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Geeks and Geezers:How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders

Posted Jan 07 2009 6:28pm

275391899_50e20a57b6 I figure in order for schools to experience the needed reculturing it will require strong leaders, change agents to emerge who understand the process of change. So lately I have been reading lots of books on leadership, which is a good thing since my PhD is in Educational leadership, planning and policy. 

Just finished reading Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas' book Geeks and Geezers. Awesome book on leadership that compares the powerful process through which leaders in any era emerge.

Erica Kolatch explains in her review of the book, "Past studies of leadership often emphasized the importance of age and maturity; Bennis and Thomas initially believed that one's era was a primary influence on leadership. The book begins, in fact, by demonstrating that era determines everything from the heroes people admire, to the books they read, to the worries that occupied them at age twenty-five. But through their interviews with geeks and geezers, the authors discovered that the phenomena of an era play only one part in developing leadership qualities. These phenomena feed into a personal "crucible," a critical experience (or set of experiences) that future leaders draw upon to organize meaning and develop core leadership competencies."


Core Leadership Competencies
Bennis and Thomas call the other factors in one's life that shape a leader, their core leadership competencies.  They found these four present in all the leaders they interviewed. Adaptive capacity - an ability to "transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and to emerge stronger than before." Engaging others through Shared Meaning - an ability to build culture and community in an organization; Voice - a distinctive and compelling sense of conviction, or voice driven from a strong set of values (not necessarily religious); Purpose- that purpose includes vision. "Leaders have to provide some overall sense of direction" and generally be comfortable in their own skin.

The Commonality of Crucibles
Bennis and Thomas found both generations of leaders having similar factors that shaped their ability to become leaders but one was highlighted as being of critical importance  "crucibles." Crucibles are "intense, transformational experiences" from which a leader changes dramatically and emerges much wiser. Crucibles are "often opportunities," says Bennis. The key distinction between crucibles is not whether they are considered negative or positive but whether the leader "dived in versus was pushed in. … Both types of crucibles involve important learning and a degree of stress."

A buzz word that is tossed about a lot is this idea of transformational leadership. Artichoke, a blog that uses an unforgettable writing style that keep you laughing while revealing deep truths, shared some interesting ideas about transformational change and leadership. After reading this book and that blog, I was thinking, wouldn't it be wonderful if the transformations taking place in educational leaders were a direct result of their own personal crucible experiences and somewhere along the way they had become creative adaptive experts who understood how to apply what they learned in the depths of their experience to positive school reform and empowerment of teachers and students.

Adaptive Expertise
The one key asset that both young and old leaders shared was their adaptive capacity. The ability to process new experiences, to find their meaning, and then to integrate them into one's life. Being able to adapt is what enables you to come through a crucible experience and immediately start applying what you learned to survive to other situations.

Are you Developing Adaptive Expertise?
So-- what are you doing to ensure that your students are adaptive experts? How are you preparing them so that when life tosses them into a crucible experience that they will not only survive, but emerge stronger and more prepared. We are teaching the future leaders who will see us through our  years of maturity you know. How are you helping the students you have in your classroom now that are in the midst of their crucible experience understand what a powerful opportunity this experience can become in shaping them as future leaders?

For most of us, trusting our instinct, letting go of what we have been trained to do, the "unlearning" so many are blogging about is the toughest obstacle to becoming an adaptive expert ourselves. As we knowin our hearts,  habit is a great deadener! As educators we need to break out of the day-to-dayness of things in our classroom and reinvent ourselves and our profession to remain relevant. It's observing and realizing that if what we are seeing isnt working, then to not act on it with change is insane.

The observation aspect includes the ability to build an effective network or community of practice, because none of us is as smart as all of us. Bennis tells us that, "Expecting one person at the top to be able to observe, digest, analyze, and then be able to deploy that knowledge successfully is ridiculous. It obviously takes a team of people that collegially can look at the world, observe the world together, and what they don't know, they can explain to each other." If there was ever an argument for using Web 2.0 to build networks, that is it. Connecting with others from around the world and modeling how that plays out to our students is part of developing the ability to embrace ambiguity and then schematically adding what you learn to your exisiting knowledge based. Adaptive experts are able to attach new knowledge to current understanding of personal learning  and creatively see something new. That is why building on the ideas of others is so important. It is through this creative process that we unleash potential and passion in our classrooms in ways we only dreamed possible.

Shared Vision
The real beauty of teacher leadership in action is that effective teacher leaders do not impose their vision on others, rather they recruit others to a shared vision. This is especially true in this digital age where power tends to coalesce around ideas and not position.  For example, a quick read of Will Richardson's blog will serve as the perfect example of this kind of leadership. Being able to not only articulate your vision but communicating it in such a way as to help others own it as well is the sign of leadership. This is why teaching our children to be effective writers and communicators in the 21st Century by using the communication tools of the era is increasingly important. My daughter has a t-shirt I just love... Tshirt Writing well is the "best revenge" Want to enable your students whose circumstance has conspired against them to break loose from the chains that bind them? Teach them to write well and to use the digital tools of the era, which of course means you too have to know how to write well and make the most of the electronic parchment that is available.

Our role as mentors in the lives of the children we teach is to learn and keep on learning and model that ability to our students. Our role as teacher leaders and change agents is to do exactly the same thing. See yourself not as the ultimate wisdom, but rather as the catalyst. In my opinion, our role as leaders in the 21st Century is to cause those within our spheres of influence to reach beyond their normal capacity, to invent something new with the ideas being shared, something innovative and then be brave enough to put it out here in the blogosphere and let the naysayers have their way with it. Knowing that the dross will fall away and the precious pieces will be assimilated into new concepts and shared vision.

Dee Hock says, "In order to thrive you need a deep love of learning and a refusal to be anywhere that didn't let you learn or prevented you from learning." The shocking reality is that for some of us that might be the schools in which we teach or lead.  Re-culturing is a hard process, most feel change is always premature.  But  learning-- not teaching, not school 2.0, not higher education, is going to be the thing that pushes you to the next plateau. I tend to make my own personal commitments based on the learning or educational potential  that I will get from the person or the situation. 

Providers of Hope
The second major part of adaptive capacity is hardiness, which relates to "the expectation of future success." There's one thing that stands out in most teacher leaders I have met: They have unwarranted optimism, they are what Bennis calls,"providers of hope."

The most important thing I walked away with from the book was the concept of neoteny. The dictionary defines it as Main Entry: ne·o·te·ny
Pronunciation: nE-'ä-t&-nE
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin neotenia, from ne- + Greek teinein to stretch  -- more at THIN
1: retention of some larval or immature characters in adulthood

Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, it is the retention of all the wonderful qualities that we associate with our students: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, and energy. For a teacher leader this means  we need to be willing to take risks, be hungry for new knowledge and experience,  be courageous, and eager to see what the new day brings. Neoteny is what keeps those of us who are on the front lines of change focused on all the marvelous things to come. Walt Disney described it as the ability to look at the world with "uncontaminated wonder". It is this ability that will distinguish the successful from the ordinary. And I am hoping for "the children's sake" most of us advocating for change will aspire to be extraordinary.

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