Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Bryan Zug

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Bryan Zug

 

The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as part of growth.  Brene Brown

When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.  Seth Godin

For many years, I believed leadership was about vision, certainty, confidence, and solutions. With a wall full of degrees, a position high in my school’s organizational hierarchy, and a job description demanding action, I felt it was my obligation to make decisions that would propel our school forward; perceived it to be my responsibility to tell rather than to ask, and to know rather than to search. How painfully wrong my perspective proved to be.

The economic downturn of 2008 hit the school of which I was then a part quite hard and demand for tuition assistance sky-rocketed, leaving the school with a painful choice; say farewell to students whose families could no longer afford tuition or function with a large deficit. The decision was made by the Board of Trustees to run at a substantial deficit for one year, and to craft a more sustainable business plan moving forward. As lower school principal, I was called upon to drastically cut expenses, primarily by eliminating positions, while at the same time significantly raising the quality of the school to more effectively compete with the growing competition we faced. It was a perfect storm. I wish I could say I navigated through the turbulence with the courage, compassion, and connection that Brene Brown describes as the hallmarks of wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Being honest with myself, I was painfully unprepared. I floundered, made mistakes, and lacked the wisdom to know how to engage others in courageous, compassionate, connected discomfort. I did not yet know how to embrace vulnerability, to humbly engage in difficult conversations, to ask for help, and as Brene Brown so articulately advocates, “to lean into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, holding open an empathic space so people could find their own way”. Through the heart-wrenching pain of letting teachers know they would no longer have positions, demanding more of everybody, responding to increasing perhaps unrealistic expectations of me, and absorbing tremendous anger and distress, I faltered. Through many angst filled, sleepless nights and long, agonizing days, I found myself ill equipped for the many challenges facing me and recognized I needed to learn new ways of leading.

My transformation as an educational leader in some ways mirrors Brene Brown’s description of Lululemon’s CEO Chrstine Day’s leadership, moving from “controlling to engaging with vulnerability – taking risks and cultivating trust.” Day characterized the changes in her leadership as a shift from “having the best idea or problem solving to being the best leader of people”. Over the course of several years, I invented my leadership anew, learning to focus on supporting more than directing, coaching more than evaluating, wondering more than answering, and imagining collaboratively more than deciding individually. I accepted a new position as Head of School in another school community, crafting my approach to leadership with hard earned insights on vulnerability, risk taking, and trust building.

Echoing Brene Brown’s articulate words, “I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” I embraced leadership as serving to unleash the greatness in others. To that end, there are many techniques from the world of coaching that I have deliberately trained in and implemented, most significantly, giving feedback. Like Brene Brown, I have found receiving and giving feedback to be the key to normalizing discomfort, helping individuals to lean into discomfort with safety and support in order to stretch, to learn, to overcome challenges, to build on strengths, and to reach toward aspirations and potential. “At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable,” states Brene Brown, a sentiment that captures my intense emotion prior to the paradigm shift leading me from a leadership model focused on “knowing” and telling others what to do to an approach focused on “being”, deliberately nurturing trust and collaboratively striving toward shared, aspirational goals. In order to give feedback, I first had to be open to receive feedback. For that, I needed to embrace vulnerability – accepting that not only can mistakes and crises happen, but for any person or community that is striving to improve, mistakes and crises will occur. Acknowledging the inevitability of failures on the road to improvement enabled me to develop my resilience, patience, and fortitude in the face of challenge. I not only normalized discomfort for myself, but even became more comfortable with discomfort, welcoming the growingly familiar tension in my shoulders and flittering in stomach that arises when I have stretched myself beyond what I have done before, when I worry I have moved too quickly or made a wrong turn, when I face criticism that feels unfair or when I face criticism I feel I deserve. I have come to welcome the discomfort for it is through the stretching beyond the familiar that I grow and become more effective, more capable, more courageous, compassionate, and connected than I was before.

