Here we are again at the beginning of the school year.  No doubt, the complex details of running an organization well and making the programmatic changes needed in order to meet state and federal requirements are all consuming.  That said, I want to encourage you on your journey and give you food for thought in this part one of a three-part series On Leading Well.

As you reflect, be encouraged that most inspirational leaders have changed the world not because of their expansive, multilayer plans, but because of their ability to do a handful of things remarkably well. The vast majority of best practices, organizational principles, or high impact levers of change are subsumed by or grounded in a few key characteristics.  In summarizing the leadership qualities of Bill Gates, one author noted that Mr. Gates’ success is based on three overarching principles:

  • Growing and Learning
  • Having a clear vision
  • Caring about people

These traits or characteristics are repeated throughout writings on effective leadership[1] and reiterated in the research findings that highlight the norms and functionalities of effective organizations and teams.  The good news is that you do not have to create a new project plan or take on one more program or direct report — you can simply reflect on what these principles look like or could look like within your organization and determine how you might expand the depth, breadth, and consistency of your efforts or the organization’s efforts as a whole.  In this writing we’ll explore the first of the three leadership characteristics — Growing and Learning.  

What we see throughout history and organization literature is that most successful organizational leaders value learning and growth.   Think of this characteristic through a multifaceted lens as having a threefold value, with multiple layers of impact.   First, they seek to learn and grow as leaders; to augment their knowledge, shore up their lesser developed skills, or expand and refine their strengths. Additionally, they also tend to possess an innate love of learning and desire to grow and learn as a way of being.  This characteristic then manifests itself and is emulated by others — prioritized as shared value within the organization.

Impactful leaders who value learning, also tend to value the personal growth and development of their teams: they recognize that as human beings we flourish when allowed to learn, stretch and find inspiration in new ideas or knowledge.  The allocation of time and resources to ensure that staff members have the ability to learn and grow communicates the leader’s passions and priorities. It is the stake in the ground that says, ‘personal learning and growth matters!’

Finally, in the best of scenarios, the prioritization of growth and learning transcends both the leader and the staff members’ personal commitments and efforts and becomes part of the organizational identity as a whole.  As non-profits that are running on lean budgets, seeking to redefine what is possible with children, the best of teams, and the leaders who run them, recognize that the school must become a true learning organization. As captured by Senge’s seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, a thriving learning organization recognizes and values the ongoing learnings of the organization and structures mental models and systems by which to capture, reflect on, and learn from each other.  Senge describes learning organizations as places, “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results that they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

Below are a few thoughts for consideration as you seek to create a learning organization and press further into the Growth and Learning as a leader.

1. Systematic Problem Solving. How does your team solve problems now? How do they evaluate the cause of or the solutions to a particular challenge?    Practical steps include:  

  • Continuously ask, “How do we know this to be true?” Push beyond the common assumptions when considering cause and effect.
  • Utilize a more scientific model of problem solving such as Plan, Do, Check, Act or other methods by which your team takes action on a problem and circles back within a defined period of time to confirm outcomes or change interventions. Whether the problem is student outcomes on the 3rd grade STAAR exams or reoccurring or increasing staff turnover, a more scientific model with defined frameworks for measuring change can give staff a lens through which to evaluate and determine course change over time.
  • Implement fact-based management. Use data, rather than assumptions to drive decision-making. Require teams and leaders to define the issue and prove the solutions using data. An intervention or solution has not proven itself a success without a process to circle back and evaluate effectiveness.

2. Learning from Past Experience. Made famous by philosopher, George Santayana, from which the term ‘Santayana Review’ is derived, the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” bares out as a timeless truth in our organizations. As you reflect on your organization, ask yourself: 

  • Lessons Learned. How does your team capture knowledge and learnings on whole? How do you document lessons learned as an organization?  Do departments chronicle processes or practices that have proved ineffective (or effective)?  Do incoming leaders or staff members have a way to learn lessons from their predecessors or must they relearn through trial and error on their own?
  • Knowledge Capture. Are effective practices or key learnings captured for future use in both short-cycle and long-term efforts.

3. Learn from Each Other. Finally, the best leaders realize that learnings can and should originate both internally and externally. Consider the following:

  • Stakeholder surveys and feedback. What stakeholder surveys and feedback processes are in place to support organizational learning?  Is the team gleaning insights from external stakeholders to shape their future work?  Do you have an ongoing process to assess the health and satisfaction of your team?
  • This allows teams to uncover, analyze, adapt and adopt practices that have provided leading outcomes or results.
  • Cross-industry learnings. Savvy leaders realize that some of the greatest insights come from outside of their industry. How have others solved a vexing staff issue or strategically partnered to meet a community need not solvable within the limited organizational budget?

Though not measured by the state or other governmental entities as an organizational requirement, a leader’s view of growth and learning and the prioritization thereof impacts the organization’s vitality, functionality, and future viability.

Finally, and more importantly, a leader’s contagious love of learning is taught and caught as a joyful way of life by young people that walk the halls each day.  Today, like Bill Gates, consider how you might change lives by pressing into personal and organizational growth and learning.