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Thursday, January 30, 2014


My first attempts to affect “sustainability” occurred when I was a principal in large schools, trying to administer grant funds with fidelity.  Almost all grants are framed as “seed money” for launching some kind initiative or process.  Grant requirements usually stipulate that the initiative or process should be self-sustaining after the seed money is gone.  In effect, the grant money is intended to create the conditions for self-perpetuating growth.

In recent years my interaction with the word “sustainability” has been directed toward ecological sustainability.  Moe (my lovely bride of 36 years) and I have come to believe that, as stewards of the land, we are responsible for creating the conditions in which the very basis of the land is healthy and vibrant.  Though raising healthy cattle is the desired outcome, our work and attention must be focused at a much deeper level.  We are compelled to learn and understand the mineral and microbial conditions underneath the surface of the land.  We must attend to the soil’s health first.  If we successfully accomplish that, then the growth of flora and animal life above the surface follows naturally and vigorously.

These two conceptions of sustainable practice are fundamentally the same, though the contexts are quite different. 

Organizational sustainability is ONLY accomplished when leaders attend to the health and well-being of the most basic elements of the organization (i.e., the “soil”).  While powerful outcomes are always the desired end game, they only emerge if we have created the conditions of “health” at the most basic levels of the organization, below the surface.  

Those health-generating conditions can be fostered by focusing on two important factors:
  1. Through leaders knowing and understanding the contexts.
  2. Through leaders building and nurturing strong relationships, both with the internal and external customers of the organization. 

Think of that knowing, understanding, building, and nurturing as being the critical nutrients and vitamins that provide the basis of organizational health.  Just a different kind of “soil building.”


I once worked for a chief executive who pushed my thinking and performance in a lot of ways (I’ll call him Ben).  Ben was a classic visionary – it seemed his eyes were always on the horizon.  He was constantly pulling those of us on his team to higher levels of performance, using every tool at his disposal.

One of the things Ben taught me was to try to eliminate the use of the word “hope” from my professional vocabulary.  Ben insisted that when we use “hope” as a verb in articulating the aspirations of our organization (whether at the micro level, or at the macro level) it implies an element of victimhood.  It is almost as if we are admitting that things are out of our control and we are at the complete mercy of circumstances.  To be sure, there are a LOT of things beyond our control, especially when it comes to accomplishing worthy goals in a complex organizational environment.  However, when we say we “hope” for one outcome or another as a result of money/time/effort invested in a particular strategy or project, it is almost as if we are creating excuses (or at least a defensible “out”) for the failure of that strategy or project.

What verb did Ben suggest we use in place of “hope”?  Several suggested replacement verbs work:
Intend     Plan     Expect     Aim     Anticipate

While all are suitable synonyms for the word “hope,” each one implies that the actor has a more powerful role in making the desired outcome a reality.

I have been trying to replace the word “hope” with one of those other verbs for around 10 years now.  To this day, I will slip and use it accidentally.  It’s harder than you think.

I intend to improve my performance in that regard.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Most of us took driver education as teenagers.  I remember a great deal about my personal experience, most of those memories of the amusing sort.   As an educator I never taught driver ed, yet I have heard some real horror stories from colleagues who have.

One of the unique features of the driver education experience is that the driver ed teacher sits on the passenger side of the training vehicle, with a brake installed on that side.  Thus, the teacher can slow or stop the vehicle at any time the student driver panics or misses an important cue regarding safety.

One of the things I’ve noticed in organizational work is a dynamic that is similar to that passenger-side brake in the driver education vehicle.  Organizational improvement is often dependent on making hard choices about direction and intensity.  Time and again I’ve seen members in an organization who don’t believe in the collectively-determined direction of the organization, or who are not on board with the related decisions made, behave in ways like the driver education teacher – they put their foot on the brake while the team at large is trying to accelerate.

While it makes perfect sense for a driver education teacher to have the power to “trump” the student driver, it does not make sense for recalcitrant or reluctant members of an organization to have the same kind of auxiliary “braking” power on the organization.  The result of that dynamic is organizational stasis, which is the prelude to organizational death.  

Leaders must be attuned to such a dynamic and remove the “braking” power of said members, or remove the members themselves.

Monday, January 27, 2014


I have repeatedly spoken and written about the folly of errant measurement, especially when it comes to education.  Here is one example of my thinking.

Seth Godin draws a similar and convincing conclusion in this recent blog post on measuring what truly has meaning.

Senge, et al, (2005) argue that “the most important data is often the hardest to measure.”
Not only does over-reliance on measurement doom modern society to continuing to see a world of things rather than relationships, it also gives rise to the familiar dichotomy of the ‘hard stuff’ (what can be measured) versus the ‘soft stuff’ (what can’t be measured).  If what’s measurable is ‘more real’, it’s easy to relegate the soft stuff, such as the quality of interpersonal relationships and people’s sense of purpose in their work, to a secondary status. This is ironic because the soft stuff is often the hardest to do well and the primary determinant of success or failure.”  (Bold text is my embellishment).                                                     

In education, yes, we should measure student progress and learning in relation to academic content.  However, we should STOP ranking students, teachers, and schools primarily on those metrics.  If our goal is to equip children to live happy and productive lives as responsible citizens, we have to understand that there is so much more that we must teach them, stuff that is actually more important than the academic content.  

