Archive for February 2017

Be A Better Leader: Be Relational (by being a teacher)

“Be Relational” is the second category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Trustworthy,” Be Knowledgeable,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Relational,” we will be talking about the need to be a talker, be a listener, be relational, be a teacher.

When we think about teaching, our minds generally go immediately to the role of a classroom teacher in a school. We tend to think of it as an occupation, rather than a way to communicate, as a job that someone does as opposed to how you interact with others in a way that helps them to learn something. However, while teachers play an invaluable role in the development of children, we are mistaken if we think that it is a job that is only relegated to someone in a classroom. The reality is that if you lead people you are a teacher.

I personally have experience in the professional role of educator, having served as a junior high and high school teacher for a number of years, and having spent more than two decades in a school environment as both teacher and administrator. I had subject matter that I was responsible to teach, and my job was to help students learn necessary and relevant information, and to develop critical thinking skills. But it also was a vehicle through which I sought to shape the minds and the lives of my students in the context of a relationship.

Leaders are also seeking to shape the minds and lives of those they lead, and so effective leadership can and should learn some things from the theory and practice of professional educators. Therefore there is great value in understanding what teaching looks like and how it has an effect on people. Gaining an understanding of this can help us with a framework for how we also can teach others. If we want to become better teachers (and we all should), then we need to look at the learning process and at teachers.

In the book Blended (2015), authors Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker discuss the concept of disruptive innovation and its application to the world of education, especially as it applies to online instruction and blended learning. They make the point that today’s schools were originally designed to standardize teaching and testing (the opposite of differentiation and customization), but in today’s global, information-based culture, the new need is for student-centered learning, which is personalized (tailored to an individual student’s particular need) and competency-based (they must demonstrate mastery before moving on). As they researched students in the learning environment, they then sought to identify the primary motivators for student learning, and found two motivating desires: 1) to feel successful and make progress, and 2) to have fun with friends, engaging in positive, rewarding social experiences with others. In short, they learned that students – the learners – want to successfully achieve, experience good social relationships, and receive individualized instruction whereby they can show what they know in the way they do best.

So research gives us some insight into what learners in general want to experience, but what about your own experience? Like most people, you can probably think of teachers who made an impact on your life, so we should be asking ourselves what they did that makes them stand out to us. When you do that, you will probably find several core practices or behaviors that characterized those impactful teachers: 1) they cared; and specifically, they cared about you, and you knew it, 2) they were examples that you felt you could emulate, because they were models of how to live life effectively and with meaning, 3) they challenged and inspired you, pushing you to do more than you thought you were capable of doing, and 4) they gave you feedback, both positive and negative, to support, encourage, and grow you, but also to hold you accountable and correct you.

Now put these ideas together, those from research and those from your own personal experience, and it will begin to give you a picture of what it means to be a teacher. If you apply this to the people you lead, it will help you to see that they want to progress and achieve, they want to have positive and caring relationships, they want to do what they do well in the way they can do it best, they want someone to show them the way and challenge them to grow, and they want to know how they are doing. And you don’t have to be in a classroom to do all of these things.

This provides for us a blueprint, a road map for how we can teach the people we lead, and there are four foundational pillars that make up this plan:

  • First, teach with your heart, developing a genuine care for people. Build relationship by taking a personal interest in their lives and showing that you care about them.
  • Second, teach with your words. Take the time to explain why and how, helping people to understand what it is that they are doing and how it connects to the other people and tasks around them in the organization.
  • Third, teach with your life, by living in way that is consistent with what you say, demonstrating integrity, and keeping your promises. Be an example they can emulate. Show them what you expect by demonstrating and modeling.
  • Finally, teach with your responses. Empower them to act, and then give them support and encouragement, but also give them constructive feedback to help them learn and improve.

In essence, to be an effective teacher, you must care, tell, show, and respond. These are all behaviors that can and should characterize you as an effective leader. Perhaps you have already been doing this and didn’t realize that in doing so, you have been a teacher. Perhaps you need to begin to do them. Regardless, remember that good teachers help students to achieve, even beyond what they believed was possible, and so it makes sense that if you can be a leader who teaches, the people you lead will grow and you will benefit.  And the most effective teachers know that the best teaching happens in the context of relationship.  So be relational, and be a teacher.

“Effective leadership, leadership that results in personal and organizational change, happens best within the context of relationship.”

