How to Take a Big Leap in Leadership Effectiveness

I sincerely believe I am going to leap forward in my teaching-leadership this week, because I got a great gift a week ago.

The context for the gift was my sending students an email last weekend. In it, I told them that I was seeking a few individuals who would take turns offering me coaching on Monday in front of the class, and so I was inviting them to reflect, jot some notes, and to volunteer to provide me such feedback so I might teach-lead more effectively.

When the class began last Monday, I explained we would role-play:  the volunteer would spot me sitting at a gate at the airport at SFO, sit next to me, and segue into feedback to help me lead-teach better.  Although I had asked in the email for feedback, in the context of the role play, I would not be asking for it.  I intentionally frustrated the first two volunteers, initially engaging in small talk with them, but then retreating from the feedback in the first case and in the other becoming argumentative.  We debriefed and I teased out the “moral of the story” by asking the somewhat bizarre question, “Where does the coaching take place?”  After some consternation on their part, a woman opined, “well, I guess it’s only coaching if you hear it that way, if your mind is open. So coaching happens in the mind of the one being coached. B-I-N-G-O!  I had been showing them a closed mind (but pretending it was open).

A third student offered me feedback that I had never heard in seven years of teaching.  He said that he had noted a tendency on my part to engage in Socratic inquiry with students, but that sometimes I seemed to brush aside their comments in a formulaic “thanks” or “okay,” which he believed made people feel that their point was not heard, or not understood, or brushed aside as insignificant.  He said (paraphrasing), “I know you’re trying to create a positive culture, and you say you appreciate that it takes courage to speak up in a class of 65 students, but when you give such a cursory response, I think it may deflate people’s readiness to risk participating.”

Wow! What a wake-up call! He was dead-on correct that my idealistic intention is to create a positive and creative learning environment.  But I had no idea that my behavior was betraying those ideals.  I asked the class, looking around (not to refute his input, but intuiting that he was on to something):  “Is this something you all have experienced or seen me do to other students?” And there were a sizable number of affirmative nods.

I consider this a huge gift that Gregory Maineri gave me. He saw something I couldn’t. “From the inside,” I truly believed that I was projecting appreciation for every comment, but what people were seeing on the outside – the only place that really matters in leadership –  belied those ideals.

My lesson:  There have probably been 10’s if not 100’s of students who have felt that I subtly or overtly shut them down.  I know I can and will be more attentive, slow my roll, and appreciate all contributions.  And the broader lesson for me – and perhaps you – is the only way to iron out whether your intentions are matched by your behaviors is to ask!  Seek feedback.  Asking. Directly. Clearly. Stating that you want to learn. You don’t think you’re a fixed entity, but are a growing-learning, and therefore sometimes ignorant person.

I feel almost perversely grateful that I have this new awareness and a chance to improve the class for my student-followers.  I am so grateful they are willing to lead me

with their best selves!