As a kid, I always wanted to know from my teachers if we could work in groups. It wasn’t because I wanted to have the opportunity to socialize with friends while we worked on our project and it wasn’t because I wanted someone else to do the work. Mainly, I wanted to learn from and with others. As an adult, that hasn’t changed a bit. In my first principalship, I pushed for our elementary principals group to start our own PLC. I partnered with two other schools to offer a more personalized approach to PD, facilitated by teachers who demonstrated expertise on topics teachers said they wanted to know more about on our late start days. In my second principalship, I was fortunate to work with one of my dearest friends and colleagues, Dr. Michael Waiksnis. We were co-principals. We’ve often been asked about the co-principalship. Specifically, folks usually want to know a few things: How did that work? It worked fabulously for us. Did you split responsibilities/duties? Nope. We did everything together. We shared an office. We even rode to work together everyday. Did staff or students or parents try to play you against each other? Nope, but we had some specific strategies that we implemented from the onset that provided a clear picture of our unity, which was authentic by the way. Michael and I have been personal friends and colleagues for over 10 years. We have a professional trust and personal relationship that allowed us to work well together. Interestingly enough, we are very different. Our end goal about what we wanted for children as principals was the same, but we often debated and compromised about the ways in which we would move the school forward. In a recent conversation with my former superintendent, we were discussing the coprincipalship and why it worked so well for us. I shared with her that I believed a key element was that we chose to work together and we had a long history of professional trust that was established long before we started our work as coprincipals. Prior to our coprincipalship, we worked on several projects together. We presented together at multiple conferences. We co-authored articles about a variety of topics. We led a district wide Twitter chat on the #irock initiative, a 1 to 1 digital conversion campaign in our district. We are the cofounders of the first EdCampSC (South Carolina), a project we undertook on a whim after a brainstorming session in our superintendent’s office, having never attended one ourselves, and it was successful. Michael and I were just the right combination for a valuable thought partnership. Our individual strengths seemed to compliment our individual opportunities for growth. It was and continues to be one of the most valuable thought partnerships I’ve ever had.
As leaders assume new and broader leadership roles, it is not uncommon for the feeling of isolation and activity of solo thinking to become all too normal. That’s why I’ve always sought out someone to think with me. I realize that I have a professional responsibility to grow myself as a leader and having a thought partner, who can also hold me accountable for that growth, is a key to this. Far too often, leaders see themselves as the experts in the room. Approaching their work with a mindset that because they’ve held leadership roles, they bring the expertise to the table and are present to add value rather than gain something valuable. I see this quite differently. I don’t see myself as an expert in anything, but I believe what I do extremely well is learn. I am, perhaps, an expert learner. One of the many ways I learn is by relying on thought partners to help me think more critically, to push me to think differently, to ask me to consider a different viewpoint, and work to purposefully make my self think in an opposing direction, which is really hard to do by the way.
Having a thought partner enhances accountability. When you are open enough to consider the ideas and thoughts of others, for the sake of having a great idea, and not deterred by the fact that it may not be your idea and yours alone, it’s amazing what can happen. I can recall numerous conversations where I felt very different than Michael about a particular idea he had, but because of our professional trust and my knowledge of Michael’s solid work ethic, I compromised, as did he in multiple decisions we made for our school. We are and have always been amazed by the ideas and work that has been born out of our thought partnership. It is always, always, better than any of either of our solo thinking. However, it’s important to note that our thought partnership was not directed by anyone else other than ourselves. It began because we both craved collaboration. We needed someone else, who was serving in our roles, to think along side of us-and so we chose each other.
Isn’t it ironic that collaboration and it’s power is heavily emphasized at the teacher level, but almost virtually non-existent, with the exception of informal networks, at the leader level in education? Why is it that once the pinnacle of leadership is reached, that tendency to view one’s self as an expert rather than a lead learning partner is so present? What makes leaders more isolated? How can we alter the structure and behavior of leaders so that leaders have an opportunity to engage in cognitive collaboration? What are the benefits of thought partnership? What keeps leaders from being interested in thought partnering? Could it be egos? Perhaps the risk of professional jealousy? Or is it simply because we’ve structured leadership work in a way that doesn’t support cognitive collaboration at the leadership level?
My challenge to every leader is to find a thought partner. Someone whose thinking you value and respect. Someone who doesn’t think just like you. It’s quite difficult to grow your thinking if your thought partner is a replicated version of you. Someone who can push your thinking, even if you don’t always agree with them, because you understand that ideas are to be debated, not people. As a leader, what are you doing to avoid the danger of solo thinking and working in isolation? Who is your thought partner? How are you formalizing and making your work together routine rather than rare? How are you growing as a learning leader and not one who believes you are the expert, with no room for growth and openness for new, better, and improved ideas? Great leaders recognize when a learning opportunity is in front of them and capitalize on it because the have a desire to learn all they can to improve their ability to serve and help others. Making room and time for a thought partner is one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done to improve my leadership.
Thank you Michael!
Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!