Leadership: Walking the Talk

Whether you are a superintendent, technology director, principal, or classroom teacher, developing your leadership skills is fundamental to your success. Educational technologists have been spending far too much time, energy, and money on bits and bytes. We need to shift the focus from systems to people, and that takes real leadership. When we begin to put people first, we finally realize the fruits of our technology investments.

I remember sitting behind a superintendent as he kicked off a new school year with an administrative retreat. Less than a minute into his well written remarks on the benefits of technology, I could tell by the faces of his team that they had tuned him out. Although he delivered an inspirational narrative, his past actions did not align with his vision, and his presence did not embody commitment. He was sensed as inauthentic.

Ethos Is Core

Embodied Leadership does not mean having a position of authority, a technical skill, or a great educational technology I.Q. Rather, it is about a quality which Aristotle termed "ethos," or influence by performance. This type of leadership is not based on what a leader says or promises, but by that leader's way of being in the world.

New Skills for New Roles

In the past two decades, the nature of school leadership has changed and expanded in wholly unforeseen ways. We know it is routine, for instance, to find school technology directors not only performing network support functions, but also providing professional development to classroom teachers. In addition, they may be acting as project managers on infrastructure upgrades and database administrators with the role of extracting information and creating reports for the superintendent.

Today's superintendents and other district-level leaders also face a plethora of new technology-related job challenges. These may include spearheading a district-wide education technology vision, developing security awareness policies, enlisting community support for funding, and making the case for solutions to the board.

Finally, the school CIO, likely a person recruited from the business world, may find his or her new leadership challenges have more to do with understanding the education environment than with technology processes per se. No matter what the particular learning curve, the idea of embodiment, or minimizing the discrepancies between our beliefs and our actions, is key to setting the highest leadership standard.

Mentoring for Success

Having a coach or mentor can greatly accelerate your development as a leader who "walks the talk." If we have a conditioned tendency or habit that is invisible to us, a coach or mentor can bring it to our attention. For years, when under great pressure, I would spend more and more time with my door shut taking care of e-mail and paperwork. Without realizing it, I shut people out and lost track of the shared vision. My coach brought this to my attention and helped me design and practice some new actions, such as leaving my office and visiting with the staff when I felt stressed. This was much more in keeping with my quest to develop a leadership presence.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Discrepancies between a leader's statements and actions can also result in a dangerous lack of trust. A recent report from the Harvard Business School indicates that 65 percent of American workers do not trust management for this very reason. So, when a technology director professes to place a primary importance on professional development, for instance, but then cuts it in favor of purchasing new equipment, her leadership status is profoundly damaged in the eyes of others.

Show Courage

Courage is another key component of the leadership journey. It takes courage to hold a vision for our organization and to insist, politely but firmly, that the people in charge establish realistic goals and clearly convey their definition of success. I remember sitting with a weary tech director who had accepted a technology project where the superintendent's definition of success was "hearing no complaints from teachers about technology again." The tech director was despondent because there was no way that she could fulfill this idea of success. Together, we met with the superintendent and re-negotiated a more realistic and more concrete goal.

Practice Confidence and Control

It may come as a surprise to some that we can develop and practice courage. One great exercise is to refrain from giving an instant, automatic "yes" or "no" when we receive a request to do something. We can delay our answer for a period of time that can grow longer as we grow more courageous. For example, when a particularly demanding boss calls and requests that you drop everything and attend to his laptop right away, you can answer politely, "Let me check my commitments and get back to you in ten minutes." After ten minutes, you can call back and say, "Yes, I'll be right over." The practice of pausing before making a commitment builds our confidence and courage and puts us on the road, as leaders, to stand our ground when needed.

Turn Toward the Challenge

It takes courage for some of us to make a request of someone else, especially a superior. For others, it takes courage to give up control, to trust in the competence of colleagues and subordinates. And for others, it takes courage to step into power and provide direction and inspiration where it is needed. We may be making requests for money or for politically unpopular policy changes. We may need resources or support "from higher ups," or to hold someone accountable for their role in meeting goals we have all agreed upon. Whatever the issue, a courageous leader will turn towards the challenge and not away from it.

Model Character

We are in the midst of an age of transformation in education. It is an age of creativity and new frontiers, but also of shifting roles and beliefs and the feeling of being, technology-and-education-wise, on the unsettling cusp of the past and the future. If we are to successfully lead our children into a world we cannot yet fully imagine; if we are to prepare them to become active, confident leaders and shapers of their own destiny, then we must do more than just talk about leadership, we must show it.

CIO Secrets

The following are excerpts from CMP sister publication Optimize's October 2004 article, "The Power Package: Most Powerful CIOs."

Every CIO has clout in his or her company. Only a few, however, are admired industrywide for their ideas, skills, and the "secret sauce" that separates them from the rest. Optimize editors profiled four of those unique individuals, as voted by our readers.

Linda Dillman, CIO of Wal-Mart
Dillman is known as much for her business accomplishments as for her avoidance of media attention. Like most top business executives, she prefers to attribute her successes to her team, which in Wal-Mart's case numbers 2,500 strong. Asked what makes Dillman a unique CIO, several employees point to her ability to not just listen to ideas but to turn them into reality. Says Dillman: "It's all about pushing as much down to the people who are closest to the work so they can take on more responsibility." Employees also appreciate the way she insists that all IT staff conduct themselves as businesspeople first.