From seeking feedback for myself, I moved toward giving meaningful feedback to others – leading with a “coaching hat”; striving to focus more on support than evaluation. I revamped my approach to feedback; visiting classrooms as often as I could and sharing written feedback, including a compliment, and nonjudgmental reflections following four prompts: I noticed, I wonder, what if, and how might. I met with each teacher to set a professional learning goal, along with an action plan, supports we would put in place to help the teacher meet the goal, and ways we would measure progress toward the goal. I shared with each teacher that our end of year reflection, in lieu of formal evaluation, would not focus on whether the goal had been achieved, but rather on how much the teacher, and her or his students, had grown. I wanted teachers to adopt ambitious goals rather than playing it safe, and in order to do so I needed to create a culture in which striving was celebrated and protected. Teachers and I also filled out a rubric on professional practice as another means to reflect on practice, celebrate strengths, and identify areas more challenging. I made the commitment to teachers that the process would be focused on learning and that if I had a specific concern, I would be direct and share my concern with the teacher; enabling most conversations to be focused on professional growth and exploration of the possible, rather than being evaluative and judgmental. I reveled in teachers’ learning and growth; celebrating with teachers their forward progress.

Within the shifts in myself and our teachers, I caught glimpses of more dramatic forward movement for our school’s culture.  “A daring culture,” says Brene Brown, “is a culture of honest, constructive, and engaged feedback.” Nurturing a daring culture requires, according to Brene Brown, a “daring strategy”. We must dance with time, paying attention to the distance between where we have been, where we are, and where we want to be. While goals and accomplishments are important in this process, they are insufficient because, as Brene Brown shares, “culture is less about what we want to achieve and more about who we are.”

As we embrace one another’s strengths, along with one another’s quirky imperfections, we engage in painful yet potentially transformative disruption, offering the promise of engagement, creativity, innovation, productivity, learning, and trust. The key to this transformation is a frightening, yet potentially liberating, embrace of vulnerability.

I welcome you to engage in courageous, compassionate, connected conversation on vulnerability and growth.
How have you cultivated the courage to be uncomfortable?
How have you helped people around you to accept discomfort as part of growth?
How has discomfort helped you to learn and to grow?

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Comments on: "The Courage To Be Uncomfortable" (5)

  1. Great post Shira. I like how you address it by “leaning into the discomfort” . One can’t ignore and can’t fight it if one is to grow and learn.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thanks, Faige! The post is inspired by Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly”. It is she who articulately describes “leaning into discomfort”. We do think of learning and growing as joyful, and it is, yet it is also quite often uncomfortable. Embracing that discomfort, and supporting others to embrace the discomfort as well, is important.

  2. Shira,
    There is so much about this post that resonates with me. Your style (if that is the right word for it) as a growth-oriented leader who models everything you ask of others seems to me the only way to teach, lead and inspire change. Not only have you impacted your own school but the many people you touch through Twitter chats, blog, and sharing your work elsewhere.

    As I was reading the post, I was thinking of how much you have impacted MY work. First of all, our school leadership team read Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight based on your recommendation. That inspired us to collaboratively create our Target for Teaching and Learning which served as the basis for professional development and growth. You also introduced me to the Daily 5 which has formed the basis for my classroom learning environment (and somewhat at the school as a whole….in process shall we say). Currently, I am reading Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers with another teacher at my school. I am reading it so slowly as I pour over and highlight every other word. It is both affirming and pushing my teaching each time I sit down to read another few pages!

    I’m also working on a presentation about growth mindset, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about comfort/discomfort. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk, but I’m thinking that might be on the agenda for me soon! Here is a post I wrote a few months ago, trying to put some of these ideas into words: http://edtechworkshop.blogspot.com/2014/12/getting-comfortable-with-being.html

    Thank you for so openly sharing your learning journey! It matters!
    -Andrea

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Dear Andrea,

      I am so humbled and grateful for your feedback and appreciative of your post. The first time I thought about being comfortable with discomfort was at the edjewcon I attended at your school. At that event I wrote the following post: https://sharingourblessings.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/comfort-with-discomfort/

      I also thank you for bringing me back to this post today, as I feel the weight of moving a complicated culture forward, and remind myself that forward progress is a marathon, not a sprint, requiring patience, perseverance, resilience, and a tremendous amount of discomfort. Finding comfort in the discomfort helps as we continue to stretch ourselves, recognize what we don’t yet know, seek input, and strive to make progress.

      Thank you!

      • Wow, that is full-circle, isn’t it? I remember now reading that post when you originally wrote it. I guess these ideas really take time to simmer and develop!
        Forward progress is a marathon, yes, but also an obstacle course. I have never run a real marathon, but I can only imagine that one gets pretty used to discomfort during a 26 mile run!

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