Hello and good evening. Thank you again for all the feedback I received on the last coaching letter—the last paragraph (about avoiding difficult conversations) struck a chord with several people, who seemed to think I was talking about them…
Some of the people I’m working with this year are reading Start with Why, by Simon Sinek (if you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably seen the Ted Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action), so I just finished reading that. The big idea is something that I strongly agree with—that everything an organization does should flow from the rationale for why it does what it does. In fact, I am capable of going on at great length about this. However, in trying to find a pithy snippet from the book to include here, I drew a blank, beyond the statement that “It all starts with clarity. You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do.”
I turn, therefore, to the Heath brothers. In their book Switch, they do a very nice job of explaining why clarity is so important, and why ambiguity is the enemy. They use the metaphor of a rider riding an elephant—the rider is rationality and the elephant is emotion, and for the rider to control the elephant is exhausting. So, in order to make it easy on the rider, the path that will take the rider and the elephant to their desired destination should be as easy to follow as possible. And the way to do that, is to make the path and the destination clear, so the rider doesn’t have to work so hard. Clarity is your friend, and ambiguity is the enemy.
I am not sure I love the metaphor—the excerpt is attached—but a lot of people we work with have found it very useful, and it is a great conversation starter, probably because the conflict between elephant and rider is one that we can identify with. Last year my colleague Kerry Lord facilitated terrific conversations using the prompt: Read the excerpt, look up and find a partner. Answer the prompt:
When has your Rider been overmatched by your Elephant? to start the discussion about clarity. If you get the chance to read the excerpt I would love to know what you think.
My experience suggests that many initiatives/improvement plans fail or are hampered by a lack of clarity—I think data teams and instructional coaching are particularly susceptible to this. As a coach, I see this a lot. And I know that the temptation is to increase the clarity of WHAT rather, as Sinek suggests, increasing the clarity of WHY. For example, if data teams are not doing what you want them to do, the temptation is to double down on the visible, check-list version of what you want them to do, which often takes the form of asking for data and agendas to be submitted in advance, and notes within a few days, and so the whole plan turns into an exercise in compliance. Sinek writes about Why as if it’s all about motivation, but I think it’s more than that; it’s also about giving people the power to self-regulate, to make judgments, to innovate, and to reflect—in other words, to be professionals.
Of course, the biggest problems arise when the leaders are not completely clear themselves on the Why, so much of my coaching is focused on that. We also refer to this as developing a theory of action—being really clear on the relationship between you what you want to happen now to what you want to happen as a result. Being able to not only articulate a theory of action but to create a shared understanding of it and to design a fully thought through strategy is one of the most important leadership skills.
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106