Lessons for Principals: What Two Weeks Away From Social Media Taught Me

Well, I failed.

I set out 2017 with a goal of #Leadership365, my aspirational quest to write something of value for school leaders every single day of the year.

“They” say that if you can make something a habit, it becomes a part of your life and you’re able to more readily do it.  Many research studies have reached that conclusion with varying numbers of days necessary to be able to make a goal into a habit.

Through this vehicle, I made 114 consecutive days before I didn’t.  From January 1 until April 24, I was able to write a column intended to support principals, assistant principals, aspiring leaders, and others interested in leadership musings with a decided school-level leadership spin.

And then, I didn’t make it on April 25.  Or April 26.  It was much easier to develop this new habit, the one where I didn’t write a column for school leaders.


Now it’s May 7, and I am rejoining the online world and reconnecting with the many offline friends that read this column.  To reenter this universe, this column is dedicated to sharing with you lessons learned from two weeks away and how they relate to the work of school leaders. Said a different way, these are the things that I learned from failing; failing to meet my goal, failing to create and deliver content to those who had been used to it being there, and failing to maintain the discipline from 114 days for the entire 365.  As always, these failures will be reported through the lens of school leadership.  Here goes!

1.  It’s More Difficult To Accomplish Goals On Your Own Than When Working With Others  As the leader of the school, you have lots of goals.  Just as was my experience, sometimes you aren’t able to keep them going.  Why?  What I found to be true is what I’ve read numerous times from leadership books and research.  Self-discipline is expendable.  (The work of Dan and Chip Heath in their book Made to Stick comes to mind.)  We are so much more likely to stick to a task when our work is connected to someone else.  That’s worth considering in your work with your faculty and staff;  not only are we better together, we’re more likely to get things done together than alone, especially over time (which is what every school year is, an extended period of time).  If I’d been paired up with someone to do this blog, we’d not have missed a day, I’m convinced of it.  

2.  Getting Away is Essential for Effectiveness and Excellence.   There hasn’t been a time that I was just “mailing it in” this year in the 114 columns that have preceded this one, but I am feeling better about the next two weeks and the things that I have to share than I do a couple of weeks ago.  You don’t really have the luxury to take two weeks off during the school year while serving a principal, but as has been mentioned here many times, balance really is the key.  A big part of that balance is finding space; space to breathe, space to regain momentum, space to be inspired from unexpected sources.  The last two weeks have given me space that has made me come back to you renewed and ready again.  Don’t lose sight of that not only for yourself but for your faculty and staff.  Some of the most powerful notes in songs are “rests.”  Same for us in leading.

3.  Failure is an important part of success.  You know this as well as I do.  There is much to learn through our failures.  I’ve learned that if I want to get a column out every day no matter rain, sleet, snow or hail, I better develop another plan because this one isn’t sustainable.  What are you trying to do on your own that meets that same description? As the school leader, we often take on things that are less a function of our own discipline and more related to the design.  Now that I look at how this has played out here, I realize that I should have planned breaks throughout the year and asked for help.  Just like you, I have a bounty of friends and colleagues that I know would be willing to write a column for this blog.  I just need to ask them.  Thinking back on my fifteen years as school administrator, there are a lot of things that I can say that about.  We really are better together, and I believe this column and this effort to support school leaders will actually be stronger if I solicit other’s voices to join.  Plus, I can take the time off to get recharged and come back with more meaningful words to support your work.

So, I’m glad that I failed at #Leadership365.  It has been a valuable lesson to me, and hopefully through your lens can be insightful for your work.  I’m not going to change the name of this year’s effort, and you can look for me to be taking a few days off from time to time with some experts preparing columns in advance to share on those occasions.  Please let me know if you’d like to be a part of this effort!

Thanks for your patience during this learnable moment.  I’ll see you back here tomorrow.




How The Fear of Failure Suffocates Innovation


One of the leaders in our session yesterday shared a powerful strategy her school has recently employed.

