Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Twelve Leadership Takeaways from Representative Assembly

Experiences at the 2012 NEA Representative Assembly left me with a lot to think about.  As I began to reflect on lessons learned from working on 3 different New Business Items (4, 5, and 82), I discovered a growing list.  Here are twelve takeaways from the experience:
Hmmm - can you imagine this being issued in 2012?
  1. Use the “we” voice.  Leading in an organization means you are no longer on your own.  “We” is both more accurate and more powerful.  Thank you Mary McDonald for the reminder!
  2. Have metrics for success.  That way you win no matter what.  You have to have a metric to measure success if your initiative happens, and you have to have a metric for success if your initiative doesn’t happen.  The latter was certainly the case for NBI #4.  But this happened by default – being intentional about it takes it to the next level.  Planning for success is valuable both in leadership and teaching.
  3. Conviction matters.  Genuinely caring about the organization and outcomes trumps a lot of bad stuff.  Conviction confuses the self-interested.  They don’t understand your motivations.
  4. Relationship means knowing what people are good at.  Jo Anderson of the US Department of Education told me, “Relationship is everything.”  I never truly understood what this meant until this RA.  Knowing the strengths of others, and understanding how they operate, is critical to trust.
  5. Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork.  As a rural leader, I’m used to being chief cook and bottle washer.  As a team coalesced around NBI #4 in the TURN caucus and around NBI #82 more generally, I was amazed to watch high capacity leaders quickly deploy their strengths and figure out their roles on the fly.  It was a real eye opener.
  6. Break off pieces of a problem.  Doing something specific and actionable is better than doing something diffuse and rhetorical.  This is the theory and practice of being bold.  Actually saying something inspires meaningful debate, which is a fundamental political good.
  7. Avoid factionalism.  Rural vs. Urban, NEA vs. AFT.  Sometimes one has to let go of little things in order to get at the big issues.  Factions are about power.  The antidote to factionalism is inclusiveness.  When people actually talk to each other, we discover other folks care as much as we do, and don’t have horns and a tail.
  8.  People don’t like being forced to do things.  They don’t even like the smell of it.  All the pro-NBI #4 speakers tried to be clear that this would not force anybody to do anything.  The anti-NBI #4 speakers painted it as a top-down initiative that would compel people to do things they might not want to do.  That rhetoric swayed the assembly.  We’re going to need to think about the implications very carefully in the future.
  9. Language matters.  With 5000 wordsmiths in the room you have to get the language right.  Leveraging the talents of some of those wordsmiths is a valuable thing to do.
  10. Power and position are just platforms to get things done. It is a terrible mistake to value these things for their own sake.  Using power and position to strengthen the organization is correct; using these things for self-aggrandizement diminishes everyone.
  11. Developing leadership capacity means having experiences.  Nobody can tell you how to do leadership work.  You have to thrust yourself into the maelstrom.  As the old adage says, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you really want.”  This is an example of #2 above, succeeding either way.  Nobody can teach you how to speak in front of 9000 people, how to file a New Business Item for optimal effect, or how to lobby Congress.  You just have to do it and take your lumps.  If you value engagement as a fundamental good, you have to encourage others to have these experiences as well – whether or not you agree with them.
  12. Reflection is as valuable in leadership as it is in teaching.  I’m a National Board Certified Teacher.  It doesn’t mean I’m better than you; it just means I’ve enhanced my capacity for reflection and improvement.  Reflection is priceless for improving classroom practice.  It is equally valuable in leadership.
So here’s hoping I don’t repeat too many mistakes, and that my future mistakes are novel and exciting….
What are your leadership takeaways from RA?


  1. Steve, Your words, "I’ve enhanced my capacity for reflection and improvement. Reflection is priceless for improving classroom practice. It is equally valuable in leadership" really resonated for me. Reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: The teacher who doesn't have time for reflection, doesn't have time to grow.

    1. Thanks Gail! I was worried that remark wouldn't resonate, but we need to remember that teaching nurtures a lot of leadership skills and that we can leverage those skills when we venture into these arenas. Achieving NBCT really opened up a whole new world for me, and prepared me for that world. Its been a steep learning curve. The ability to reflect has been very helpful.

  2. Steve I applaud your use of reflection as a tool for your teaching and teacher leadership. I couldn't agree more that teamwork and relationships are keys to every leader's success - it amazes me how quickly some can forget that in order to be a leader, you need someone to be following... So how do you pull together those who are polarized around an issue? When people are mired down with "the little things" how do you move past it to inclusion and compromise?

    1. Absolutely true: "in order to be a leader, you need someone to be following..." in two senses - somebody following you AND you following somebody.

      With regard to your question, there are formal processes that are helpful. On the negotiations front an interest based approach can bring people together, paired with the similar "difficult conversations" approach for interpersonal relations. Focusing on the problem rather than the person can defuse a lot of that little stuff. Lest anyone think I am good at this - I deny it, but have come to see that the rewards are great enough that is worthwhile to work hard to get better at it.

      We all know those charismatic individuals who just "get it" - for the rest of us mere mortals there are well articulated approaches which we can study, adopt and adapt. I'm not a fan of relying exclusively on superheroes. The alternative is hard work - in fact much harder than conflict, because it requires you to wrestle with yourself. Conflict is easy, but it offers few rewards.

      Compromise is an interesting term. In a collaborative problem solving situation people often invent a converging, multi-pronged solution. In that context, compromise often feels a little hollow, something second best that you settle for because you couldn't come up with anything better.