Category Archives: michael fullan

4 Ways To “Lead Up”

As the world around us constantly shifts, many schools and districts feel stuck.  This is often times a direct result of “formal leadership”, as fear, politics, or a lack of vision (amongst a myriad of other reasons) can hold the entire community back.  Many educators become frustrated with this, as they are ready to move forward faster than their leadership, and can become frustrated, to a point of subversiveness or leaving altogether. In all honesty, sometimes leaving might be the best option but not feasible.  People often quit bosses before they quit organizations,

This is why it is important to “lead up”.

What I mean by this term is not necessarily meaning to, as Michael Fullan has popularized, “leading from the middle“, where you can make an impact on so many others in your organization. True leadership is more about the influence to move others forward in a positive direction.  But to “lead up”, is focused more on how to deal with those in authority above you to help them move forward, even when it is hard to do.  As our organizations are run by people, it is important to understand that no matter the position, many of the same elements of great leadership apply to working with those above you ‘in a formal hierarchy, as it does with any other group.

Here are three ideas that might help you with this process:

  1. Start by asking, “We are here to do what is best for kids, right?” If you disagree with something and you believe that it is in the best interest of kids, start with the question suggested and wait for the obvious “yes” answer.  Once you start from that point, it is now your job to prove why what you are asking for is in the best interest of kids.  Prove your point like a lawyer.  But if you can’t prove that what you are asking is best for kids, maybe your boss isn’t in the wrong? Always start from that point.
  2. Ask questions more and make statements less. Covey’s notion of “seek first to understand” is crucial in all aspects of leadership.  We may be bothered with a decision and why it is made, and it is easy to tell people all of the reasons are wrong, or that your way is right, but there are many times where there are things behind the scenes that you may not know or understand.  What is crucial here is to help people explain their position and work backwards from there, as opposed to trying to bring them to your side.  Something might be brought to your attention that you had no idea was happening, but a conversation is more likely to lead to positive change than two people simply stating their sides.  You might find a middle ground that you didn’t know existed.
  3. Pick your battles wisely. Although I encourage people to ask questions and try to understand, there are times when you need to be more adamant about your position. The key here is that your voice is heard.  If you complain about every decision that is made in your organization, the voice becomes more like “noise” than anything.  Sometimes we have to realize that there are some hills that we do not need to die on, in chase of a much bigger prize.
  4. Show that you see value in your leaders. This one feels hard to write for me, but there is some truth to it.  Statements like “that’s why you make the big bucks” are somewhat condescending to leaders, and create more division than cohesion.  We have to realize that we are all connected as partners in education, and just because someone is in a formal position of leadership, does not mean that they do not need to feel valued.  The higher you go up, the less you will hear compliments of your work.  It is a reality of the work.  What I am not saying is “suck up to your boss”.  All people need to feel valued, and when we look for strengths and mentorship, we are more likely to create a bond built on trust, which is helpful for people to move forward in organizations, as opposed to distrust. Do what you hope is done for you, and ignore title or position. People work better together when they all feel valued for their unique abilities and strengths.

With all of this being said, the suggestions I have shared might not work.  Egos often get in the way at every level, and decisions are sometimes made for the wrong reasons.  Yet, if you are frustrated that you feel you, or your school, is not moving fast enough, it is crucial to try something different,  than simply complaining.  When schools work together, the speed in which we move forward in a positive manner can increase exponentially.

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Learners Are the Driver

The following image was created by Alberta Education several years ago:

Alberta Education Competency Wheel

Although it is no longer used, I still find the image to be a very powerful visual for what learning can look like in schools.  The ideas are not necessarily separated from one another, and are all intertwined in some way, which is what learning really looks like. The “3 E’s” (Ethical Citizen, Entrepreneurial Spirit, and Engaged Thinker) are the bigger goals, but they also show what is important to get to those bigger ideas.

I am sure that people can look at this and pick it apart, and create something better (which I actually think is a good thing since we shouldn’t just accept it without the component of critical thinking), but there are two things that are very compelling to me when I look at the above image.

The first thing is that the learner is in the centre of the circle. This is really crucial and it actually intertwines the importance of both innovation and best practice.  The reason I say that is sometimes what we know and have adopted as “best practice” works for many of our students, but sometimes it doesn’t. If the learner is truly in the centre of learning, we will have to sometimes go with what we know, or else create something different for that student (why I advocate for the importance of having “The Innovator’s Mindset“). There has been no time in history where any one thing has worked for all of our students. If it did, we would all be doing it.  In the book, I adapt the well known quote from Michael Fullan, “Learning is the driver, technology is the accelerator”, to “Learners are the driver, and technology is the accelerator.” Learners should be at the centre of what we do.

The second thing that I really love about this graphic is that it focuses on the “basics” of literacy and numeracy as core skills, but goes beyond them as well.  This constant struggle between “the basics” and “innovation” is not realistic, and this graphic sums that up nicely. You need both.  One of my favourite quotes that I have heard from Dr. Yong Zhao was “reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling”.  This image focuses on going beyond the basics (while still saying they are extremely crucial), which is what we should want for our students.

I have shared this image with others and I think it is a great conversation piece for staff.  Some things to think about:

  1. How are we focusing on the learner at the centre of our decisions?
  2. How are we going “beyond” the basics while still ensuring that we are meeting the expectations that we are required to do in our work?
  3. What would we change? What would we add? What would we subtract? Why?

Hopefully this can help further some conversations.  What would your questions be?