Nodes in a Network Not Stations in a Sequence

This is part 4 of my 7-part series focusing on The New School Rules. If you missed previous parts, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

One of the important features of responsive teams is that they are structured like nodes in a network instead of stations in a rigid sequence. One of the characteristics of network nodes is that they have their own purpose, individual accountabilities, autonomy, and authority. In other words, the bosses and leaders no longer command the pieces on the board.

The New School Rules

Last week we learned new ways to think about planning, but this week we dive into deep structures around how we build our organizations and even our identities. Chapter 2 in The New School Rules by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black looks at teaming and the way we create systems that allow teams to either flourish or stagnate.

The “New Rule” around teaming is – Build Trust and Allow Authority to Spread. Keeping with our overall focus on responsiveness we will look as deeply at how our teams are structured as we do at the tasks we ask them to perform. I can’t think of any campus or central office structure that does not have staff divided up into teams or departments. Those two contexts may look slightly different, but a commonality in most settings is that the work of the team floats vertically rather than horizontally.

Projects, expectations, goals are often assigned in a hierarchical approach from a principal or director and the team then performs those tasks while reporting back up the chain to said principal/director. Teams will at times work together, but that collaboration is based around meeting the expectations set from above.

According to the authors, this hierarchical model allows leaders to grant authority to teams but it is gifted in a conditional and limiting way. This conditionality leads to teams playing it safe or focusing on ways to maintain that authority rather than becoming a flexible and learning team. When authority – like anything else – is a scarce resource we compete to either maintain or capture it from others. Then this competition distracts our teams from their purpose.

Ask yourself where and why you are granting conditional authority and you will find all roads lead back to trust. Trust in our teams and trust in ourselves as leaders is a fluid state or being. I try to think about conditionality often as a parent. “Where might my kids think my love, respect, or praise is conditional depending on their actions?” I hope they don’t think my love is conditional. They are judging my actions more than my words and I hope those actions and words or congruent, but I’m sure they are not always aligned. Congruence between our words and actions build trust.

And trust builds teams that move a campus, department, or company incrementally forward. Trust builds teams that can adapt to inevitable, demographic changes, funding issues, or changes in leadership positions.

Kim and Gonzales-Black suggest we must build trust in two ways in our organizations on pages 53-54:

  1. The first level is the trust between individuals on teams. The purpose and goals of the team come first, and team members commit to productively surfacing tension instead of avoiding it or sweeping it under the rug. Having trust within a team means important discussions happen directly with the group, not in side meetings , campaigning, and gossip.
  2. The second level – within an organization and especially between teams – is equally important. It means that information flows between groups and is accessible as needed. Communication takes place about what teams are doing and what help or input they might need. This type of organizational trust acknowledges that other teams are doing work that is as good and important as your team’s and they are doing it with the best information they have to get the work done.

So how do we build this trust? We will revisit this question when we wrap up this series looking at all six “new rules” outlined in the book because my hunch is that building individual and structural trust is so important and yet so difficult that it takes a comprehensive system to allow trust to grow. The authors outline several ideas around talking about tensions, defining purpose, and building strong team habits that are all valuable. And if you have a copy of the book, please take time to read those sections.

But I’m going to wrap this up here before we go too long with one tip of building trust. Be relentless about actually doing what you say you are going to do. I struggle with this at times because it feels so good to say “yes.” We over-commit. And each time we don’t follow-through we lose trust. So be stingy with your “yes’s” and be liberal – yet transparent – with your “no’s” and you will build trust.

The other big idea around “building trust and letting authority go” I’ll leave you with is to start looking at your teams as nodes in a network rather than stations in a sequence. We want our teams to bump into each other when they need to learn and be on their own when they need the space to do the work. As the leader we create the space that allows this to happen. Or, we create the railroad tracks that point in one direction with multiple stops along the way. Stations in a sequence only work in a stable and predictable setting.

Public education has been with us for a long time, but it is not a stable and predictable setting. We are in a people business and never really know what each day will bring. We need teams and teams of teams that can think for themselves and make the best decisions closest to the action. So trust yourself enough to set up a system through strong hiring and coaching that propagates unconditional authority among your teams. Then step aside, manage the environment, clear obstacles, coach, and facilitate connections.

Next week we look at Managing Roles – Define the Work Before You Define the People. This third new school rule will help us think beyond job descriptions understand that we all manage our own work and step into multiple roles depending on the current reality.

Rather than being able to step into different roles with clarity and purpose, our titles become a uniform we can’t take off.”

