School & District Management Opinion

Leaders Learning to Listen

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 15, 2018 4 min read
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All school leaders know the speed and the number of issues that define our daily world. They are non-stop. For some of us, that feels like an assault eventually while for others it keeps our adrenaline pumping and our attention sharp. The ever accompanying role function is the demand for decisions and responses. The coveted car ride or gym time becomes our think time. Because we know there is potentially criticism about what could have done better. That comes from others and it comes from within us, ourselves.

Once school leaders begin their leadership work, the professional development they attend focuses most often on curriculum changes or new laws, regulations and their implementation. These are important to doing the job well. But, even in these sessions full attention is difficult to maintain. If you have ever attended a professional development with a school leader, you know that they are frequently distracted by phone calls and texts and emails that pull them from being present as a learner. Leaders who fail to learn on the job make the same mistakes over and over again. They can be seen in the eye rolling that faculties or community members engage in when the leader is “at it again”.

We have written often about our belief that collaboration and careful listening to all stakeholders is a central skill of a successful leader. Our colleague and friend Peter M. DeWitt has written a book about it and travels the world advocating for educational leaders to become collaborative. From where can leaders find models and learn how to lead collaborative and stop hunkering down to address the administrivia that calls and distracts? While doing the research for our book, The STEM Shift, we found examples of leaders who were able to manage the details of each day while attending to the larger picture of learning.

Leadership lessons and capacities transcend the arena in which the leader leads. In fact, sometimes, it is easier to see what we need to learn when looking outside of the education world in which we live and work. With that in mind, we offer lessons from Jon Meacham’s work. Meacham described comments by Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower on receiving counsel and what leadership does take...persuasion, conciliation, education and patience.

Jon Meacham wrote in a NYTimes article:

Presidents, as John F. Kennedy once observed, are subject to “clamorous counsel” -- everyone, it can seem, has thoughts on how they could do the job better. When he was being told what to do and how to do it, Eisenhower...once replied “I tell you this: You do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault’ -- not ‘leadership.’” He went on: “I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion, and conciliation, and education, and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work...”

The Bay of Pigs was a disaster for President Kennedy. Not all presidents have demonstrated the ability to learn from their mistakes or make major shifts in their thinking and behavior. Not all educational leaders have demonstrated that ability either. Here, Eisenhower counsels Kennedy on how to listen to others...not one at a time, but all in one room.

Meacham on Kennedy PBS.org

He was candid about the scope of the mess. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked himself and others in the aftermath. Yet, he took responsibility in public, understanding that in politics, as in life, to whom much is given, much is expected. Kennedy said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan... I am the responsible officer of this government.”

...Kennedy had been dismissive of Dwight Eisenhower during the 1960 campaign, but suddenly found him a source of insight. After lunch in the presidential cabin at Camp David after the Bay of Pigs, the two men took a walk.

Eisenhower asked a crucial question, “Mr. President, before you approved this plan, did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got the pros and cons yourself and then made the decision, or did you see these people one at a time?”

Kennedy’s answer was not reassuring. “Well, I did have a meeting... I just approved a plan that had been recommended by the CIA and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I just took their advice.”

He would never do that again. And his experience in 1961 informed how he would handle the much greater missile crisis in 1962.

How often do school leaders do that? And why not? The simple answer is it takes courage and ability. Who wants to hear opposition? Who wants to listen deeply to others who disagree or will be obstacles to the change or idea? And, what of the humility to process a bad decision with others after it is over? We haven’t seen a lot of that in the world of educational leadership. There is a plethora of advice giving but that is different from the wisdom Eisenhower offered. It allowed Kennedy to grow in the job and develop an approach that may have become fully systemic, supported, and successful had his life not ended in such tragedy. There is not specific professional development for leaders in listening and collaboration. These are skills we are expected to have finely developed before we take the job. But amidst the daily life of the leader, they often get the least reinforcement. This is one lesson leaders need to learn themselves but it can’t be learned by oneself. We hope the Kennedy and Eisenhower story presents an option. Find someone to be Eisenhower to your Kennedy and then listen.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.