And those immensely important elements (see the Guthrie Graduate Profile) defy simplistic attempts at measurement. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014


The words of leaders have powerful impact.  Even the simplest and shortest words have implications.  For example…

“Yes” is a word that triggers the following kinds of responses:

“No,” on the other hand, generates the following kinds of reactions:

As leaders of teams and organizations, which list of descriptions holds the most interest for us?

One of the fundamental tenets of improvisational comedy is to never block the pitch from another comedian with some form of  “no”; it brings the whole show to a screeching halt.  While I would never suggest that leadership behavior should mimic the flow of improvisational comedy (come to think of it, perhaps I should consider this proposition), it is not lost on me that one of the most creative, interesting, innovative, and entertaining human crafts relies so heavily on “YES”.
This guy is looking for more ways to say “YES” and fewer ways to say “NO.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014


As Moe (my lovely bride of 36 years) and I were raising our daughters, we would often get into conversations with them about potential.  Over many dinners we would dialogue about getting the most of the gifts God has given us.  

As educators, my wife and I could cite example after example of former students who seemed to bleed their gifts for every last drop.  Of course, we could also recount a rather large number who never seemed to come close to reaching their potential.

The message we repeatedly communicated to our daughters was this:  
People with potential are a dime a dozen.  


EVERYONE has potential.  Decisions about who to marry, who to go into business with, who to spend your time with, who to work with, who to depend on in a crunch should never be made based on potential.  Potential is meaningless, unless developed and leveraged with fervor.

The folks who actually optimize their potential, who fully activate their gifts, who develop their talents with zeal – they’re the ones who should get our personal investments of attention, time, cooperation, and partnership.

Why?  Because people with potential really are a dime a dozen.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Trudy's Line

Nobody likes long lines.  And, few of us will choose to stand in a longer line if a shorter one is available.  Thus, Trudy’s story…    (That's not her real name.) 

While I was principal of a VERY large high school several years ago I observed a most remarkable behavior on the part of our students.  Many of them were choosing to stand in longer lines to pay for their lunch.  Since the school was so large, we had a mall-type food court with a bank of six checkout registers.  During lunch duty each day I noticed that the checkout line at Trudy’s register was always longer than the lines at the other five registers.  This made absolutely no sense as all the registers were the same, and students could pay out at any of the registers.

As time went by, and as I got to know Trudy personally, I came to understand this phenomenon.  Trudy was very near retirement age, yet her personality and spirit were absolutely vivacious.  She laughed and smiled freely.  She seemed to know each student by name (in a high school of 2800 !!!).  Not only that, but Trudy would fully engage with each student she was ringing up – commenting on their hair, complimenting their shoes, asking about their day, etc.  

Trudy, purely and simply, made each student feel like they were the center of the universe. 

It’s not that the other cashiers were mean or unpleasant.  Trudy simply served as an emotional magnet for students in that very large and impersonal feeling school.  What a remarkable testimony to the power of interpersonal connectivity and service-orientation. 

Funny thing is, I found myself standing in Trudy’s line more often than not, too.  
She knew my name.  
She made me feel better, too.

Thanks, Trudy, for teaching an old crusty principal some VERY important lessons about serving others. 

0 to 60...

Makers of performance automobiles often cite how quickly their cars can go “from zero to sixty” in their advertisements.  For whatever reason, they consider the ability to accelerate from a dead stop to a speed of 60 miles per hour a powerful selling point. I suppose it is the mechanical equivalent to an adrenalin rush.

We humans don’t operate like that, nor do we need to. (Disclaimer: I concede that should we be awakened by an angry grizzly bear in the middle of the night during a camping trip, then our “zero to sixty” capabilities would surely be an important factor).  

However, the more important factors in our performance abilities are related to our personal fitness along three dimensions:

It is a bit of a fabrication to disconnect those dimensions as shown above because they are holistically and inherently intertwined, interwoven, interrelated and interdependent within our beings.  A particular strength or weakness in the area of mental fitness, for instance, has vital implications for our physical and emotional/spiritual fitness.  As well, highs and lows in our physical fitness most assuredly generate derivative ramifications for our emotional/spiritual and mental well-being.  You get the idea.

To be truly fit, and in order to perform at our highest possible levels, we simply must attend to our holistic fitness.  That means regular and purposeful attention to the feeding, resting, and exercising of our intellect.  It means deliberate choices about what we eat/drink (and don’t), about improving our physical strength, agility, flexibility, and stamina.  And, it means resolute efforts to nurture our emotional and spiritual selves.

While there are a gazillion ways to attend to all three dimensions in a responsible and healthy way, the far too common approach to fitness is to do so in a disproportionate way.  A common error, for instance, is to focus immensely on the emotional/spiritual dimension while letting the mind and body atrophy.

Only in the rarest of instances is “zero to sixty” required of us.  Neither is there a typical need to be  "marathoners" with respect to all three dimensions.  However, to live our fullest and happiest lives, we should attend diligently, daily, purposefully to all three dimensions of our fitness.  As the old saying goes, “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch.”

We can do that.  But first, we have to decide that we want to live a life of fitness.