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Welcome to nc’s blog. Read, comment, interact, engage. Let’s learn together - recursively.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Understanding (or just knowing)

I know my lovely bride of 36 years (quite well, actually), yet my understanding of her is still in its infancy.  I know the cottonwood tree we planted outside our kitchen window 15 years ago, yet I don’t fully understand the biological processes that cause it to grow and wax and wane.  I know the periodic table (or at least, I used to), yet I don't fully understand the intricacies of its individual components, much less the complex interactions that occur between the elements.  I know how to teach, yet my understanding of how learning occurs within the minds of individuals is primitive, at best. 

Knowing appears to be a superficial coating, a facade, a veneer, to understanding.  In fact, too often the appearance of knowing effectively masquerades as understanding.

In public education policy, we have made a huge deal about trying to measure what students KNOW.  In fact, we spend billions of dollars crafting schemes and developing tools to measure that knowledge.  Those machinations often charade as measurements of intelligence.  Really?  Seems a bit naive to me (but it makes for good press, for advancement of political careers, for good resume polish, for ways to rank and rate and berate students/schools/teachers/communities).  

Perhaps we should be focusing on enhancing our students’ (and our own) understanding, rather than just knowing.  Understanding seems a much richer goal. 

As we change, 
     as conditions change, 
          as the universe changes, 
               as our relationships change, 
then certainly our understanding of each will change as well.  

Understanding is a much more dynamic concept that knowing.

I think we should call the pursuit of understanding the process of LEARNING.

Uh oh!  What if the purposeful pursuit of understanding (over simply knowing) is harder to accomplish?                           Another one of those dastardly choices...

Friday, August 30, 2013


When I teach aspiring principals each summer in the UT Austin Principalship Program, I share during each class meeting what I call “Rattlesnake Alerts.”  These scenarios consist of the unexpected challenges and disasters that present themselves to principals every working day of every school year.  It’s the kind of stuff you don’t find in textbooks, the bombshells that walk in the door on you without warning. 

Through the process of dissecting and analyzing these catastrophes it is my intention to guide future principals in developing a set of psychological, intellectual, and emotional skills which will help them successfully manage crises and lead others effectively “through the storm.” 

Two weeks ago, the concept of the Rattlesnake Alert took on new meaning for me as my youngest daughter (now a mother of three precious little girls) was bitten by a real rattlesnake.  After a life-flight on a helicopter, three days in intensive care, one more day in the hospital, and a week and a half of convalescence, she is still suffering some of the physical effects of the venom.  The amount of pain has been remarkable.  The psychological and emotional impact has been equally challenging.

Watching and helping my daughter cope with the derivative effects of a rattlesnake bite has reinforced in my mind several things about leadership and crisis preparedness:
  1. Those of us in leadership roles must always be duly diligent and alert to the “rattlesnakes” that live among us.  Even when others are not.
  2. Rattlesnake bites (and crises) always have rippling effects, even beyond those who were bitten.
  3. Thoughtful preparation for possible emergencies, upheavals, disasters, crises can make a profound difference on the response, survival and recovery of the individual and/or the group.
  4. Knowing where and from whom to seek support in the aftermath of a crisis (or rattlesnake bite) has great bearing on how quickly and how well recuperation occurs.  Having committed and knowledgeable mentors/responders is profoundly important.
  5. Thoughtful reflection (in the military they call these After Action Reports) can enhance our ability to weather the next storm (which is always looming on the horizon).  Effective leaders must take the initiative to engage in this reflective process with teams.
  6. Killing the rattlesnake does not alleviate the need for preparedness.  There are always more rattlesnakes in the vicinity (they live here, too).

My future students can expect a continued focus on Rattlesnake Alerts. 

Leadership is never needed more than when the organization, the team, the family, the relationship is under duress. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Why do we enlist the aid of the iconic handyman?

Usually, it is because he has:
  • the unique know-how to fix something (which we don’t),
  •  the tools to fix something (which we don’t),
  •  the time to fix something (which we don’t), or
  •  the willingness to fix something (which we don’t). 

