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What Does Leadership on a Professional Learning Team Look Like?

As a full-time teacher and part-time consultant on Professional Learning Community implementation, I'm always asked questions like, "What kinds of things can teachers do to move their learning teams forward?" or "What kinds of people make the best leaders for learning teams?"

Answering those questions starts by understanding that "moving learning teams forward" depends on three core behaviors:

Nurturing Strong Relationships:  The most successful learning teams care about each other, y'all.  They see one another as competent, capable practitioners.  They trust that everyone has good intentions and are willing to give one another the benefit of the doubt when conflict arises.  Their interactions are centered around collaboration INSTEAD of competition.  There is a real sense of WE -- instead of ME -- evident in every meeting.

Defining a Clear Vision of What "Forward" Looks Like:  Strong relationships aren't enough to move learning teams forward, however.  Need proof?  Find that team in your building who loves working together but hasn't changed their instructional practices in 20 years.

#nuffsaid

Moving forward, then, depends on a team's ability to define what "forward" actually looks like.  In PLC terms, they create a shared vision for their work.  "A vision is a realistic, credible, attractive future for an organization," writes Rick DuFour and his colleagues in Learning by Doing, "Vision answers the question, What do we hope to become at some point in the future?"

Simple stuff, right?  Without a sense for what you want to collectively become, it's difficult to make any kind of progress together as a collaborative group.

Systematically Translating Vision into Action:  Developing a "realistic, credible and attractive future" is an essential starting point for moving learning teams forward, but without action, progress is impossible.  The most successful learning teams systematically identify practical, doable steps that they can take today that will move them towards their ideal tomorrow.

Without strong relationships, a clear vision for an ideal tomorrow, and an ability to translate vision into practical action, learning teams simply WON'T succeed.  Teacher leadership in a professional learning community, then, means nurturing those core behaviors.  Here's the hitch, though:  There aren't many people who are well suited to filling ALL THREE of those critical roles.

Relationship builders aren't driven by setting vision.  Instead, they're driven by the bonds that develop between individuals.  Vision setters, on the other hand, tend to value ideas over individuals -- and they often imagine the impossible.  And the doers on learning teams are great at making things happen -- but they struggle to imagine what could be because they are so focused on what needs to get done.

That means successful learning teams understand that "moving forward" depends on MORE THAN ONE leader.  They collectively identify, value and celebrate the leadership strengths -- and openly recognize and wrestle with the leadership weaknesses -- of every member.  More importantly, they assign tasks and fill roles based on their awareness of the individual leadership strengths and weaknesses of each member because they know that progress is dependent on getting the right person to tackle the right job.

In Building a Professional Learning Community at Work -- my first book on #atplc implementation -- my co-author and I go as far as to argue that successfully structuring learning teams means making sure that every collaborative group has a nice balance of Relationship Builders, Systems Thinkers, Innovators and Problem Solvers.  We also provide two handouts (see here and here) that school leaders can use to keep track of the balance of personalities on individual learning teams.

We took that argument further in Making Teamwork Meaningful -- our second book on #atplc implementation -- by suggesting that successfully structuring learning teams means making sure that every collaborative group has a nice balance of Discovery and Delivery Skills.

Does any of this make sense?

___________________________________

Related Radical Reads:

What Does Teacher Leadership Look Like in an #atplc School?

How Much Does the Composition of a Learning Team Matter?

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Love Labs?

 

9 Comments

Jennifer Barnett commented on July 4, 2013 at 1:01pm:

Explicit sharing? Does it happen?

I wonder just how many learning teams 

collectively identify, value and celebrate the leadership strengths -- and openly recognize and wrestle with the leadership weaknesses -- of every member.

I agree with your view that tasks and roles should be based on this understanding but I'm not convinced that most learning teams spend the time necessary to be postioned to do this well. 

Consider the after school or before school team meeting, or even the collaborative time provided within the daily schedule. At least twenty other things are on the minds of teachers other than the business at hand. Time looms like a dark cloud so we rush through to the business.  If instead we'd set a meeting for the purpose of identifying, valuing, and celebrating strengths and recognizing weaknesses, we might be better set to do future work. I'm guessing that does not happen as often as it should. 

It takes a strong leader with a clear understanding of the need to establish these perspectives to set a learning team on a course for success -- a strong leader, that sets a team on its course, then able to step back from the tempation to dictate its path. 

Kris Giere commented on July 4, 2013 at 1:08pm:

A curious question...

I read your post, Jennifer, and I was lead to the question, "Do we neglect some of these core elements because we often focus too much on the tasks of leadership rather than on cultivating a culture of leadership?"  I am uncertain whether my question is a non-sequitor, nor do I have a preconceived answer already formulated.  But I'd like to hear your thoughts none-the-less.

Jennifer Barnett commented on July 4, 2013 at 7:52pm:

Another way to think about this...

