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Leaders Let Them Roll Their Eyes

Posted by on in Education Leadership
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imagesThe basketball players just came off a close  game the night before.  The were still chattering about the tough opponents and physicality of the game while stretching before practice officially started.

The coach walked in carrying his clipboard in one hand and coffee in the other as usual.  The players stopped talking and stood up making their way to the bench.  Coach had a routine and they knew he was going to provide feedback from last night's game as well as instructions for practice.

The coach welcomed everyone and thanked them for the hard work throughout the game.  After silently reviewing his notes scribbled on various sheets of paper, he shouted for them to line up for free throws.

The players were respectful - but visibly furious.

"We did that yesterday."

"Free throws again?  We did that last week."

"Didn't we already do this?  Do we have to do it again?"

"How long are we going to keep working on them?"

A few of the veterans, too tired to make a comment, let their eyes make their feelings known by rolling them in all directions.

Okay, this story never really took place.


Because athletes get the notion about repeated practice building muscle memory and is a hallmark of being a great player.  Even kids understand the need for repeated attempts in  becoming a better reader, tying shoelaces, and in even learning how to walk.

As educational leaders, we pride ourselves in our experience, proudly telling others how many years we've been in education; as a sign that experience matters.

Yet, when we are sitting in professional learning experiences, we roll our eyes when we are told something for the second time.

"We already talked about that."

"I know that already."

"Didn't we already talk about this last month."

Those comments are toxic to the growth and learning of the organization.  

So, instead of being forced to hear these comments, even though they know repetition is key, leaders completely shy away from the concept altogether and move on to the next thing for fear of the eye rolls.

No wonder we get a bad rap for pushing "Flavors of the Month".

Instead of shying away from the negative comments, leaders need to let them roll their eyes.

imgres-2.jpgIn his book Focus, Mike Schmoker shares "Five Steps to the Formula for Effective Leadership". He identified Step 4 as: Practice - Repeatedly.  Schmoker shares our need as leaders to be "obsessively clear", like 10-time National Champion UCLA Coach John Wooden who repeated the fundamentals over and over with his players.

The goal was for the repeated practice to become automatic and second-nature to the players.  They needed the time and focus to ensure consistency, fidelity, and integrity to the task.  He knew that if they focused on the fundamentals repeatedly, it would solve other problems down the line.

Why does this concept seem to feel right in the sporting arenas but not in professional development settings?  Instead of looking for the next concept to "teach" at the staff meeting, leaders need to secure understanding and ensure focus.  

In order to provide the necessary focus, leaders need to execute these "Ten Tips to Push Through the Eye Roll":

Tip 1 - Be "obsessively clear" about the vision, goal, and plan.

Tip 2 - Narrow the focus areas to just 3-4 for the next 3-5 years.

Tip 3 - Create mechanisms to filter and block outside distractions.

Tip 4 - Provide time to reflect on the progress.

Tip 5 - Never stop learning about the focus area(s).

Tip 6 - Ignore the distractions and nay-sayers.

Tip 7 - Take breaks when needed.

Tip 8 - Mine the data and feedback to stay on track.

Tip 9 - Take time to celebrate!

Tip 10 - Never stop communicating the focus areas!

As a final note, I want to call out an important truth in the information above.  Notice that these tips are meant to help the leader push through the eye roll.  They are not meant to necessarily eliminate them.  While they goal is to provide the clarity and understanding with the staff, the leader cannot control the behavior of others.  So, instead of trying to please everyone, the leader needs to maintain a focus on providing the proper tools in doing what's right for students. 

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  • Errol St.Clair Smith
    Errol St.Clair Smith Tuesday, 23 August 2016

    Helpful guidance, Neil. I've found that it takes a certain clarity of purpose, followed by self-discipline to do the mundane actions involved in growth. It takes a double dose to do them consistently. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Neil Gupta | @drneilgupta
    Neil Gupta | @drneilgupta Sunday, 28 August 2016

    Thanks, Errol! You are right - the mundane is hard to keep on the forefront, but leaders have to stay the course.

  • Gillian Judson @perfinker
    Gillian Judson @perfinker Sunday, 16 October 2016

    HI Neil,
    This "We already talked about that" "I know that" idea is one that totally resonates with me right now. Thank you for pointing to the need to go deep--underlying beliefs and values THINK THEIR WAY OUT in our practices. Hearing isn't believing or agreeing or doing.

  • Neil Gupta | @drneilgupta
    Neil Gupta | @drneilgupta Sunday, 16 October 2016

    Thank you, Gillian! We are constantly talking about the need to be "obsessively clear" and having things in place to share with others in multiple ways at multiple times! It's been well received!

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