Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Story & Leadership Challenge

The Story
Here is a very short story and a challenge to you as a leader.

Coaching five year old soccer players is quite interesting. I tried to structure practices so that every child had fun while getting lots of touches on the ball.  We played a lot of tag, chase, and keep away games in which every child dribbled their own soccer ball throughout most of the games in order to improve their dribbling ability.
Sharks and Minnows was one of the players’ favorite games. In Sharks and Minnows, most of the kids (playing the role of minnows) stood at one end of a rectangle with soccer balls while a player or two stood at the other end as sharks. The sharks would yell, “Are you ready to get eaten?” The minnows would yell back “Never!” (Trash talk at an early age!) Then the minnows would each try to dribble their ball from one end to the other without getting eaten by the sharks. Being eaten was defined as having your soccer ball taken or kicked away from you.
The kids loved it and I was pleased that they developed ball control skills and even tactical awareness as they dribbled around and avoided other players with sudden bursts of speed and movements into open space.
Finding the Bright Spots 
At first, only a few players had much ball control. “Finding the bright spots” led to improved dribbling by all the players.

When one player did a particularly good job as a minnow, dribbling the ball from one side of the rectangle to the other, I would stop play very briefly and ask the other players what that particular minnow had done to be so successful. One strategy they would identify is that a player – a minnow - was able to keep control of the soccer ball, without sharks stealing it, because he or she kept the ball close to their feet. As a coach, I might need to ask leading questions to get them to “find the bright spot” but they would get it, they would say, “No one could steal the ball from Johnny because he kept it close to their feet.”

Chip and Dan Heath explain how finding the bright spots provides both guidance and inspiration. In their book regarding leadership, entitled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, they explain that finding the bright spots helps provide both guidance and inspiration, appealing to players hearts and minds.
As a soccer coach, I provided guidance by focusing attention on the importance of dribbling with the ball close to your feet. This guidance showed players what to do during the next round of Sharks and Minnows.
Focusing on the bright spots also spoke to the hearts of my 5 year-old soccer players, providing inspiration. We were celebrating that little Lexi and little Bryce had dribbled all the way from one end of the rectangle to the other without anyone stealing their soccer balls. As we cheered the minnows who had made it to the other end of the field, the message was, “This is amazing and you can do it too if you dribble with the soccer ball close to your feet.”
The Leadership Challenge
My challenge to you as a teacher, principal, or superintendent is two part: focus on the bright spots where you work; and engage others in finding the bright spots. As you do so, you will provide guidance and inspiration. You will speak to others’ hearts and minds.
“Name it, claim it, explain it” is one example of finding the bright spots. @BarbBlackburn shared it with me via Twitter years ago. Barb suggests that when you visit a teacher’s classroom, take a photo, audio recording, or video recording of a bright spot. At a faculty meeting, share the photo or an excerpt of the recording and ask the teacher whose classroom you visited to stand up, name the activity, claim it (and identify any colleagues who helped create it), and explain the lesson. “Name it, claim it, explain it” effectively provides both guidance and inspiration. Details are provided in this article.

What are your ideas for finding the bright spots?
Finding the Bright Spots throughout a Division
In my first weeks as Superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools, I have started to engage others in identifying bright spots. In a division with a strong tradition of excellence, this has been relatively easy, but important.
In order to sustain and build on the excellence of a school or school division, we need to be explicit regarding what we want to sustain. As my daughter put it, what should we avoid messing up? A solid understanding of our bright spots provides a strong foundation for building on excellence by continuing to learn, grow, and improve. 
Many people have already helped identify bright spots: high school students participating in Leadership Loudoun youth, new administrators attending orientation, and leaders at the Administrative Leadership Team institute. Through small group discussions and twitter conversations, we are identifying bright spots that can help inform the creation of a strategic plan for our schools.
Finding bright spots also provides joy. When I recall the five year-olds I coached, I can think of numerous players who still love the game of soccer.  I believe that focusing on the bright spots contributed to their love of the game. Thus, as we engage others in finding the bright spots, not only will we provide guidance and inspiration, we will help others find joy in their work. Here is my wish for you as we start a new school year:

This post is based on my remarks at Loudoun County's Administrative Leadership Team Institute on August 5, 2014.

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