Excellent query, Kris. Several things come to mind when you ask if we "focus too much on the tasks of leadership rather than cultivating a culture of leadership." But the main thing I wanted to share was this. It's a both/and dilemma that we probably don't manage all that well. I'll explain. Great leaders work very hard at cultivating a culture of leadership but probably find themselves faced with deadlines, pressures, and proof of action (leadership tasks) more often than they are asked to share what they've done to cultivate a leadership culture. It's easy to always put tasks out front. But that doesn't mean the culture emphasis is nonexistent. I believe a new framework will help us understand the dilemma leaders have here.

Alesha Daughtrey shared the fascinating book, Polarity Management, with me recently. While the book is not new, it has helped me see certain issues in a new light. Graham, the book's author, would say that the question you present is not a problem to be solved rather poles to be managed. Too much focus on one causes negative results for the other. Managing leadership tasks as well as cultivating a culture of leadership requires a very delicate management balance. The first step in this balance is to recognize that both are important and need attention. Step two is much trickier -- when to focus on what. 

The more we study leadership while practicing leadership the more likely we will be to have our cake (tasks of leadership) and eat it too (culture of leadership). And I'm all for that! Thanks for the question - I enjoyed thinking about this!

Anonymous commented on July 5, 2013 at 2:41pm:

Bill,

Bill,
Outstanding post!!!  I plan to use your post as a learning activity for my leadership team in August because it clearly lines out exactly what leadership is all about in a concise fashion. I really like how you broke down the leadership of the team into three responsibilities. 

My question is this.  What guiding questions do you use to help teams and more specifically leaders identify which of the 3 core behaviors they tend to lean towards?

The worksheets help me define what I believe each person's core behaviors are, but if I want to get deeper to the heart of the issue, I have to let the teachers and leaders discover their primary core behavior for themselves. 

What questions would you suggest to help me with this problem?  

Thank you for challenging my thinking on this topic. 

Great stuff!

john

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on July 12, 2013 at 8:19am:

Discovery / Delivery Skills

John asked:

The worksheets help me define what I believe each person's core behaviors are, but if I want to get deeper to the heart of the issue, I have to let the teachers and leaders discover their primary core behavior for themselves. 

What questions would you suggest to help me with this problem?  

__________________________

John -- I really think the Discovery/Delivery handout at the end of the post would be a great starting point for you.  It's designed to help teachers think about the different roles that HAVE to be filled and the different roles that they are COMFORTABLE filling. 

Hope this helps, 

Bill

 

Brianna Crowley commented on July 6, 2013 at 2:49pm:

Cross-Post

Bill, 

As a self-professed "baby leader" and "leader-in-training" in my professional environment, I found this post timely and insightful. Sometimes leaders feel the need to "do it all" rather than understanding our main job is to find, foster, and encourage the leadership potential in others. This is especially true of our teaching profession as it is staunchly egalitarian. 

I cross-posted this post as a "To-do" on CTQ's GOOD.is profile. I asked viewers on that platform to read your post, identify their own leadership strength, and then set a goal for leading from that strength in their teams. Feel free to visit the link to see/comment on this cross post. Thanks for the clarity and direction here!

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on July 12, 2013 at 8:17am:

Have you read Multipliers yet?

Brianna wrote:

Sometimes leaders feel the need to "do it all" rather than understanding our main job is to find, foster, and encourage the leadership potential in others. 

_______________________________

Listen, Pal: When you are making comments like this, you can't call yourself a Baby Leader anymore!  This is brilliance.  

Have you read Multipliers by Liz Wizeman yet?  It is all about fostering the leadership potential in others.  You'll dig it.

Bill

 

Anne Jolly commented on July 6, 2013 at 7:11pm:

Great conversation!

Ah, Bill - this is MY kind of conversation! :-)  

I'd like to weigh in on the leadership of learning teams and PLCs in general.  You hit the main categories on the nose.  Within each of those categories you mention there are specifics that leaders can attend to.  For example:

  • Provide timely and productive feedback to teams. Knowing how to provide productive feedback is an art in itself.  We tend to provide more feedback than necessary, to forget to ask permission before providing feedback, and to phrase things in non-productive ways. 
  • Be aware of your body language at all times. Some folks just need a quick crash course in the art of body language.
  • Maintain objectivity even in tough situations.  This takes practice and there are specific strategies to help leaders learn this skill. 
  • Provide guidance for trust-building and creative conflict.
  • Stay organized in the right ways, and gather the right kind of data and information about/for the teams. 

​Right on, Bill!  Continue to carry that PLC banner high - ultimately, working together is the way we will build successful teaching practice. 

Anne

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on July 12, 2013 at 8:15am:

Anne Jolly is my Hero!

Hey Anne, 

Thanks for extending the conversation and my categories here!  I hope you know that your handbook for PLCs was the most productive tool that I ever stumbled across early in my PLC work.  That's what I love about your work -- it was practical times ten.

Rock on, 

Bill

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