Randy Mott, CIO of Dell
Mott is a true believer in IT and business alignment. In fact, for Mott, the familiar MBA has a different ring-he has coined his own acronym: Masters of Business Alignment. He is so committed to the idea, he recommends that his direct reports and a handful of potential leaders from the IT department rotate through different business units of the company.

These employees typically spend 18 to 30 months in any given department, from marketing to sales to human resources, learning specific processes. "It's important we develop managers that can be successful across multiple areas of the company," he says. "It's critical to build a pipeline of successful IT leaders." Understanding several areas of the business, Mott suggests, helps drive employees toward a common objective. Rather than focusing on individual successes, they focus on the success of the overall business.

Rob Carter, CEO of FedEx Corp.
"I've been very fortunate to have the backing of a chief executive who has built this company from the ground up through the use of information technology," Carter says. More than a few peers envy Carter's association with such a boss, but it is Carter's unique ability to apply keen business sense and financial know-how to engineering-based requirements that allows him to make some of the company's biggest business decisions.

Rick Dalzell, Senior VP of Worldwide Architecture and Platform Software and CIO at Amazon.com
His title is long, but it does not even cover all that he does. Many say that, in his quiet way, he does far more than his title suggests, keeping the giant e-commerce site running 24/7 and leading the e-tail market.

Dalzell's leadership qualities go beyond Amazon, according to Robin Reed, founder and principal of recruitment firm Reed Shay, which placed Dalzell at Amazon.com. "He has a depth of experience, is decisive, and is open-minded. CIOs have to be able to change course at a moment's notice and always land on their feet with a plan. Rick can do that well," she says.

Reed partially attributes those qualities to his military background. Dalzell graduated from West Point and had officer training as well. "He has a very distinct leadership style and is empowering to others around him."

Ten Tips for Leaders

Here are some specific behaviors to help educators practice "walking the talk."

  1. Practice acting with intention. Prepare for important meetings by asking yourself, "What is my intention for this meeting?"

Example: "No matter what happens regarding the content of this meeting, I want to work out a compromise and build trust with the participants."

Practical application: Superintendents, principals, and technology directors: Begin your meetings by stating your intentions and desired outcomes.

Example: "Technology can assist in making learning more active and can empower students to be responsible for their own learning." "My purpose is to help others create the futures they desire."

Example: You hear the following in a conversation, "The superintendent is busy. He doesn't want to hear my problems." How does holding this belief shape the reality of the person who holds it?

Practical application: Technology Directors: Provide as many written responses to the following questions as possible. Now, go back and decide which of these beliefs serve you and which do not. Finally, go back to the beliefs that no longer serve you. What belief could you substitute that would serve you?

Example: What is the mood of the speaker. Is the person positive? Are they resigned? Are they sitting back and disconnected? Are they open or closed? Do they seem to have high energy or low energy?

Example: Your content (mind) is prepared; now prepare your heart (body). Before you are about to speak, close your eyes and focus on your breathing for one minute. If busy thoughts intrude, bring your attention back to your breath. This will calm you and bring your entire self to what you speak.

Example: Ask yourself, "what actions have I taken to support my technology vision? "

Example: As you are walking down the hall, a principal pulls you aside and says, "Will you add this piece of software to my desktop machine?" You respond, "I'm on my way somewhere right now and I don't want to lose track of your request. Would you put that in writing and e-mail it to me?"

Example: A staff member asks you to extract some data for him. He says he needs it ASAP. You respond by asking, "What time frame are you talking about? Today, tomorrow, or next week?" Audit your "to do" list. How many items do not have specific due dates? Negotiate due dates for these tasks.

Embodied Leadership Resources

The Lower Hudson Regional Information Center (LHRIC) regularly offers a variety of Embodied Leadership development experiences for educational technology decision makers, school administrators, and teachers.

The Strozzi Institute is a pioneer of Embodied Leadership and offers many courses and executive coaching.

Synthesis is a well known consulting practice that focuses on developing Embodied Leaders.

Intrinsx Inc. is the home of "Leading on Purpose," a program focused on tapping into our core values and transferring that energy to our work and our personal lives.

Other Resources:

Crossing the Unknown Sea by David Whyte
Our greatest opportunity for discovery and growth is in the thing we most often want to get away from: our work.

The Heart Aroused by David Whyte
What would our lives be like if we came out of hiding and brought our fears, loves, and dreams directly to the workplace?

Holding the Center by Richard Strozzi-Heckler
Moving with grace, dignity, power, and direction in times of rapid change and crisis.

Being Human at Work edited by Richard Strozzi-Heckler
A series of essays written by long-time students of Dr Strozzi-Heckler which examine bringing Somatic Intelligence and Embodied Leadership into professional life.

Editor's note: the following excerpt is from Ralph Szygenda's October 2004 "Closing Arguments" column in Optimize. It is entitled, "The Art of Wielding Power."

Ralph Szygenda is CIO and Group VP at General Motors Corp.
"There are two thoughts that often get lost in the discussion about being effective in building and using influence: Don't assume you have all the right answers-that's why a strong team is essential. And, above all, do the right thing, not only for business or economic impact, but also for social and philosophical implications. Ultimately, power is the ability to influence and facilitate change, and people naturally rally around leaders who do the right thing consistently."