The New School Rules, Page 66

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The Beauty of Educative Planning

This is part 3 of my 7-part series focusing on The New School Rules. If you missed previous parts, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

We need to approach planning as a way of thinking, not a set product or plan that has value in and of itself.”

The New School Rules, pg. 11

Say what you will about Mike Tyson, but his response to a reporter prior to a fight about his opponent’s preparation nails the problem with our over-reliance on plans. “Everyone has a plan until they get hit,” he said, “then like a rat they stop in fear and freeze.” The origins of that quote float back through history tweaked by various prize fighters and military leaders. And it resonates as much in the workplace as it does in the ring.

In schools, we operate on an annual planning cycle. We set annual goals – often in the summer – and then often do our best to adhere to that plan and those goals. The main concern I have with this approach is that we are usually addressing last year’s deficits rather than today or tomorrow’s opportunity. Our system discounts current realities and values adherence to the plan over agility and front-line decision making.

The authors of The New School Rules propose a new way of planning in Chapter 1 that adopts the idea of, “plan for change, not perfection.” Here is another comparison of planning approaches from page 19:

Page 19 – The New School Rules

But how do you “plan for change” and still assure those around we are not just making stuff up as we go? Something I may or may not have been accused of in the past.

The authors suggest we build roadmaps instead of manuals. “In order to become more responsive and successful, organizations need to move away from plans that act as manuals and focus on building roadmaps and logic models. Rather than dictating specific actions, these approaches give people the tools they need to make quicker and better decisions on their own.”

A roadmap orients us to a common destination. It has suggested routes and highlights potential obstacles and points of interest along the way. A roadmap also paints a picture of a successful destination. But a roadmap gives flexibility in decision-making along the way and pushes that decision to the people closest to the action. Everyone has the option to follow the roadmap step-by-step, but those wanting to adjust and make the path work for them have that option. Essentially we are defaulting to a system that encourages differentiation and only falls back on rigidity as a last result.

Empowering our teams to make adjustments to a plan will help us as leaders focus on coaching our teams, painting a picture of success, and clearing obstacles along the path. This shift in focus from serving the plan to serving the people helps us use planning as an educative experience where we learn more about ourselves along the way. When reaching that destination then, rather than celebrating and giving credit to the plan, we honor our work and the thinking that took place among our team. The team is now stronger and ready for the next opportunity.

The authors paint a picture of successful planning as when…

  • There’s a greater sense of being alive
  • Teams and organizations have a clear and motivating purpose
  • Everyone is continuously evolving, improving, and aiming higher
Page 33 – The New School Rules

Where in your daily work has planning become a finite rather than infinite activity? Where has the plan itself become the focus rather than the people? Where can you give more agency to the performers of the plan and help guide them on a roadmap rather than script each move as in a manual?

As with most things, it’s about balance. At the end of the day, your teams need to arrive at the destination. Just remember that the arrival at the finish line or the completion of a plan is not the end of the work. It may be the end of that project or that school year, but we are playing an infinite game. And the goal of our infinite game is to keep playing and continuous improvement, not to win or lose.

Meeting a goal and sticking with a plan that destroys a team along the way is shortsighted. That approach may work when a singular outcome at a singular point in time is all that matters. That’s finite thinking. And finite thinking only serves us when we are ready to stop playing the game. I’m not ready to stop and I hope you are not either.

Thanks for joining me on this look at chapter 1 of The New School Rules. Next week we will think through chapter 2 together and examine a new way to look at teaming. Here is a quick quote as a teaser:

In the hierarchical model, good leaders aim to grant some degree of authority to their staff and teams, but this authority if typically contingent – it’s a grant and can be taken back at any moment. This dynamic erodes trust and doesn’t allow authority to spread.

Page 45 – The New School Rules

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Laying The Groundwork for The New School Rules

This is part 2 of my 7-part series focusing on, The New School Rules. If you missed part 1, check it out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

“The ideas we present here are based on the belief that static and rigid organizational systems no longer work – whether the organization is a huge corporation, a startup, a school district, or a school team, information is traveling too fast and the rate of change is quicker and more unpredictable than ever before.”

-The New School Rules

Before we jump into the main content of The New School Rules, let’s think about the ideas of responsiveness and holocracy. These two pillars of organization and management philosophy are key elements of the six practices we will dive into next week.

Let’s think on responsiveness first. How would you describe the current structures of your campus or department? Are those systems built to respond to current needs of students and teachers? Or are the systems and structures designed to create needs to which the students and teachers respond?