Be a Better Leader: Be Relational (by being relationship-oriented)

“Be Relational” is the second category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Trustworthy,” Be Knowledgeable,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Relational,” we will be talking about the need to be a talker, be a listener, be relational, be a teacher.

I believe that effective leadership, leadership that results in personal and organizational change, happens best within the context of relationship. In any situation or environment, there are leaders and followers; while those players can change, both – whether they be individuals or groups – are necessary. You cannot eliminate or ignore the fundamental fact that there is a relationship that exists between leaders and subordinates, therefore the effective leader will intentionally build and nurture relationships that benefit the leader, the followers, and the organization.

During my first year as the head of a school, initially I kept getting annoyed with the fact that necessary tasks were constantly interrupted by people and their needs. In the course of that year, as I developed in my leadership, I realized that I needed to allow time for people. At first, I thought I could simply do this by budgeting a certain amount of time for tasks and the rest of my time for people. I quickly learned that I couldn’t really budget specific time for people; rather, I needed to make people and relationships the priority. Over the next few years, my own research validated for me the important of relationship in leadership development, affirming the “value of relationship for effective leadership and its importance to leadership development . . . [and affirming] its importance for components such as building trust, communicating effectively, resolving conflict, impacting perceptions, and effecting change.” (McMaster, 2013, p. 78)

Current leadership views have also drawn the same conclusion, evident in a number of leadership theorists who have highlighted or indicated the importance of relationship as a characteristic of effective leadership. For example, Margaret Wheatley (1999) includes as one of her leadership principles the focus on building and nurturing relationships that benefit the culture. Michael Fullan (2001) includes relationships as one of the five factors that leaders must manage in order to lead through change, and specifically says, “It is time . . . to alter our perspective to pay as much attention to how we treat people – co-workers, subordinates, customers – as we now typically pay attention to structures, strategies, and statistics. . . . there is a new style of leadership in successful companies – one that focuses on people and relationships as essential to getting sustained results.” (p. 53) Kouzes’ and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge (2002) described “five practices of exemplary leadership” and their application to leading through change, including the practices of “model the way”, “enable others to act,” and “encourage the heart,” all of which are instrumental in relationship building. And the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory of leadership, as explained by Graen and Uhl-Bien, “makes the leader-member relationship the pivotal concept in the leadership process.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 182)

Even beyond these few examples, as modern leadership theories and concepts have shifted in emphasis from transactional style (leadership is based on an exchange process between the leader and follower) to transformational style (leadership appeals to the moral fiber of the followers to enlist their support and involvement for their own benefit), the relationship between leaders and followers has become a focal point. I have learned this lesson clearly over the time of my leadership in the last few years, and I have now come to truly understand the importance of developing relationships with those whom I am directly leading or trying to impact. In my leadership roles, I have focused on building a culture of relationship between myself and my subordinates and superiors in order to facilitate an environment of greatest impact. Relationship has become pivotal to my practice of leadership.

When people believe that they matter, and the leader builds a culture of relationship, the organization will benefit. It makes sense.

 

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McMaster, J. S. (2013). The Influence of Christian Education on Leadership Development. The Journal of Applied Chrisitan Leadership, 7(1), 17.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

 

 

“An effective leader needs to be an effective listener, and that requires intentional effort and discipline. Learn to listen with your eyes by observing, learn to listen with your mouth by rephrasing and asking questions, and learn to listen with your ears by setting aside your own interests and hearing the meaning of others’ words. When you learn to be a better listener, you will build better relationships and in turn will be a better leader.”

Be A Better Leader: Be Relational (by being a listener)

“Be Relational” is the second category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Trustworthy,” Be Knowledgeable,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Relational,” we will be talking about the need to be a talker, be a listener, be relational, be a teacher.

In the New York Times Best Seller The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008), author Garth Stein tells a fictional story of the life of a race car driver, Denny, as seen through the eyes of his dog, Enzo. At one particular point in the story, when Denny is experiencing great difficulty, Enzo shares this thought: “I listen. I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt. I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street.” (p. 101). Remarkable insight from a dog, but so often it is true.

I would guess that most people understand communication is two-way street, involving both talking and listening, but I would also guess that most people do far more talking than listening. Unlike Enzo, we don’t do such a good job of listening, and at those times when we do appear to be listening, we are probably guiltier of thinking about what we are going to say next than thinking about what the other person is saying. The unfortunate result is that we do not communicate well, our relationships suffer, and we are not as effective as leaders.

