Are YOU leading by cliche?

Sunday was a good day for me.  I had a chance to get together with one of my favorite principals of all time—a talented guy that I really believe in.

We spent about 2 hours having one of those make-you-think kind of conversations that bright minds really enjoy.

He ruined everything, though, by claiming that vision statements in schools–something I’m pretty darn passionate about—were completely meaningless.

“Teachers don’t care about vision statements,” he said.  “They’re a waste of time that no one pays any attention to.”

“You mean you don’t have a clear vision describing what your building’s future will look like?” I pushed.

“Sure we do,” he said.  “We’re going to never give up, work together and get better every day.  Those are my non-negotiables.  We tie everything back to those three statements.  They are our vision and everyone knows what they mean.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I love this guy.  He’s one of the shining stars in school leadership and I respect ALMOST everything that he says.  I’d work for him in a minute and he knows that.

And because he’s so talented, I’ll bet he really does use his three non-negotiables differently than most slogan-loving principals.  For him, “never give up, work together and get better every day” are a tangible and easily approachable message that everyone can understand.

As he wrote in a separate email, “My statement of non-negotiables is not a cliche:  It is shorthand for talking about my leadership style, and it underscores all of the decisions that I make.”

The problem, however, is that for many principals, catchy slogans like “Never Give Up, Work Together and Get Better Every Day” ARE cliches.

They don’t represent a clear vision or direction for a faculty.  Instead, they are substitutes for leadership.  Ways to avoid the difficult and complex conversations that come along with spelling out exactly what it is that a school hopes to be—and the consequences of that lack of clarity are almost always disastrous.

You see, teacher efficacy—our belief in our own ability to produce a meaningful change in the lives of our students—isn’t built with warm, fluffy slogans slapped on building walls and attached to the auto-signatures of our leaders.

Instead, efficacy is built when those leaders describe a clear vision for a better future that we can buy into—and then demonstrate over and over again how the tangible steps we take today can lead to an improved tomorrow.

Heck, even Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker—leaders in the movement to restructure schools as professional learning communities—believe that efficacy depends on something more than clever phrases.

Over a decade ago, they wrote:

When educators have a clear sense of purpose, direction and the ideal future state of their school, they are better able to understand their ongoing roles within the school. 

This clarity simplifies the decision making process and empowers all members of the staff to act with greater confidence. 

Rather than constantly checking with their bosses for approval, employees can simply ask, “Is this decision or action in line with the vision?”  and then act on their own. 

(DuFour & Eaker, p. 84)

And DuFour and Eaker aren’t alone in their belief that clarity matters.

In fact, when Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner surveyed thousands of people about the characteristics of effective leaders for their newest book, The Truth About Leadership, they found that the only trait that distinguished a leader from a colleague in the minds of most individuals was the ability to paint a convincing vision for what could be—defining a clear and better future. 

Bob Marzano and Rick DuFour—in their newest book, Leaders of Learning (in publication), echo this sentiment, saying:

In order for a shared vision to impact the day-to-day work of people throughout an organization, its members must be able to understand how thier work contributes to a larger purpose.

So effective leaders constantly remind people of the significance of their work and how it is contributing to a collective endeavor.  (Katzenbach & Kahn, 2010).

Now, my buddy is likely to be able to get further with his catchy slogan than most principals simply because even though his building hasn’t got the kind of written descriptions of an “ideal future state” that I—and a bunch of other experts on school leadership—believe are important, HE is taking practical steps towards that better future every day.

For the average principal, however, leadership by cliché is an unmitigated disaster—no matter how inspiring the slogan—because it leaves teachers to wonder just where they are going and how they’re supposed to get there.

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If you want to learn more about the role that a clear vision should play in your school, consider reading:

The Vision-less Learning Community

The Importance of a Clear Vision

More on PLC Vision Statements

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