According to the authors, “A responsive organization, as we use the term, is one that puts responsiveness at its foundation-responsiveness to new information; to the needs and talents of staff, teachers, students, and the community; to unforeseen challenges and opportunities.” Essentially systems are created that allow for agility and flexibility. If a current process or practice is creating rigidity or hierarchies, then it is examined and likely dismantled.

“Responsive schools and districts embrace

  • an iterative and evolving approach to planning and structure,
  • meaningful autonomy for teams and team members,
  • approaches to sharing and receiving information and feedback that build trust and engagement and allow for timely and effective decision making.” -The New School Rules

Partnering with this idea of responsive organizations are elements of a management practice called Holocracy. Holocracy is an approach to people management that shifts a the majority of decision-making authority to individuals and teams rather than an organizational hierarchy of decision approvers.

Check out the video below for a deeper overview of the ideas around Holocracy.


My take on the six practices we will discuss in this series is that they are more dependent on the tenants of a responsive systems than the practice of Holocracy. And regarding either responsiveness or Holocracy, it’s as important to reflect on the ideas proposed by those ways of thinking as it is to actually change your org chart and job titles.

The key takeaway is that everything is always changing. Our systems and structures will either allow our people to benefit from and see beauty in that fluidity, or our systems and structures will hamper their growth. Either way, impermanence is a given.

So I’m excited to jump into the first rule: Planning – Plan for Change, Not Perfection. And there are three key points I will leave you with before we dissect chapter 1 next week:

From page 24, “There are several key lessons on iterative planning we can cull from their success:

  • Build roadmaps, not manuals.
  • Use cadences and pivot points, not just schedules and deadlines.
  • Encourage testing, experiments, and responsiveness

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Diving Into The New School Rules

The culture of our schools, organizational structures, and methods of communication and decision making – not educational approaches – are the actual drivers for success and failure.

– Anthony Kim

You ever notice when a book takes the thoughts from you mind you’ve been struggling to communicate and puts them out on the page in front of you?

As a senior in high school I stumbled upon a book in our campus library by George Sheehan called Running and Being. It took the way I felt about long distance running and helped me make sense of my own hormone-laden mind.

It’s only happened a handful of times since. The most recent was last month when I picked up The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black.

I’ve read hundreds of books about leadership ideas, curriculum strategies, data analysis, motivation, and the like focusing on public K-12 education. Many have been exceptional and more than a few sparked immediate desire to action.

The New School Rules stands out though because the authors choose to focus on six practices related to organizational decisions that have little to do with teaching and learning. They don’t discuss assessments, curriculum, or feedback. There are no ideas shared around intervention or how to motivate teachers and students. Instead Kim and Gonzales-Black choose to focus on organizational practices they posit are either currently getting in the way of success or need to be implemented in order for schools and school systems to meet the needs of our students and team members.


Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to pull apart each of the 6 identified vital practices:

  1. Planning – how to find the right purpose and plan to achieve it
  2. Teaming – what makes teams function as powerful, effective groups that lead projects and change
  3. Managing Roles – new ways of thinking about who should do the work to unleash expertise, interest, and desire to learn
  4. Decision Making – the truth about who gets to decide and how a new model of decision making can speed up experimentation, change, and engagement
  5. Sharing Information – the nuance of putting out information and actual communication that leads to a powerful shared purpose
  6. The Learning Organization – coming full circle, the importance of school organizations that have a learning culture to model and test the learning culture we want and need for our students

In each post we will look at that particular domain and how we could incorporate the ideas into our daily work as leaders in creating the space for teaching and learning. And I think that very idea is why this book speaks to me. As Marc Lesser taught us in an earlier post, our job as leaders is to think, listen, and provide space. The New School Rules provides us ways of creating that space in a responsive way.

So each Monday morning starting Feb. 17th I’ll post an in-depth look at each chapter starting on the 17th with the introduction. I would love for you to pick up a copy and share thoughts in the comments each week or just share ideas based on what I write.

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Let Pain Be Our Path to Connection

This is part 5 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-4, check them out here.

Hang on. It’s about to get real. The fourth practice of a mindful leader provides us the space to look inward and stew in our own fear, vulnerability, aloneness, regret, and other emotions we tend to bury down deep.

The fourth practice is “Connect to Your Pain,” and Lesser tells us that “Letting in our pain connects us with our common humanity and with all of life, it strengthens us, and it improves our ability to listen and act.”

I wonder what he means by “letting in.” Letting in where? I may be able to recognize my pain and even name it. I may be able to write about it, draw a picture of it, or even talk about it, but does that mean I’m letting it in? I’m still working on that one.

