Over the course of five hours, I had the opportunity to shadow a leader I have long admired.   I sat in this superintendent’s meetings, followed her as she strolled corridors, observed her conversations with educators, and listened to how she spoke with leadership teams.   It was mesmerizing.   While this leader has granted me permission to write this blog, she asked me to keep her name protected (perhaps out of a sense of modesty).  Let’s refer to her as Dr. Anderson.

Leadership studies tend to focus on the macro—the grander tasks of leadership.  Leaders craft visions, get the right people on the bus, identify strategy, create a high-functioning executive team, promote alignment, design systems, and execute.  That is all true.  Yet what the literature often lacks, with its attention to macro tasks, is the day-to-day practice of leading.

I am still reflecting upon my 5-hour experience with Dr. Anderson.  I’m not sure I’ve extracted all of the lessons learned.  Nevertheless, I have identified a number of micro leadership practices this superintendent modeled—consistently—during my visit.  Here is what I saw:

Framed Conversations:  I observed this superintendent participate in no less than 30 discrete conversations.  In 75% of the discussions (primarily the ones over 5 minutes in duration), she framed the discussion, putting it in a larger context that helped people situate the topic at hand.  It wasn’t enough to thank the custodian for his work in reorganizing a room; she explained, “How parents experience this school tonight will shape how they feel about sending us their children.  Every detail matters.  The room, the seats, the lightning—it all needs to set a tone and create a positive feeling.  Thank you.”

This happened over and over again.  Discussions, behaviors, and decisions were constantly put into a larger context, a context that put mission and vision at the center.

Promoted Improvement Clarity:  In addition to framing, Dr. Anderson consistently reminded her colleagues of the improvement priorities of the district.  Anderson’s district is hard at work at helping students become more conceptual and critical thinkers, and it took only 15 minutes on site to know this.  Walking through an elementary school with a veteran principal, Anderson paused before a bulletin board, turned to the school administrator and asked, “How is this helping change how our students are thinking?”   The bulletin board was more than banal wallpaper; it was learning fodder.  It was symbolic of what was important, learning-wise.  Moreover, it was an opportunity to reinforce the importance of conceptual thinking.

Later in the day, she turned to two teachers and asked, “What is the most significant challenge you face in supporting your students to understand the concept at the heart of your lesson?”  Through a question, she elevated the improvement focus and promoted professional reflection.

Deepened Thinking:  Throughout the course of these five hours, Dr. Anderson also challenged thinking in respectful ways.  As two elementary principals discussed the best way to support mid-career teachers, Dr. Anderson looked at them and said, “Tell me how that will work.”  In the course of articulating their answers, these two principals developed more sophisticated reasoning, emerging with more nuanced strategies.

Later, as she visited a classroom in the same school, she posed the following question to a teacher.  “What would success look like for students in this lesson?”  In the short conversation that followed, the teacher thought aloud, comfortable enough not to have the “right answer” at the ready.  After a short exchange (perhaps 2.5 minutes), the teacher said, “I’d love the opportunity to think more about that question.”

Throughout the day, Anderson posed questions, asked for explanations, and surfaced assumptions in ways that helped others in the discussion deepen their thinking.  This happened with parents, a board member, teachers, and administrators.

Promoted Face-to-Face Accountability:  Time and time again, Anderson pushed her colleagues to commitments.  As decisions were made, she would ask questions like, “When will I see this put into place?” or “Who is responsible for getting this done by when?”

And beyond pushing her team to action, Anderson followed up on past commitments.  “The last time I was here you told me you were going to [implement strategy x].  Let’s go see what that looks like.”  Later in a conversation with a school improvement team, she pulled out the school improvement plan and said, “Can we take stock of your implementation timeline.  What have you accomplished?  Where are you stuck?  What have you learned?”

Anderson’s subtle, consistent day-to-day practice reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about organizations and leadership.  Lawrence Bossidy and Ram Charan, in their bestselling book Execution, argue that “dialogue is the basic unit of work in an organization.”  They explain that the quality of this dialogue predicts the soundness of decisions, how people make meaning, whether employees fully engage in the culture, and whether individuals will honestly name the challenges of the business.  For Anderson, all of her micro leadership moves, which I would argue are consistent staples of her leadership practice (and not cherry-picked, random acts), all used dialogue to elevate the state of play.  Almost every question, statement or explanation was a purposeful effort to promote coherence, alignment, intentionality, and quality.

While I know that Anderson uses other means of communicating with her team (email, memos, PowerPoints, etc.), it was dialogue that defined her leadership this day.  Through dialogue she created small yet potent moments that influenced the thinking and doing of adults.

I could have watched her in action for countless hours more.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change