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Leadership's Three Rs and a T

I was struggling through the voter’s pamphlet the other day in my preparation to cast my vote. I approached the task with clarity when it came to deciding which candidates I was going to support. However, the ballot measures offered a different story. They are cleverly written, frequently disguising some key elements and burying important features in their jargon. Trying to decipher what they are about, and then making a responsible and rational decision, was less than straight forward. Voter beware!

I found myself applying a strategy that resembled my leadership mantra during the twenty-one years I served as a public school administrator - three Rs and a T. More about these in a moment.

Back to my voting dilemma. I disciplined myself enough to slow down and peel back the layers of the political arguments by asking three critical questions. The credit for these questions, What?, Why? and How?, belongs to Simon Sinek and his groundbreaking 2009 book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. In it, he successfully explores why WHAT we do becomes more powerful when we know WHY we do it. In that spirit, my ballot-focused questions became:

  1. Why is this on the ballot? Why is it important to its sponsors and the greater community?

  2. What are the sponsors of this legislation trying to accomplish? What’s behind this initiative?

  3. What approach are they taking to see this through? How will they pull this off?

It helped. I am confident that my resulting decisions were brilliant. (Said with my tongue squarely in my cheek.)

Back to my leadership mantra.

I came to understand early in my administrative career that it was vitally important that I employ a reliable, and easily understood decision-making framework if I was to be an effective leader. It needed to be an approach that could be applied consistently for both the big issues and the daily annoyances while, at the same time, representing a shared standard of how decisions were prioritized and would be made. It consisted of three aspiration statements. The three Rs.

  1. Do the right thing. The aspiration to do the right thing is followed by the recognition that there is something that needs to be different. Understanding this is always rooted in a solid understanding of the purpose and the values of the organization, and frequently the product of collaborative insights among, and between, a variety of stakeholders. Contemplating doing the “right thing,” a different thing, and often a difficult thing, is likely to disrupt the status quo and cause stress within the organization. Consequently, considering a change, regardless of its size or magnitude, should never be undertaken lightly. Once satisfied that a change is necessary, the second R comes into focus.

  2. Do the right thing for the right reasons. This becomes a cyclical conversation of the first two Rs. The first reflects the “what” of Sinek’s premise, while the second requires a thorough understanding of “why.” In my experience, these two discussion points are inextricably linked. Why is a different approach called for? What should it look like? What is the right thing to do? Why bother? What makes this important? Why is this foundational to the values and the mission of the organization? The contemplation of these two issues cannot be rushed. Both must be thoroughly vetted and understood among key stakeholders before there can be any consideration of the next step, the third R.

  3. Do the right thing for the right reasons in the right way. This represents the “how” in Sinek’s work, and is, in many ways the easiest of the three. It’s less philosophical and more practical. This is getting down to business, and is, consequently, a more comfortable conversation for some members of the organization. It’s here that the leader can offer structured alternatives of what the steps moving forward might look like. Options may be considered. “This or that?” However, I must offer a caution. This is where the educator’s version of the Hippocratic Oath must be applied - “First, do no harm.” We cannot afford any negative unintended consequences in a rush toward a solution. Care must be executed that whatever “how” eventually looks like, it will be sustainable and equitable, while not disadvantaging some populations or “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Here’s a perfect example of this concern. One of the measures on our ballot appeared to address a pressing need with a clear and compelling rationale, satisfying the requirements of the first two Rs. However, its funding proposal, the “how,” required a reduction of current (and insufficient) funding levels for other key services - state police and K-12 education among them, as a way to avoid new taxation. The third R was not satisfied. I voted accordingly.

Probably not entirely original, and certainly not fool-proof, this structure afforded us (me, and my various staffs along the way) a necessary framework within which we could look each other in the eye and recognize that what we were undertaking was something important . . . with professionalism . . . and with integrity.

The level of a decision will vary. It may be a Level 1 decision, one made by the leader of the organization in isolation. Or a Level 2 decision that will be made, ultimately, by the organization’s leader with consultation and input from others. Or it may be a Level 3 decision - one made through a process of shared decision making or consensus. Regardless, all members of the organization must believe, and know, that everyone is coming to the pending decision based on true sense of principle. Not politics. Not convenience. Not self-service. Not expedience. The three Rs of leadership, doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way is only possible within a climate of trust and respect.

Integrity and respect.

Integrity and respect - two leadership characteristics that are only possible within the framework of the illusive “T.”

Not now. We’ll discuss “T” in the next post. For now, wrap your head around the three Rs: do the right thing for the right reasons in the right way.

That alone could move public education a long way toward improvement and reform.


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