I do know that as many of us, I find it incredibly easy to bury my pain. So easy, that it becomes a habit. Dale Carnegie might tell us to put it in a “Day-Tight Compartment.” I can experience something, stash it away somewhere in my psyche, and move on to the next event. The reality though is the permeability of our day-tight compartments. Like a river cutting through rock, our compartments do not hold tight forever. And the longer we go without connecting to our pain, the higher the danger of a 40-year flood.

So Lesser recommends we connect to our pain through a couple different strategies. One is meditation of course. And another is to create a timeline of our lives – both the highs and the lows. Then journal about each major event, leaning into the emotions we remember feeling at the time and emotions we feel about those events now with some distance. Perhaps writing is an avenue to “letting in” the pain. Talking or thinking about our emotions sometimes keeps them at a distance. It’s amost as if we are an observer. Journaling often allows a closer and more personal connection to the feeling.

Page 116

Whether it is through creating a timeline or meditation or any other way you develop, a key take-away from this practice is to lean into the pain or discomfort. Rather than pretending it is not there, accepting that denial is not an option will allow us to take better care of ourselves so we can take better care of others. Perhaps it starts with accepting the fact that we are not as good at hiding our pain as we think we are. We can’t hide it from ourselves. And if our intention is to be an authentic leader, then we can’t believe that hiding from our pain won’t hinder our ability to serve others.


This fourth practice wraps up Part 1 of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. We’ve spent the last few weeks investigating ourselves and the impact our inner thoughts and actions have on our behavior as a leader. Next week, we move the work outward into the practices of connecting with those around us. In leading teams/classrooms and families it’s important to remember the mantra, “I before we.” If we did not spend the last three weeks looking inward we would not be fit to interact with others at the level they deserve.

Next week we dive into the fifth practice – Connect to the Pain of Others. Here’s a quick preview Lesser shares from the Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

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Don’t Be an Expert. Let’s Embrace the Paradox

This is part 4 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-3, check them out here.

We left off the last two week talking about doing and loving the work. We learned that the “work” is cultivating our mindfulness and our context is leadership. Now as we jump into the third practice of a mindful leader, Marc Lesser challenges us to look even deeper into ourselves. This third practice speaks directly to our often insatiable appetite for striving and looking good in front of our peers.

The third practice of a mindful leader is: Don’t Be an Expert.

Don’t be an expert!? Isn’t that why I am a leader? Wasn’t I chosen for my current leadership position because I knew more than the other candidates for the job? Not very likely.

But, don’t those on my team now expect me to have answers when they come to me with questions? Don’t my kids want me to use my vast life experience to tell them what to do? Even less likely.

Lesser reminds us often that the mindful leader’s job is to think, listen, and hold space. Those are the things our team members and family members expect from us. They expect us to think with them when they are having a dilemma, listen with caring when they need to get something off their chest, and create space for presence and cooperation as we build shared cultures at work and at home. They don’t usually expect us to wow them with our brilliant solution to their problem.

It’s so hard to hold back though, isn’t it. Most of us have moved up in our careers because we were really good at certain aspects of our jobs and received regular praise for said performance. We received praise for “doing” something, usually not for our ability to think, listen, or hold space. We were praised for having the right answers.

And it’s so easy to get hooked on the dopamine hit when someone recognizes your intelligence. It’s not our fault though. We’ve been formally graded and judged since kindergarten – and even before that by our parents. Some of us excelled in that system and came out the other end addicted to pleasing. Others of us fought that system and came out ready to disengage and go our own ways.

But for our purposes here today, it’s the addiction to praise that interests me the most because it hits me right in the gut. I can look at missteps I’ve made as a leader and identify instances where I prioritized earning praise from my boss over coaching someone on my team. The irony lies in the fleeting nature of that praise versus the lasting impact on a damaged relationship with someone on my team. We can say the same about most addictions.

Lesser shares several practices in the chapter related to embracing a beginner’s mind in our work as leaders and I want to focus in on one in particular – Listen with Open Ears: Don’t Be a Relationship Expert. In all the different aspects of leadership, we can do the most lasting damage when we act like an expert in the aspect of our relationships with and between others.

Lesser urges us to recognize our filters and the stories we tell ourselves about other people and their actions. He quotes the opening lines of R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, “I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. Therefore we are invisible to each other.” That invisibility remains in effect until we start to listen. Lesser goes on to say, “Therefore, it is useful to practice being attentive and curious in order to increase our understanding of others. Usually, the more familiar we become with others, the more we assume we ‘know’ them. We risk believing we are ‘relationship experts.'”