 In all respects, our need for the handyman is to solve a problem, provide a solution, to keep our lives/work running smoothly.  

As leaders, others often enlist our help for the same reasons.  (Look at list again now). 

We do our organizations (and families and teams) a much greater service when we teach/coach/develop them to become the “fixer uppers” of their problems rather than taking on that task ourselves.  

Building the capacity of those within our circle of influence is a fundamental responsibility of leaders (parents, teachers, coaches, mentors).  It is a fruitful combination of development and empowerment.

It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes patience.  It’s a little messy.  It’s worth it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

“Never Take More Than You Give”

One of my favorite songs is “Circle of Life”  (by Tim Rice & Elton John). It’s on the “Lion King” sound track. You can view and listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8ZnCT14nRc

My favorite line in the song is this: “You should never take more than you give.”

Life is fullest when we commit to serving others, in ways both small and large.  That concept is nicely captured by the lyrics of Rice and John.  The world is a better place when we give more than we take.

Leadership is about service to others, purely and simply and most righteously. It is the act of giving.  Many who charade as leaders with motives more aligned to achieving notoriety, gaining wealth, acquiring fame, and wielding power are what I consider to be counterfeit leaders.  Selfishness and egotism are the drivers underneath their actions.

Leaders of integrity, however, “give more than they take” every day, in the interest of two goals:
1)  Make the lives of others better.
2)  Make the world a better place.

As always, we get to choose (how we will live, how we will lead, who we will follow).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fresh Starts

My paternal grandmother was an early riser.  Granny always said that she just loved the early morning hours because it was such a “fresh start.”  Listening to the world come alive in the hour just before and just after dawn is something akin to being present at a celebration.  I have the same fondness for those early morning hours that my Granny did.

Fresh starts, in general, make me feel better about the world and more hopeful about the future.  With regard to mornings, it seems like all of nature recognizes the power of those new beginnings.  The creatures seem compelled to sing. Plant life seems to perk up and stand taller. The air feels fresh, even electric.

It feels spiritual (so it probably is).

My calling, that of being an educator, provides similar new beginnings.  The school where I work launched a new year yesterday.  You could just feel the excitement in the air (even among us old geezers).  New shoes, new clothes, new haircuts, new students, new schedules, new lesson plans, new dreams, new possibilities, new chances to get it right.  It is an event very similar to those morning celebrations of nature when the sun begins to announce its return.

The start of a new school year compels me to sing, to perk up and stand taller. It feels like electricity in the air.  It feels like I’ve been given a brand new chance to get it right (or, at least, righter than I did last year).

Forgiveness seems a lot like a fresh start, too.  A chance to start over, get it righter.

I love those fresh starts –
those early mornings,
those launchings of a new school year,
those blessed moments of forgiveness. 

They feel spiritual (so they probably are).

Monday, August 26, 2013


Excellence (or the pursuit thereof) almost always entails some angst. It may come in the form of commitment to change, confrontation, making controversial decisions, restructuring, remaking, retooling, learning something new, unlearning something old…  On the other hand, non-excellence is rather easy to achieve.  Mediocrity and averageness are achieved mostly through continued breathing.

When we make the conscious decision to live life in a more excellent way, it implies then a process of constant self-assessment (either for us as individuals, or the organizations in which we hold membership). Attempting to view ourselves, our current performance, our level of effectiveness in a fair and objective way essentially raises a mirror to our shortcomings, flaws, and failures, as well as our “wins,” attributes, and successes.

What we have learned from research on human behavior is that making some kind of public commitment triggers an inner determination to work toward an espoused goal, to become that person, to fulfill that resolution.  Psychologically, we become “married” to our commitment and begin reshaping ourselves (even unconsciously) into the image we have publicly proclaimed to pursue.

The choice to pursue excellence is also rather liberating.  It’s like giving one’s self (or the organization) permission to break from previously held assumptions or constraints (in all their dastardly forms) in order to create something better, newer, different, magical.

Golden is the fact that we don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to pursue excellent living. We can unilaterally decide to learn more, act more humanely, attend to our fitness more deliberately, love more deeply, and serve others more richly.

Why would we not?