Speak Like You Are Right; Listen Like You Are Wrong

August 30, 2016 by

TeamRecently, I found myself stumbling out of a hotel and into a parking lot. My eyes were glassy and my gait was erratic. No, I had not been drinking. Instead, my lack of clarity was caused by something far worse; a parade of lawyers. I had just finished the end-of-year rally with the school lawyers. The way it works, we hear from fifteen lawyers, each given ten minutes, to share everything we need to know about changes in State or Federal laws. This was not drinking from a fire hose. This was drinking from the discharge viaduct of the Hoover Dam! From rental contracts, to special education, to collective bargaining, and everything in between. It was all laid out for us.

As I drove home, finally regaining my breath, I began to ponder how I, as a single individual, finishing my first year as superintendent, can get this done. Even with more years of experience, it seems daunting. How can I monitor all the things I need to monitor while also helping to lead the district to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system? I needed to buy land for a new school. I needed to sell the budget so it would pass referendum. I needed to hire new principals who could lead and also manage our schools as we continue to improve. I needed to… My heart rate increased again and my breath became shallow. Where was my brown paper bag?

Fate stepped in. My iTunes library chose a song I purchased years ago when my children were young. It sat in un-listened obscurity until this very moment. It was the final song from the original High School Musical movie, “We’re all in This Together.” Of course, how obvious. It is not about me. It is about WE. I have no need, nor ability, to accomplish all of this on my own. I had a team. My job was not to make and execute all the plans. It was to use my authority to help create the conditions to support and empower others and together move us to our vision. Calm began to settle once again.

As I approached my home, a thought hit me, how do you define team? I lay on my bed and pondered this. What makes a good team? How do I know I have the right people? Do I continue to grow those on my team? What if someone leaves, is my team destroyed?

Fate knocked again. I received an email from Amazon announcing Patrick Lencioni ‘s newest book, “The Ideal Team Player.” I have read all of his books, and his theories form a solid foundation for my actions as a leader. The book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has helped my administrative team look at issues and solutions as a system and not for their individual schools. His new book lives up to the standard of the others. Patrick, as he is able to do so well, breaks the complexities down into a list of three characteristics that define a good team player: hungry, humble, and smart.

A hungry team player is one who takes initiative and is not always waiting to be told what to do. They are creative in their problem-solving and not perpetual “what-iffers.” Our team built a purpose statement, our why we exist as a system of student-centered learning. It is “Cultivating Hope in All Learners.” We further defined it in nine-bullet points. These act as our HOW we will operate. Our team, regardless of role, now has a game plan we can work within it. The message is, as long as what you do can pass through our lenses of why and how, try it, assess it, and adjust it as needed. If what you do is not cultivating hope in all learners, stop doing it.

Patrick describes a humble team player as someone who is open to feedback, and willing to admit when he or she is wrong. It’s all about attitude. Bob Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, said, “Speak like you are right and listen like you are wrong.” I am clear with my colleagues, if you believe you cannot improve, you should not be here. If you believe you can improve, feedback is required.

The final characteristic is someone who is a smart team player. This is not about how much you know or how fast you can spout facts and statistics. This, instead, is about understanding how people respond to change. Daniel Goleman refers to it as “Emotional Intelligence.”

Dan and Chip Heath, in their book Switch, use a metaphor to describe how humans respond to change. It consists of a rider on an elephant moving down a path. The logical or intellectual response to change is represented by the rider. While this only accounts for 30 percent of human’s response to change, we spend most of our time trying to convince the rider why the change is good. The emotional aspect of change, the remaining 70 percent, is often ignored or responded to with a simple but harsh “because.” While the rider may seem to have control of the reins, if the person being asked to change is not emotionally ready, the elephant will take charge, and the rider will become exhausted causing the change to stall or move in the wrong direction. The path forward represents the best known direction towards the desired outcome. As Lencioni shares, a good team player demonstrating the smart characteristic realizes that each person, at any moment of the day or year, depending on circumstances in their life, may have an elephant that has overpowered the rider’s ability to control. The Heaths make the statement, “what looks like resistance is actually exhaustion.” Leaders need to recognize this and not simply become frustrated because someone is asking pointed questions.

So, it is not about me. Instead, I need to find team players who are humble, hungry, and smart. Then, as a team, we must continue to build upon these characteristics and challenge each other when we fall short. We must work together to create the conditions to empower others so our vision of a learner-centered, proficiency-based system of education can be realized and ultimately cultivate hope in all learners.

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About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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