Instead of beginning their meetings sharing their successes, they instead share their failures.

Their approach is sure to lead to improved outcomes and a better place to work.  The “perfect” business is exhausting!  In schools, we can be slow to innovate because of our reluctance to try things we aren’t already good at, aren’t sure how to do, or are out of our comfort zone.

This isn’t just a subtle difference in approach or a minor attitudinal difference.  The “fear of failure” can be an overwhelming force that slows down growth, innovation and achievement.  In short, our obsession with never being wrong can lead to us falling short of getting things right at all.

The children and adolescents growing up in our schools are citizens of a world that hardly any of their teachers experienced during their formative years.  The world has changed, the accessibility to information has changed, and the speed and volume of information is head-spinning.  Yet, some of our teachers haven’t changed, or not nearly enough.  While there are many reasons for their reticence, it’s likely that the fear of failing is one of them, and the school’s culture is an accomplice in keeping that fear alive.  The challenge within that is  the school’s culture runs through those same teachers!

So, here you arrive.  Captain Innovation.  The Fountain of Ideas.  The Change Leader.  The people who brought you on board to lead the school want you to be innovative, but until you can change the culture about failure, your progress will be measured.


Changing your school’s culture is all about changing the way that the adults who work there think.  Before you are able to do that, you need to change the way that they feel, and that’s climate.  You need a climate that supports experimentation, trying new things, and a joy in the process before you can have a culture of innovation.

What do you do as the leader to produce such a climate?  The school mentioned in the opening paragraph is a good example. Here are some other ideas that might help you in your quest for a respect for failure and its ability to teach all of us:

  • Clarify your beliefs about learning. While most everyone believes that learning comes from experience and through a process, at schools we place a high value on “perfection” and we can give mixed signals about what really matters.  Our grading systems can be an example of that.  Unfortunately, the emphasis can be on the grade and not the learning behind the grade.  If you take a stab at aligning grades with learning (mastery, anyone?) you will make failure a more valued thing.
  • Honor and recognize the experimenters.   As long as we put the people who make a 97 on a test of recall on the highest step on the medal stand, we are de-valuing the students (and their teachers) who may have learned the most and done the best work.  It probably isn’t the right time to ignore  the folks who make all As (and it probably isn’t the right thing to do either) but what you can do is recognize those who are learning through experimentation.  The scientists; the risk-takers; the innovators.  Don’t forget that achievement comes in lots of different packages.  If you really want to innovate, you have to acknowledge the process, including the failing, that leads to discovery.
  • Guarantee safety for those willing to be vulnerable.   The quickest way to shut down innovation for a long time is to punish those who try new ideas that don’t work on the first run.  If you indeed are going to ask (push?) teachers to try new things, be innovative, do something new, you are going to need to have a safe place for them to land if it doesn’t work.
  • Share your own experience.  Learning rarely happens in the absence of vulnerability.  To really embrace the space of learning, you have to admit that, regarding the subject at hand, you don’t know.  It’s much easier to talk about what we do know, and to put “what we don’t know” in a basket of things that are out of reach.  That attitude (perfect in what I know and perfectly happy to stop there) prevents learning.  You have to try new things, and to get your faculty to do that, you have to get out on the limb, talk about your failures, and be willing to be seen as less than perfect.  If you can do that, you are on your way to changing perspectives about learning… and failing.
  • Raise the value of persistence.  Persistence is the pathway to understanding failure and embracing the possibilities of learning.  If you are going to move out of the “perfect business” into one where failure is embraced, be prepared for some pushback.  The pushback will come when things don’t work smoothly from the beginning.  That’s where we lose the people with the least amount of commitment to growth, which means you have to intercede with a message of persistence.


When we lead our schools in a bold, daring manner in which we face and fight our fears and focus on our students, we will gain partners in our quest who will also bring others in. Like nearly everything good that can happen in your school, this also begins with… you.





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