It is our choices Harry that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

Albus Dumbledore

Harry Potter & LeadershipVery often in my career I have been in situations where I watch normally talented and capable people make decisions that leave me wondering what went wrong. Often, it isn’t a matter of talent or skill, it’s professional judgement. I was reminded of this again watching Harry Potter this past weekend. It truly does not matter if you have all the talent in the world, if you lack the judgement of what to do and when to do it, you will be lost. So how will you know when you’ve made an error in judgement? How can we continue to support people so that such errors or lapses are minimized?

Leaders on all sides know that we have significant succession/talent promotion issues. A key factor in the health of our organizations is how we nurture, grow and sustain the talent of our staff whether they are classroom leaders, school leaders, or district leaders. What advice can we give on how to support those around us so that they can grow, feel fulfilled in their daily work, and continue to contribute to the organization? How do we help cultivate not only talented leaders, but those who make critical professional judgements that are sound and enacted with grace?

Here are some thoughts and some things we’ve put in place in Vancouver to support school-based leaders who are trying to seek higher positions. Regardless of this context, I feel that the advice below is sound in a variety of situations whether it’s nurturing district leaders or supporting teachers or other staff every day:

1)      Get to know the people with whom you work.

    • You cannot possibly support, nurture and promote talent development if you don’t know those with whom you are working. If you value those who you wish to support, then you need to make an effort to connect with them.
    • One simple example we’ve used in Vancouver is a vice-principal seminar series. This is a four part dinner series through the year where we provide case-study examples to current vice-principals, provide tools to debrief/analyze situations, and then sit with them and problem solve. The real goal – getting to know our VP’s – they are our next principals. A simple structure, a simple goal – meeting our VP’s, listening to them think, interact and learn. It’s been a great start.

2)      Give constructive and precise feedback.

    • Meeting with people and telling them to “just keep doing what you’re doing” and their time will come for a promotion is not really supporting anyone. It leaves the candidates feeling uncertain of why they were not selected for a job (if just off an interview) or it gives the impression that their time will indeed come when, in my experience, “just keep doing what you’re doing” rarely ends up in success the next time around.
    • Recently, we have changed our interview debriefing processes to provide more precise feedback. Honestly, I have to say that this has been hard in some cases. Some candidates have heard tough messages. I try to live the philosophy that you have to care enough to confront. Not confront as in seeking conflict but confront the reality of what can be said about you. I believe that people are worthy of the truth and somehow you have to find a way to tell them honestly the areas in need of support/attention so that they can improve. When you tell someone what they need to improve, be precise, tell them exactly the behaviours or skills you would like to see improved, give them an example and then ask them if they understand. At first when things like this are shared, you have to spend the time to ensure they take a moment to let emotion get out of the way, then they can truly listen to the meaning behind your words. Let them defend, let them second guess you, they are working through it. They may need time to hear things that are points of significant improvement. If you care enough, you’ll find the way to deliver the message in a supportive way.

3)      Ask questions when you see/hear judgements that cause you concern

    • Sometimes, when you hear things said or see things done that you don’t agree with or you don’t feel fit with the organization’s beliefs, then you simply don’t say anything. Perhaps you question to judgement of someone in an action or comment. You let it “slide by” and wonder quietly about it yourself. Perhaps you “tuck this away” for a later date to consider in another context. A suggestion here is that when someone says or does something that doesn’t sit right with you – ask them about it. Sometimes the comment or action is taken out of context, not fully explained or there is another reason. But taking the time to challenge things that seem to be poor in judgment is not only the right thing to do; it is ultimately supportive of individuals.
    • There is also another reason to question and clarify – what if they’re right – and you are not? While we all would probably like to know we’re always right – not likely. When you challenge someone else’s view of the world to clarify, justify, elaborate, then truly you have an opportunity to share, clarify, and justify your own views. I am not suggesting this is an argument or debate opportunity – I am suggesting it’s about listening, sharing, and clarifying. If someone’s comment or judgement isn’t in line with what you expect or what you believe as an organization and if they are not called on it in some way – how are they to know that what they said or did isn’t exactly right? People aren’t mind readers, they need to know when something isn’t right. These questions and quiet challenges to understand more can truly be done in a way that doesn’t put anyone on the spot. It can be done professionally and as support. You do it when the timing is right. You use your judgement. You come from a place of caring.

I started this thread on professional judgement and its importance. As a leader yourself, you use judgement on a daily basis and hopefully you use it to get to know the people with whom you work, given them constructive feedback on their skills, talents and abilities and you let them know when something isn’t just right.

As I’ve stated before, schools are more like organisms than they are mechanisms. They need care and attention, a little light and nourishment from time to time. Using your own professional judgement and support, you can help people within an organization feel supported and encouraged. Being a critical friend to those with whom we work is of central importance to organizational growth. Spend a moment a day helping others improve. Get to know your staff, give feedback that is precise and also don’t be afraid to question people on behaviours/comments that just don’t seem right. In the end, it really is about supporting those with whom we work and the organization that we serve. If we all want public education to flourish, that begins with getting the most out of all of us within.

Just like Dumbledore said, while we may all like to believe that talent is everything, the reality is that all the talent in the world won’t get you out of a mess if your judgement isn’t sound. Sound judgement takes practice, it takes critical friends, and it takes the ability to learn from mistakes.

It’s really just Praxis – a philosphy in action.