“Anchoring Down” on my current reflections about leadership

After returning home from my Fulbright experience abroad and starting a new job as a Senior Advisor with Agile Mind, I learned about an innovative Doctor of Education program at Vanderbilt University. Housed within Peabody College’s top-ranked Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, this new doctoral degree (with a concentration in leadership & learning in organizations) looked to bring together a diverse group of people from throughout the country. Vanderbilt’s website noted that the vision for this new doctorate was to help graduates “identify, assess, and resolve organizational challenges from a learning and design perspective” with three main focus areas: leadership & organizational development, data & analytics, and learning & design.

Vanderbilt University at sunset in Nashville, TN

Having previously graduated with a degree in public school leadership, I was particularly intrigued that Vanderbilt offered a program that helped leaders apply the theory of improvement science and organizational change into practice. I quickly became excited about this prospective program; as we move forward in the 21stcentury, we will need new ideas and divergent thinking to solve the plethora of adaptive challenges that our global community is currently facing. Vanderbilt’s website noted that, “effective leaders provide the support and direction necessary to foster development, leverage resources, create solutions, and resolve complex systemic challenges.” Needless to say, I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program, and I could not wait to get started this past January. 

My acceptance letter!

For this blog post, I want to offer some reflections from my very first class at Vanderbilt: LLO-8110 Leadership Theory and Practice, and specifically, how my thinking about leadership has changed over time. My first class at Vandy brought together a group of people that are all looking to challenge the status quo, and while most doctoral candidates in my program have backgrounds in education, some of my peers have led large organizational change efforts in other sectors outside of education. In my current role with Agile Mind, I often provide consultancy support to school districts that are looking to transform the teaching and learning of math and science. This real-world experience has allowed me to test new ideas in leadership and improvement science throughout my first semester of grad school at Vanderbilt, and has also uniquely helped me bridge the “education” world with the “business” world. Because of the dual-background nature of my current position, I have learned so much from the diverse leadership experiences of our entire cohort, no matter what field they are currently working in – I genuinely cannot wait to meet them during our first convening later this year!

Getting ready to lead a Student Council meeting during high school.

Before this class, it had been a couple of years since I last had the opportunity to think about leadership in a formal academic setting. Put succinctly, my personal thinking of leadership has evolved tremendously over time. The first true memory that I have about leadership was during third grade, as I still vividly remember being elected as a “peer mediator” by my class, and subsequently had the opportunity to attend “leadership trainings” that helped my third-grade-self diffuse conflicts amongst the class. Throughout middle school, I ran for and was elected to a number of positions during after-school clubs and for class officer positions. In high school, I thought I had everything “figured out” about leadership by the time that I finished my tenure as Student Council President (I mean, what teenager doesn’t have everything figured out?). If you would have asked me then, I probably would have said something like: “a great leader organizes events, runs effective meetings, and keeps a tight budget.”

Speaking at a press conference during my senior year of college.

As with many other people in this field, academic and extracurricular experiences during my undergraduate career started pushing my thinking on leadership in ways previously thought unimaginable. From an academic perspective, I had the opportunity to take a class called Leadership Communication, which formally introduced me to leadership theory for the first time. We spent a lot of time in that class – undoubtedly one of the most influential throughout my undergrad experience – talking about innate and emerging leadership theories, and looked at a plethora of case studies that highlighted different examples of transactional and transformational leadership. From an experience perspective, I truly learned what it meant to be a peer leader through my work as a Resident Assistant for two years in a freshmen residence hall. Working as an RA helped me grow as a person tremendously, but perhaps nothing pales in comparison to the leadership opportunity I had during my senior year of college, when I served as Student Body President of Marist College. Though I learned a lot that year, I was well-aware then that I still had a lot to learn about leadership, but I still believed in this “filling of the pail” perspective of leadership. 