One of the skills, then, that is necessary for effective leadership (and for healthy relationships) is the ability to listen well. In short, we need to be good listeners. In an article published on LinkedIn on February 2, 2015, called “Best Advice: Listen More than You Talk,” Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, echoed this truth when he wrote that one of the “best and most simple pieces of advice” he ever received came from his father: “listen more than you talk.”

Learning to listen well, though, requires effort, because it involves much more than simply hearing the words that the other person is saying. It involves understanding the idea and intent, the meaning, of what the other person is communicating. Usually, however, the problem we have is that our own tendency toward selfishness and our own perceptions and experiences interfere with our ability to hear what the other person is communicating, therefore we have to become intentional about learning to listen, and this means much more than just listening with our ears.

I realize this may sound a little odd, but one way in which listening happens is with your eyes. In reality, people do a lot of communicating with facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, and so the implication is that much of what you hear people say comes from what you see. For that reason, you need to become very intentional about looking around and observing as part of your listening process. When you are face-to-face with someone, engaged in dialogue, you must consciously become aware of what they are saying with nonverbal cues, thereby more clearly hearing what they are trying to communicate; however, I would suggest you also need to do the same when you are observing from a distance, when you are not directly interacting, but instead are watching or noticing the behavior and actions of those around you. Your understanding will improve if you take time to look around and listen to what you see.

The caution here, though, is that if you are not careful, it is quite easy to only see what you are looking for, and to not see what you are not looking for. On the one hand, if we don’t acknowledge and avoid a preconceived perception about what think we will see when we look, then we will tend to only see those things that reinforce that perception, therefore confirming our belief that it is true, even if it is not. On the other hand, we also tend to miss a lot of what is right in front of us, primarily because we are not looking for it, and therefore will not see important clues and information that we need to see. The conclusion, then, is that we must intentionally set aside our perceptions, and must put in conscious effort to see things that we are not looking for, in order to become more effective in our leadership.

A second way in which listening happenings is with your mouth. This does not happen in the same way that you listen with your eyes, because your mouth does not generally take in information to enhance your understanding in the way that your eyes do (to state the obvious). What your mouth does, however, is provide feedback and response that reflects your listening. Your mouth is the vehicle through which you mirror what you hear, and so it communicates how you are listening.

How, then, does this happen? Primarily two ways: rephrasing, and asking questions. First, as you listen to someone speak (or as you observe activity, behavior, and responses), you need to give back a rephrasing of what you think you hear (and see). This communicates that you are trying to listen, but it also gives you the opportunity to validate and refine what you think you hear, by giving and then receiving additional feedback. Second, ask open-ended and clarifying questions that help you to have a deeper and more accurate understanding of what you hear – also known as active listening – which gives you a better grasp of what others (namely, your peers and your subordinates) are experiencing and feeling. This will better enable you to respond to what you hear (and see), which – again – will help you to be a more effective leader. One extremely important caveat, though, is this: when you ask questions, you must ensure that it is safe for people to answer; otherwise you will not get the kind of feedback you need.

Finally, and most obviously, listening does happen with your ears. In the book Quiet (2012), Susan Cain discusses implications of introverted personality tendencies for leadership, and applies it to a lesson on listening when she shares the experience of a sales person who states, “In sales there’s a truism that ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.’ I believe that’s what makes someone really good at selling or consulting – the number one thing is they’ve got to really listen well” (p. 240). What this really means is that we need to close our mouths and let others say what they need to say, and we actually need to be attentive to what they. We need to follow Enzo’s counsel of not interrupting, or not taking over or sidetracking the conversation, but rather consciously hearing the words, the meaning, and the heart of what others are saying.

In essence, an effective leader needs to be an effective listener, and that requires intentional effort and discipline. Learn to listen with your eyes by observing, learn to listen with your mouth by rephrasing and asking questions, and learn to listen with your ears by setting aside your own interests and hearing the meaning of others’ words. When you learn to be a better listener, you will build better relationships and in turn will be a better leader.

“We need to talk as well as we listen, . . . making sure that we are sharing information that our followers need to hear, that we are doing it often and accurately, and that we using stories for the context. Then, when that happens, our words will fill in the page in front of them with the information that will be best for their growth and their performance. When that happens well, we build more effective relationships, which in turn helps us to be better leaders.”