”  It pushed me to think about how I communicate and just how trained we have all become to glorify the latest and greatest technology, educational program or professional development package.  Real leaders find ways to make the complex simple and demonstrate an unwaivering focus on their core mission – without distraction from all the bells and whistles.  I accept that challenge, although I have much to learn about how to do it well, especially in times of light speed change in education. 

No question the message this morning resonated loudly with me due to recent editorial comments made about what is happening in ISD 191.  Clearly some good people in our organization don’t have a clear picture of where we are headed leading to frustration and negative perceptions.  This isn’t ok, and we all need to continue working hard to build common understandings about what makes a great school district and how we will get there.  Great organizations – and/or professional learning communities – contain a constant dissatisfaction of the status quo, which is not to be interpreted as a blaming statement against long time employees.  I believe all educators have a natural drive to pursue continuous improvement, and great school districts channel that drive into a tenacious focus on improving the whole system through meaningful collaboration.  That, simply put, is where we are headed. 

Probably the toughest aspect of fighting against a culture dominated by political spin, sound bites, for profit motives, and half truths is cutting through our engrained way of thinking to have others believe us when we are being authentic, transparent, and vulnerable.  Frankly, it is hard for any of us to trust due to our culture of media, our understandings of authority, and our own personal narratives often riddled by tough experiences.  We’ve learned to protect ourselves by trusting few and being unwilling to believe or be openly vulnerable.  And worse, we use the very same tools to further our own agendas and then point fingers at others for the same behaviors.  The pronoun here is “we.”  That includes me.  We are all trained to protect our own kids, our own souls, and the people we love – the hard part is looking in the mirror and deciding how to tow the line. 

So…  That is my hope and request for us in ISD 191.  Tenaciously channeling our innate drive to pursue improvement as a whole system will require meaningful collaboration and holding the mirror up to ourselves and each other.  It means analyzing the facts, good and bad, and changing our work to deliver on better results.  It means approaching our work as a constant action research project and helping each other figure out what the data means.  It means seeing the learning of every single student as our personal mission and tackling roadblocks as a team with collective efforts to get the job done.  That’s the vision.  There is no easy or magic way to do it.  It’s messy, hard work, and it’s the collective responsibility of everyone. 

The challenge for me each day is to keep the message simple.  The challenge for all of us is to recognize that the message is authentic and indeed that simple.  Real school improvement is not about the district office planning a grandious plan to make everything better.  It’s about empowering principals and teacher leaders to work collaboratively, analyzing the data and making plans to do what it takes to get better results.  That is it. 

I’ll do my best to keep tight to the mission and to focus on simplicity (no promises on the wisdom part…).  Together, let’s make it happen for our students.

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