Almost a decade removed from my undergrad experience, I still call on key learnings from that time of my life, which has deeply impacted my perspective on leadership throughout my entire adult life. These days, I believe in the idea of distributive leadership more and more, and inherently believe that everyone has the ability to lead in some capacity. I also look to advocate as much as possible, as the more we are able to empower others, the better off we all are. Power, as I have come to learn, is not a fixed commodity, but rather something that collectively increases the more we share ‘it.’ After all, leadership is not a position; rather, it is all about empowerment. 

Presenting my Fulbright research to the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and American Diplomats

During my travels throughout Asia last year and working around the country consulting with all different types of schools districts this year, I have learned this truth over and over again. It could be argued that there is dearth of transformational leadership in many of our public schools throughout the country, which is extremely disconcerting, as the “quality of a school system is largely determined by the quality of the principals.” Anecdotally, many principals over-rely on “legitimate” power instead of trying to inspire their staff through expert and referent power. School leaders also need to communicate in a way that genuinely gets their faculty excited about their vision. Without this essential communication, it could be said that a visionary leader is just a “lone nut,” as the following video explains:

Inherent in this notion is the idea of distributive leadership and restorative justice. Distributive leadership helps schools get rid of outdated top-down patriarchal models that are still pervasive in education, and restorative practices is one promising idea to help end the tragic school-to-prison pipeline. Recently, I have learned of the fractal metaphor of organizational leadership. In mathematics, a fractal is a geometric object that exhibits self-similarity. Applying this idea to organizations, Harle notes that “fractal leadership promotes organizational transformation through continuous and consistent repeating patterns of leadership… in this way, leadership occurs at all levels resulting in an environment of shared responsibility.” 

A Sierpinski Triangle, one of the most famous examples of fractals in mathematics.

In this “fractal” model of organizational leadership, principals need to model the behavior they want their teachers to take on, including empowering their staff through restorative practices and exemplar pedagogy. Actions really do speak louder than words. I also believe now – in large part to my professor and my colleagues pushing my thinking – that we need to stop bucketing school leaders as “managers” or “leaders,” because truly great principals need to be able to leverage both types of leadership to make their school transformational. 

So, what? Now, what?

I have learned so much through this program already, but this course made me reflect deeply on many of my connotations of leadership. That being said, I have so much more to learn, and especially how to combine these ideas of leadership with improvement science. I am already trying to “make sense” of these ideas, so that we can ensure that every student has an opportunity to attain a truly great education. Applying a critical lens, I believe now more than ever that talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. To reference the Mann Gulch fire, I have quickly learned the value of sense-making, but am interested in exploring this topic even more. After all, who are the educators yelling at us right now to “drop our tools?” Maybe too many of us are blindly running into the fire…

But how does one help another make sense of any given situation? Is exemplar communication the same as sense-giving? How can I take the leadership experiences that I have had and figuratively ‘pay it forward?’ As someone that is tremendously privileged, I believe that the heart of leadership is about sticking up for the most vulnerable members of our greater community. We all need to work harder at becoming more self-aware, learn how implicit biases affect our daily decision-making, and learn more about the cynic cycles of oppression that continue to permeate throughout our country.

Overlooking the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Selma, Alabama in 1965. I believe now more than ever that to make sense of our current political climate, we need to confront our country’s horrendous racial history. A future blog post will take a deeper dive at these ideas. Photo taken February 2019 by Eric Vander Voort.

I have purposefully spent a lot of time this year traveling through the deep south, with the intention of learning about the issues that makes life in Mississippi and Alabama a whole lot different that the contemporary issues plaguing New York City (A future blog post will take a deeper dive in some of my reflections from my recent time spent in Alabama and the Mississippi Delta). Although knowledge may be power, knowledge without action is useless. We need to leverage our collective leadership and use our positions of privilege – whatever they may be – to speak up for those that may not have a seat at the table, yet.

We need to work harder to make our world a more just place. 

Perhaps we need leaders that will make an impact on this world, the starfish way.

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