So let’s work on recognizing when our mental chatter is telling us a story about someone or something we have experienced in the past. If we recognize it, then we can choose whether or not to listen to that internal voice. We can choose not to assume and see the person or situation with a beginner’s mind. Easier said than done. I fail at this almost daily, but I’m getting better at recognizing my failure and every now and then catch myself before responding. As we talked about last week, it all comes down to an intentional response. And when we can make the response with the passion and curiosity of a beginner, we will likely see our experiences and relationships with renewed joy and wonder.

Before we move on to the fourth practice, Connect to Your Pain, I want to invite you to join my mailing list. By doing so, each update to this blog will be mindfully delivered to you inbox as soon as it’s published.


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Here’s a preview from next week’s post:

Turning toward and connecting to my own pain has been essential in helping me discover what is most important, whether in leadership roles or in any part of my life. This is the benefit of the fourth practice, and I’ve found it true for me again and again.

Marc Lesser – Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader

Thanks…

Everything is Connected – It’s Time to Do the Work

This is part 3 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1 or 2, check them out here.

Before we jump into the second principle – Do the Work – let’s remind ourselves what the work is. According to Lesser, the work is cultivating our own mindfulness. And we ended our look at the first principle – Love the Work – with his definition of what leaders do on a daily basis:

  1. Think – leaders use intelligence to plan, envision, problem solve, focus, and see from a multitude of perspectives.
  2. Listen – they care about others and collaborate with others to execute a shared vision, which means being open, vulnerable, and curious.
  3. Hold Space – they try to be fully present, clear, emotionally open, and credible; they influence the culture by creating positive norms around storytelling, flexibility, and accountability.

So how do we as leaders in the various settings and contexts we find ourselves cultivating our mindfulness through the actions of thinking, listening, and holding space? Lesser opens the chapter by highlighting two distinct ways we do this work: dedicated and integrated practice.

Let’s look at our dedicated practices first. What distinct routines or structures do we build into our lives which temporarily pull us away from others and allow us to do inner work? Lesser of course recommends Zen-based dedicated practices like sitting/walking meditation and journal writing. Personally, I do my best to have dedicated practice every morning. From 4:30-6:00 at least five days a week my morning routine includes a combination of sitting meditation, kettlebell swings, inversion, walking the dog in the dark, and occasionally a 3-5 min dip in my ice tank. I don’t do all those activities every day, but try to do a combination each day. The key is that this dedicated practice all takes place before anyone else is awake and allows me to embrace some silence before interacting with anyone else. Going back to thinking, listening, and holding space, it’s much harder to do any of that for anyone else throughout the day if we aren’t also doing all those things for ourselves.

Then examining our integrated practices, Lesser focuses in on our ability to respond.

The Zen tradition has a dialogue in which a student asks the teacher, “What is the teaching of an entire lifetime?” The teacher answers, “An appropriate response.”

Page 67, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader

In our work as leaders is anything more important than the way we choose to respond to the numerous and unpredictable events that are either brought to us or we stumble upon? And in the context of leadership, an “appropriate response” is one where we hold space for thinking and listening.

Lesser reminds us then that the question we need to ask ourselves as leaders is, “Why don’t we respond appropriately all the time? What keeps us from being mindful? Here are his four common obstacles:

  1. We lack awareness of others or the situation
  2. We feel judgemental and self-critical
  3. We become afraid and react without thinking
  4. We fear change

These obstacles will always be with us. The Work is integrating and cultivating a practice of noticing when any of these four obstacles are influencing our responses. The events I’m presented with at work these days are heavy, but the numerousness of them is much less than when I was an assistant principal. As a K-12 campus leader you have numerous daily unpredictable events presented to you by students, parents, and teachers. And the seriousness of these events range from negligible to life-threatening. This ability to cultivate an intentional and mindful response is what separates leaders. It’s also how campuses and organizations build healthy cultures.

Those on our teams need to trust that we as leaders will respond with actions that are in congruence with our stated values. They also need to be able to predict how we would respond to a situation when we are not there so those on our teams have the confidence to act in our absence. When we fall victim to the four obstacles listed above, and we act in incongruence with our stated values, our leadership and the cultures we nurture suffer.

When I hold true to my dedicated morning practice time – which really starts the night before by going to sleep early – I notice my actions are better aligned with my values. I’m sure those around me can see it too. Everything is connected. Both dedicated and integrated practice are essential to Doing the Work.

Before we move on to the third practice, Don’t Be an Expert, I want to invite you to join my mailing list. By doing so, each update to this blog will be mindfully delivered to you inbox as soon as it’s published.

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One last thing to prepare us for next week. Here’s the quote with which Lesser opens his look at the third principle. Enjoy:

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind