This page shares a collection of long-form articles I have written covering a number of topics. I have discovered that pushing myself to articulate my thoughts through writing helps to clarify my thinking and deepen my understanding on a topic. Furthermore, when I summarize my thoughts I have found there is greater likelihood the concepts are retained and become mental habits.
You will notice each piece includes references to books and other articles where the topic is examined at greater length. I believe these connections add credibility to the entry, and I encourage you to explore these citations for more insight on each subject.
Ultimately, I hope these articles serve as a resource for others. Whether you choose to implement these ideas into daily practice, or use these insights to reinforce an already-established mindset, I hope you find practical application with each essay.
Complete List of Long-Form Articles
Scroll down to browse all of my articles by date and title. Articles are listed in reverse chronological order with my newest articles at the top and my oldest essays at the bottom.
It's Okay Not to Know Everything
10 Interesting Facts About Sleep
Commit Time to Things that Matter
What is Instructional Leadership?
Why are 1:1 Meetings So Important?
Give Me Your Undivided Attention
Focus on Patterns, Not Single Events
The Best Feedback is Criticism
Realizing You Made a Hiring Mistake
Want to Lose Weight? Count Calories
One Trick for Always Being Happy
Naps are Like Zambonis for Your Brain
Never Yell or Argue With Students
You Are What You Spend Time Doing
Can Tech Relationships be Good?
Exercise 6 Days a Week For Life
Article #26: Father Knows Best
In March of 2009 my dad gave me a book for my 27th birthday. At this particular point in my life, books weren’t exactly on my wish list radar. I was only two years removed from being in graduate school, so needless to say reading books was pretty low on the priority list. As I revealed this gift by holding it up to show other family members I tried my best to remain enthusiastic…while secretly hoping for a gift receipt to fall from the pages.
A short time later while eating cake and ice cream I glanced over at the book. The book was “The Total Money Makeover” written by a guy I’d never heard of named Dave Ramsey. I recall feeling offended that my dad would give me a resource promising a “proven plan for financial fitness.” I had a good job, was living on my own, never asked my parents for money… and certainly didn’t feel like I needed any advice when it came to personal finance!
When the celebration ended I returned home and promptly tossed the book in the corner of my room. Several months passed before I was mentally prepared to engage with the book. When I finally did explore the book, something inside the front cover caught my attention. To my surprise, I discovered my dad had written a page-long letter to me explaining why he believed I should read the book.
Now feeling guilty, I committed to giving the book a try. As I worked my way through the first couple chapters, my demeanor shifted from “this is a waste of time” to “this is good stuff.” I recall being particularly fascinated by a chapter that discussed debt and car payments. Below is an abbreviated passage from the section:
“The average car payment is $464 over sixty-four months. Most people get a car payment and keep it throughout their lives. As soon as a car is paid off, they get another payment because they “need” a new car. If you keep a $464 car payment throughout your life, you miss the opportunity to save that money. If you invested $464 per month from the age of 25 to 65, you would have $5,458,854.45 at age sixty-five.”
I recall reading this paragraph a few times, captivated by the limitless potential of compound interest. Could the average car investment really result in that much money? How might inflation impact those numbers? What if I contributed more than $464 a month? Do I have time now to return the car I recently purchased? Needless to say, this book had me hooked and eager to learn more!
While I could write several pages detailing how this book has impacted my life (see my book summaries page for my key takeaways), I’d rather focus on the powerful moment my dad created when took the time to hand-write a note that ultimately persuaded me to give the book a try. Had my dad not taken the extra step to write a heartfelt message, I am not convinced I would have read the book. And had I not been convinced to read the book, it is hard to predict when I would have developed a passion for lifelong learning.
Being intentional about creating powerful, life-changing moments for our students is a mindset we push hard in our district. We realize fewer and fewer students come from homes where parents generate these life-altering experiences for their children. Therefore, we encourage all staff members - not just teachers - to look for opportunities where they can create defining moments for students. Whether it be words of encouragement, conversations about goals, or notes of appreciation, we believe all staff members have the ability to positively alter a student’s trajectory in a few short minutes.
To bring this story full circle, I want to share that I have attempted to create defining moments for my students using a similar approach to what my dad did back in 2009. As a high school principal, I started giving “The Total Money Makeover” to students as a high school graduation gift along with a note explaining why I thought they should give the book a try. Although I am certain some of graduates who were gifted the book also searched for a gift receipt hiding in the pages… I am hopeful at least one student has changed their spending habits - and their attitude toward lifelong learning - as a result.
Article #25: Swallow Your Pride
Last week a community member approached me at a wrestling meet. The individual wanted to better-understand our upcoming bond referendum, and was hoping I could answer their question. Although I have a decent understanding of school finance, I quickly realized I did not have an answer to this particular inquiry. Slightly embarrassed, I proceeded to give the best response I could, but admitted that I would probably need to get back to this person at a later time with a more-definitive answer.
As I left the wrestling meet, I was disappointed with myself. I take pride in being able to deliver accurate information to others, and feel a sense of accomplishment when I can guide community members in the right direction. Not knowing exactly what to tell this curious stakeholder led to feelings of inadequacy. “Surely if anyone should know the answer to this question...it should be the Superintendent!” I lamented.
As I relatively new school superintendent, I often experience feelings of self-doubt when I don’t immediately have all of the answers. Not only is it difficult to admit when I don’t have answers to questions, I also have a tendency to refrain from asking questions in group settings for fear that others may already know the answer. Ultimately, there is a worry that I could be exposed as a “phony” if it is discovered I can’t recall everything I’m expected to know in my position.
One of my goals this year has been to confront my anxiety and “be okay with not knowing.” Therefore I was quite happy to stumble upon the following quote from The Little Big Things by Tom Peters: “Swallow your pride by asking questions until you understand. The "dumber" the question, the better! Bosses are prone to falling into the trap of not admitting when they don't know the answer or have trouble with the concept. Fact is, we should readily admit when we do not know something, and also actively seek out things we do not know.”
Taking this advice to heart, I have recently been giving myself permission to ask “dumb questions” in a variety of settings. When I realize an underlying, unanswered question needs to be brought to the groups’ attention I simply begin with “Can I ask a dumb question?” and - after being granted permission - proceed with the inquiry. I’ve found bringing these questions to the surface not only provides me with a deeper understanding of the topic, but often I’ve found others at the table secretly share the same question. Furthermore, I have noticed when the “boss” asks these questions, he or she gives permission to others to admit weakness.
Ultimately, I am hopeful that one day I will become an expert in school finance. But until then, I must continue to remind myself that it’s okay to confess when I don’t know the answer.
Article #24: Hard-Core (Values)
“Good leaders put together a list of basic guiding principles and share those values. By sharing and explaining values, employees are better prepared to understand the reasoning behind actions and decisions.” - From The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner
In 2014 I developed my first list of educational leadership “core values.” Originally called my Core Beliefs in Education document, this was my first (rather amateur!) attempt at outlining the core ideology that guided my decisions and behaviors at work. To this day I’m not exactly sure what inspired me to develop this list as I had never seen any other school leaders share a document and I don’t recall a time when someone suggested I complete such an exercise. However, as a developing leader, I believed I would find value in writing down the most valuable traits to possess as a school leader.
With the turning of the calendar into a new year I took some time these last few days to review my core values document to ensure it reflected my current thinking. This updated document - which is now called my Educational Leadership Philosophy - can also be seen at the bottom of this article. As I compare the 2014 version to the 2020 version, I can’t believe how much this document has transformed over the years! I simply have to shake my head at how limited my scope of thinking was six years ago. But that is why we must push ourselves to be lifelong learners, correct?
Ultimately, I have found this practice to be hugely beneficial as I continue to define “who I am” as a leader. Investing time to regularly hone in on the most important characteristics of leadership helps me stay committed to these principles. I have found having a deep understanding of these core values gives me the confidence to fall back on these principles when I am having difficult conversations and making important decisions. Furthermore, I have been happy to discover that a number of leadership experts support this practice. Beyond The Leadership Challenge, books such as Principles (Ray Dalio), The Advantage (Patrick Lencioni), Dare to Lead (Brene Brown), and Built to Last (Jim Collins) all endorse the importance of developing and articulating a set of guiding principles and core values.
Finally, one of the most impactful aspects of creating a list of guiding principles is that clear alignment of personal core values and organizational core values becomes possible. How could you possibly know if you have alignment when you don’t know what your personal core values are in the first place? A quick comparison between my Educational Leadership Philosophy and our Organizational Strategic Plan indicates that there is a relatively tight alignment between both documents. While there is still work to be done, I am happy with how far we have come over the last 18 months.
I would highly encourage leaders of any organization take some time to develop a list of guiding principles and core values. Completing this process isn’t easy and will most likely take you several hours! However, challenging yourself to articulate your beliefs will help develop a deep commitment to your values, and will help you justify the actions and decisions you make on a day to day basis.
Article #23: Hiring = Legacy
"The boss gets, on average, two serious hiring decisions a year. Suppose you're in a job five years. That's no more than ten big decisions. Those decisions more or less determine your legacy." - From The Little Big Things by Tom Peters
Holy cow - your legacy?? Those are some strong words. I read this statement a few months ago and it has managed to stick with me ever since. The more I think about it, Peters may be on to something. Not only do I believe his estimate on the number of hiring decisions is accurate, I also believe the hires the "boss" makes can make a significant impact on his or her longterm success.
In the world of the school superintendent, those "serious" hiring decisions usually mean selecting new school principals. Not only will these newly-hired administrators be asked to lead a large group of staff members, they will also have a direct impact on thousands of students for - most likely - the rest of their lives. I'd say this is hugely important decision that lies on the shoulders of a superintendent!
One thing I have realized over my fifteen years in education is how important it is to get buy-in from staff when selecting the next school principal. I have noticed that some school districts do a great job of asking employees for their input, while others seem to neglect this part of the process. Perhaps there could be reasons as to why school districts need to keep their hiring processes relatively quiet, but I am of the belief that "the more input the better" when it comes to selecting a new school principal.
Last month we had the chance to hire a new high school principal. To ensure our high school staff had an opportunity for input on the decision, we implemented a hiring process that was transparent as possible. While describing the whole process would take several pages worth of writing, here is the document that outlines many of the steps that were taken.
One part of the process I do want to highlight was the staff meeting we had with the entire high school staff (teachers and support staff). During this meeting, we asked the staff to develop the key characteristics and "look fors" they wanted in a new high school principal that were aligned with the Iowa Standards for School Leaders as well as other "must haves." These characteristics - which were ultimately voted upon by school staff - were then implemented into the remainder of the selection process.
Although there are aspects of this hiring approach of which I believe we can do better next time, the feedback I received from the staff was very positive. I would encourage all "bosses" - regardless of profession - to look for ways to make your "serious hiring decisions" as transparent as possible for the purpose of receiving buy-in and commitment to the new leader from staff members.
Article #22: Six Hundred Hours
"The average person spends over two hours per day on social media. What could you do with an extra six hundred hours per year?"
I read this quote in James Clear’s Atomic Habits on March 9th, 2019 and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Upon reading this excerpt I began to reflect on how much time I was spending on social media and doing other non-productive tasks. Once I did the math I couldn’t believe how much time I was allocating to activities that produced no meaningful result in my life!
At that moment I made a decision that I would start investing more time in myself. My goal was to replace wasted time (browsing social media, watching live/streaming TV, etc.) with productive time (reading, updating my website, and working out). To help reinforce this habit, I started tracking my wasted time versus my productive time using both the ATracker and Usage Time phone apps.
While I could write several articles about my newfound appreciation for time-tracking (see here and here), let me quickly highlight my reading habits. As of the time I write this entry, I have averaged 37 minutes a day of reading since March 9th. Surprisingly, this has allowed me to read 50 (!!) books this year. As I look back on the books I have read, it is motivating to know this relatively simple change in mindset (grabbing a book instead of grabbing my phone) has produced such a positive, tangible outcome in my life.
Before I go any further let me be clear on a couple of things. First, those who know me realize I still spend plenty of time on social media (Twitter being my biggest vice) and my Saturdays during the fall can often be consumed with college football. However, the difference is now I am intentional about spending time on these “non-productive” activities only after my productive work is done for the day.
Second, I can imagine many parents saying “My life is already crazy busy - I don't waste any time!” I totally get this can only imagine how busy life can get with kids. However, my gut is telling me parents may have more free time than they believe. I would encourage all adults to analyze how they spend their time. Specifically, calculate how much time you spend a week looking at social media, checking non-work related email, browsing websites, and "binge" watching Netflix and other television. My guess is everyone can find a little more time in their schedule that will produce more life-fulfilling results.
With 2020 only a few days away my advice would be to take James Clear’s question to heart - what could you do with an extra six hundred hours per year?
Article #21: Bah Humbug!
As I enjoy the first day of winter break I felt compelled to write about something that comes to mind this time of year - the importance of school administrators demonstrating appreciation by giving gifts to employees during the holiday season. This may not be a popular opinion, but I believe school administrators have a reputation for showing little effort and being tight when it comes to holiday gift giving. Compared to the private sector where lavish holiday gifts and bonuses are commonplace, I believe school administrators can do better when it comes to showing appreciation for employees.
Before I go further, let me say two things: 1) I certainly have a very limited knowledge on what other administrators give their employees this time of year, and 2) I’m not claiming to be the world’s most thoughtful or generous gift giver (my wife can confirm this statement). However, having spent the last fifteen years in education in the role of a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and now superintendent this is a topic of which I have great familiarity and believe needs to be discussed.
One of my core values as a leader is that we must always find ways to demonstrate appreciation for staff members. In his awesome book Culturize, Jimmy Casas suggests, “A person who feels valued and appreciated will always do and give more than what is expected. Educators understand the significance of a simple thank you, pat on the back, handwritten note, or an occasional gift that comes with a personal touch.” I was glad Casas included “occasional gift” with his statement, as I believe gift giving is an important part of the arsenal when it comes to displaying gratitude toward employees.
Clearly - for those of us with large staffs - purchasing gifts for every employee is probably not reasonable. However, I believe gifts should be purchased for those staff members who work closely with school administrators throughout the year. Often the work these staff members are doing in the “trenches” on a daily basis allows us to have the time to stay focused on tasks related to instructional and systems leadership.
While there are several people who come to mind when it comes to gift giving, there are two I would like to briefly highlight. The first is the administrator’s secretary. Hey administrators, it’s ok to spend a few dollars on your secretaries! I often find myself dumbfounded and flat out embarrassed when I hear about the gifts that are given (or not given) to secretaries. The second staff member who deserves a reminder of gratitude this time of year is the custodian who cleans your office. I am hopeful school administrators are giving this employee a gift, however my senses are telling me this person is often lost in the shuffle.
Depending on your role, others who could be recognized include counselors, instructional coaches, school board members, front office staff, student support staff, other administrators/directors, and (of course) teachers. Since the shopping list can start to get quite lengthy, I’m not suggesting you have to spend a fortune on your staff. A simple hand-written card with a small gift (those who know me know I love to give lottery tickets!) can go a long way in terms of showing appreciation and saying “thank you” for an employee's work throughout the year.
Article #20: "Enter Sandman"
Recently I’ve found myself eager to learn more about sleep. Considering I am likely to spend at least 26 years of my life sleeping, I figured it might be worth the investment to do some research on this topic. To gain a better understanding about sleep, I did a quick Google search of the best books about sleep and quickly decided to purchase two top-selling books: Why We Sleep and Sleep Smarter. Here are some quick thoughts that caught my attention:
Sleep cycles typically last for 90 minutes and repeat throughout the night. So, six normal 90-minute sleep cycles would equal 9 total hours of sleep. Even if you get a full night's sleep, you can still wake up feeling groggy if your alarm goes off during the middle of one of your sleep cycles. To avoid feeling woozy when you wake, consider setting your alarm so that it goes off after 7.5 hours as opposed to 8 hours.
Artificial evening light - laptop screens, smartphones, and tablets - makes it considerably less likely that you'll be able to fall asleep at a reasonable time. Approximately 90 percent of American adults regularly use some form of portable electronic device sixty minutes or less before bedtime.
Fifty percent of Americans sleep with their phone next to their bed. While some may maintain they need a phone by their side “in case of emergency,” it appears that phone notifications - once touted as revolutionary cell phone features - are actually starting to train our brains to be in a constant state of stress and fear.
Caffeine has an average half-life of seven hours. Let's say you have a cup of coffee at 7:30pm. This means by 1:30am, 50 percent of that caffeine is circulating throughout your body. No wonder so many nighttime caffeine drinkers find it difficult to fall back asleep!
Both books suggest that a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees is ideal. This surprised me, and would be far too chilly for my wife. Most people choose a controlled bedroom temperature that is on the high side, between 70 and 72 degrees. You will always find it easier to fall asleep in a room that is too cold than too hot.
Vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined. Furthermore, being awake for 20 hours straight makes the average driver perform as poorly as someone with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent.
Both books recommend that you should never lie awake in bed for a significant time period; rather, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until the urge to sleep returns. If you find yourself awake after staying in bed for more than twenty minutes, get up and do some relaxing activities until you feel sleepy.
Here are a few interesting facts about how poor sleep can affect children and adolescents:
We often believe teenagers are lazy because they like to go to bed late and sleep in late. However, due to naturally occurring biological processes, asking a teenager to go to bed at 10pm is equivalent of asking adults to go to sleep at 7:30pm. Furthermore, asking a teenager to wake up at 7am is the equivalent of asking adults to wake up at 4:30am.
More than 80 percent of public high schools in the US begin before 8:15am, with 50 percent starting before 7:20am. This lack of sleep means that students are missing all-important REM sleep - the critical stage of sleep occurring in the final hours of slumber. School districts shifting the start of school to later in the day have reported higher academic achievement and a significant reduction in morning traffic accidents.
There appears to be a link between sleep deficiency and ADHD. Children with ADHD are irritable, distractible, and unfocused during the day - symptoms that are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep. Based on recent surveys, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder.
In case you’re wondering, I would recommend Why We Sleep over Sleep Smarter. Both are good, but the former did a better job of holding my attention and - in terms of writing quality - is one of the best books I've read.
Article #19: "Stay Focused"
I realize it sounds cliche, but every once in awhile you get lucky when reading a book and discover that the words really speak to you. While the book may not necessarily produce new learning, it may help to confirm or reinforce the thoughts and philosophies you possess. Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You happened to be one of these breakthrough texts for me.
I had already read two of Cal Newport’s books - Deep Work and Digital Minimalism - and thoroughly enjoyed them both. What is fascinating about Newport is not only his age (exactly my age - 37), but his theory on blocking out the noise in life (e.g., social media) so you can experience high levels of productivity and focus on work that really matters. This mindset of committing time to things that really matter and will make you better is a concept I have really been trying to work on these last couple years.
The title of this book actually comes from the actor/comedian Steve Martin who once said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Martin explained that his success - like many others who are toward the top in their field - did not come overnight. While others saw a rapid rise to stardom, Martin indicates that it took him ten years of hard work until he finally had his breakthrough. This idea of being willing to put in the time to be great is what underpins the message of Newport’s book.
I think oftentimes I have been guilty of looking at others who are at the top of their craft and think they simply woke up one day and got there. While there certainly are some examples of overnight sensations, in almost all cases the best in the world put in many, many hours of hard work perfecting their craft before they had that breakthrough moment.
After Newport lays the groundwork of the book through Martin’s quote, he then provides practical application for being “so good they can’t ignore you.” He references Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule - the idea that to be great at any one skill you need to commit to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to that craft. To put that number into perspective, 10,000 hours is the same as 1250 “nine to five” workdays, or roughly five years-worth of “workweeks” toward a particular skill. Mastery definitely does not come overnight!
So how does Newport stay committed to measuring the work that gets done? He keeps track of deliberate practice - tallying the hours each day that he devotes to his work. Newport says, “By having these hour counts stare me in the face every day I'm motivated to find new ways to fit more deliberate practice into my schedule.” The practice of counting hours is a habit I have implemented into my daily routine after reading the work of Newport along with James Clear (Atomic Habits) and Jim Collins (Good to Great). Much like Newport, I find myself incredibly motivated to track the number of hours I spend each day perfecting my craft - which for me is a combination of reading, writing, learning, and sharing.
Finally, there were two particular lines in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” that really fired me up. Although they do not appear together in the text, I have placed them together in the following: “This is a different way of thinking about work, but once you embrace it, the changes to your career trajectory can be profound...If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value.” While at first blush this may seem a little pompous, I do believe there is great motivation that comes from pushing yourself each day to be better and knowing that this high level of focused dedication on work that matters will pay off in the long run.
Article #18: "Instructional Leadership - Defined"
Summary: For years, educational reform experts have suggested school administrators need to become the instructional leaders of their buildings. While I agree with this assertion, I quite often find myself struggling to define the term "instructional leader." Luckily, I recently had the opportunity to read Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis. In this outstanding book (I currently have the book ranked in my top 12), the authors do an exceptional job defining the qualities and characteristics of an instructional leader.
I combined the concepts that Joe and Tony wrote about with my own thoughts and created my definition of an instructional leader. What you see below are four paragraphs I have copied and pasted from a document called STC School Administration - Expectations and Responsibilities. This is a document I have developed and shared with our school administrators in my district. While I can't say we are fulfilling these commitments 100% of the time (I know I personally tend to get caught up in the daily "whirlwind" quite easily!), I am satisfied knowing we have a clear definition for how we can transition from school managers to instructional leaders.
"For the South Tama County School District to operate at the highest levels, we expect our administrators to go beyond the traditional role of school manager, disciplinarian, evaluator, and supervisor. Rather than managing school from the office, we expect our administrators to serve as lead learners for the staff and students they lead. Furthermore, we expect our administrators to serve as the instructional and visionary leaders of our district.
How do STC administrators demonstrate these leadership characteristics? First, they are expected to spend time engaging with students and teachers by being present in classrooms and visible throughout the entire school community. Our administrators have the soft skills to nurture healthy, trusting relationships with all stakeholders. They smile, listen attentively, lead with optimism, and act as role models. They understand building relationships are as important to educational philosophy as standards, policies, and test scores. Our administrators realize when students feel valued, they will develop the confidence to take risks with their learning. Likewise, when our teachers feel trusted, they will have the courage to push their students to high levels of learning.
Next, STC administrators will foster trust by being collaborative. As opposed to making decisions in isolation, our administrators encourage all members of the school community to have a voice. It is the responsibility of our administrators to actively listen to others and engage in meaningful conversations to gain perspective. They realize when they are intentional about seeking out productive interactions with all stakeholders, they are provided with valuable insight and feedback needed to make decisions that best meet the needs of our students.
Finally, STC administrators realize that communication is the beating heart of school culture. They understand when they communicate at high levels, this will create a significant positive impact on the entire school community. Our administrators consistently utilize timely, accurate, and transparent communication. They realize when they communicate in a genuine way, they will earn trust that contributes to a positive environment. Ultimately, STC administrators understand every single communication has a direct impact on the culture in their buildings."
Article #17: "Regular 1:1 Meetings"
Summary: I had spent nine years in educational leadership before I discovered the concept of managers setting up regular 1:1 meetings with their direct reports. Although quite simple, I had never seen these meetings modeled nor had I been asked to participate regularly scheduled conversations with my boss. During the summer of 2017 my friend and colleague Jason Wester introduced me to a book by Kim Scott called Radical Candor. In her book, Scott talks at great length about the importance of 1:1 meetings and suggests that, "One on one conversations are your must-do meetings - your single best opportunities to listen to the people on your team to make sure you understand their perspective on what’s working and what’s not working."
The rationale for having meaningful, ongoing conversations quickly resonated with me so I began implementing these conversations the following year. My thoughts on the frequency of these meetings has transformed over the last few years - I started off with quarterly meetings, then monthly meetings, and now I complete weekly meetings with nearly all of my direct reports (about 12 individuals). Although I am only a month and a half into my weekly 1:1 meetings, I already feel much more connected with my direct reports than ever before.
Information about regular 1:1 meetings can be found in a number of different leadership books. Aside from Radical Candor, some of the best books that explore regular conversations include Measure What Matters, First Break All the Rules, The Effective Manager, and High Output Management. For manager who do not yet utilize regular 1:1 meetings I would strongly encourage you to give them a try - it is definitely time well spent!
Article #16: "Undivided Attention"
Summary: Last spring I read the legendary book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book currently ranks pretty high (#18) on my Book Rankings list...and in all honesty I'm afraid that ranking might be too low. Although this book was initially published in 1936 (!!), there are some universal truths about building relationships with others that have stood the test of time.
One of my favorite lines from this book reads as follows: "Exclusive attention to the person who is speaking to you is important. Nothing else is so flattering as that. Even the most violent critic will soften and be subdued in the presence of a patient, sympathetic listener."
One of my goals for this year has been to increase the number of 1:1 meetings with our staff members. I have been using these meetings to implement many of the ideas talked about in this book. In the past I have noticed that leaders I worked for often would appear to be pre-occupied and distracted when we would meet together. As a result of these bad experiences, I have promised myself when I am in similar situations with employees under my supervision I need to put everything else aside (yes - this means the computer and the phone!) and give those employees the attention they deserve.
While at times I may still not be the most patient listener (my wife could attest to this), I can honestly say this "habit of mind" is something I consciously try to improve upon when I am meeting with our employees.
Article #15: "Batching Emails"
Summary: Last summer I read Getting Things Done by David Allen. I was a ways into the book and was struggling to find much value in what I was reading. I was about to give up on the book when I suddenly encountered the idea of batching emails. What I read over the next several chapters has completely changed my approach and - more importantly - my efficiency when it comes to returning emails.
Allen suggests you have set times throughout the when you "batch" or answer many emails at once as opposed to intermittently throughout the day (this concept is also discussed in Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek). When batching your emails you must immediately do one of the following with each email:
If it is trash, place it in "Trash"
If it is simply information for your reference, place it in a "Reference" folder
If it takes less than two minutes, do it right away
If it takes more than two minutes you have three options:
Place it on your calendar
Place it in a "Next Actions" folder
Once your inbox is empty, you can then focus on your "Next Action" folder and take care of those emails. Completed "Next Action" emails can be moved to your "Reference" folder (if you have taken care of the email) or the "Waiting On Others" folder (if you are waiting to hear back from others). Once you have worked through every email in your "Next Action" folder you are done and you can return to your important work!
What is described above might initially sound complicated, but once you get the system down your email efficiency will increase dramatically! You will also discover your mind feels less "cluttered" because when you have a proven method for returning emails. Give it a try yourself - you won't be disappointed!
Article #14: "Look for Patterns"
Summary: When I am working with a member of our administrative team to determine next steps for addressing the inappropriate behavior of an employee I often ask the administrator to determine if the behavior is a pattern or an isolated event. Oftentimes, there is a temptation to want to severely punish a staff member for a single incident. While there will be times when the employee's behavior is egregious enough to warrant an immediate consequence, most of the time the behavior should be addressed in a way that prevents the behavior from becoming a pattern.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from the book Crucial Conversations:"Learn to look for patterns. Don’t focus exclusively on a single event. Watch for behavior over time... Don’t get pulled into any one instance or your concern will seem trivial. Talk about the overall pattern. And if excuses accumulate, don’t talk about the most recent excuse. Talk about the pattern."
I would estimate that at least 90% of any school staff has their heart in the right place when they make questionable decisions. To build trust, I would encourage leaders to have a discussion with the staff member who made an error in judgement, but resist using some sort of formal action against the employee. Only when a pattern of behavior occurs should the leader utilize more formalized measures of redirection.
Article #13: "Justice Will Prevail"
Summary: Have you worked in an organization where inappropriate employee actions never seem to be addressed? Have you worked in an environment where lazy employees always manage to get others to do their work? Have you worked in a culture where rules are created to address the negative behaviors of a few individuals?
One of my biggest pet peeves is when leadership fails to address the behavioral issues within an organization. By failing to address these situations, the end result is poor employee morale, good employees leaving the organization, and a general feeling of mistrust and despair. I have seen this scenario unfold too often in work environments, and as a result I find myself highly motivated to ensure this does not happen in our district.
In his book EntreLeadership, Dave Ramsey suggests,"Part of leading well is creating an atmosphere where justice prevails. That means unresolved conflict is a leadership breakdown." When behavioral issues are brought to my attention I have started to use Ramsey's words, assuring our employees this will be a place where "justice prevails." I have found that individuals who hear these words express relief in knowing leadership will do everything in their power to hold others accountable for their actions.
I'm not saying all employee issues are always resolved, but by intentionally assuring staff members they are working in a district where justice prevails, this mindset starts to spread and there is a genuine belief that negative employee behaviors will not be tolerated.
Article #12: "Embrace Criticism"
Summary: One of my goals these last couple years has been to get better at embracing constructive criticism. No matter how much I tell myself not to worry about the feedback I receive, the moment I sense I am about to receive constructive criticism I can feel my blood start to boil as my defensive shields start to go up!
Last summer I asked our leadership team for feedback on a project I had been working on for weeks. I was surprised when two of our instructional coaches took me up on the opportunity to provide feedback. When we met, they provided several ideas for how the project could be improved. My initial thought was, "Do they realize how much time I have put into this project? If you think you can do better...than go ahead!" Of course I didn't say those words, because I have started to realize accurate criticism is the best feedback you can receive.
Although it took me about a week to recover from the candid feedback I received...I begrudgingly went back and re-created the document using the advice I had been given. I am so happy these two individuals had the courage to share their feedback with me, as their insight helped push the finished product from good to great. In the email below, I thank the two individuals who provided the criticism, and explain how having a high-quality project is much more important than a bruised ego.
One of my favorite passages discussing the importance of embracing criticism comes from the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. The passage reads as follows: “When you receive criticism whatever you do, don’t start criticizing the criticism. Don’t start telling the other person they are wrong! Instead, repeat what the person said to make sure you’ve understood it, rather than defending yourself against the criticism you’ve just heard. Listen and clarify, but don’t try to debate. You’ll feel a strong urge to act defensively or at least explain yourself. This is natural, but it pretty much will kill any chance you’ll get criticism from that person again.”
Article #11: "Making a Hiring Mistake"
Summary: One of my all time favorite quotes comes from Jim Collins' book Good to Great. It reads as follows: "The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you've made a hiring mistake. The best people don't need to be managed. Guided, taught, led - yes. But not tightly managed."
As leaders of any organization our time is precious. We simply do not have enough time to micromanage employees who are not meeting the minimum requirements of the job. Of course every employee will need a little guidance and coaching, but if your organization utilizes rigorous hiring practices and has high expectations for employees you should be able to, "Hire good people and leave them alone." (from Daniel Pink's Drive)
Don't get me wrong, clarifying job responsibilities and expectations is a hugely important role for the leader (I actually developed a three page Expectations and Responsibilities manual for our administrators). However, once expectations have been established if a leader realizes they are spending time constantly revisiting expectations for an employee and - worse yet - find themselves having to further clarify those expectations, there is a very good chance that the employee should not have been hired in the first place.
Article #10: "Calories In vs. Calories Out"
Summary: Let's face it - it seems like there are a thousand different theories on the best diet, the best exercise program, the best way to lose weight, etc. I have been working out daily for the last 15 years, so I have seen (and attempted!) my fair share of these ideas over the years. However, the more I have read about dieting and researched weight loss the more I believe it all comes down to the theory of "Calories In vs. Calories Out."
Calories In vs. Calories Out means comparing the number of calories you consume against the number of calories you burn. One of the best explanations I have found in terms of the math behind this concept can be found at the Healthline.com website.
My wife convinced me to try out MyFitnessPal about 5 months ago to start tracking calories. If you haven't tried out this phone app you need to give it a shot! Keeping a close eye on calories has helped me go from 220 lbs. to a lean 187 lbs.! I realize people throw this phrase out all of the time...but I really do feel that I am in the best shape of my life (at the age of 37 nonetheless!).
Finally, one of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the book Thinner This Year which says, "The iron rule of weight gain and loss reads like this, in its entirety: Eat more calories than you burn and you will gain weight. Burn more calories than you eat and you will lose weight. That’s it. Anything else is smoke and mirrors."
Article #9: "Lead By Wandering Around"
Summary: The concept of leading by "wandering around" suggests that leaders need to be intentional about getting out of the office and into the "trenches" of their organization for the purpose of understanding the experiences of their employees. In my role as a school superintendent I am a huge believer of the importance of getting into buildings and classrooms. I have found when I am out and about I have a much better perspective of what is really going on in the lives of our staff members and our students. When it comes to making decisions for our district, I am able to draw upon the experiences I have seen first-hand as opposed to going off of perceptions, rumors, or second-hand information.
This concept is discussed in many books, including The Leadership Challenge, The Innovator's Mindset, and Radical Candor, just to name a few. One of my favorite quotes actually comes from The Leadership Challenge, where the authors suggest, "Being visible in day-to-day undertakings demonstrates you care, makes you more real, more genuine, more approachable, and more human. Being where they are helps you stay in touch with what’s going on and shows that you walk the talk about the values you and your constituents share."
I was Twitter messaging one day with Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School Principal Jason Kline and he mentioned that - for him - getting into classrooms and interacting with students and staff gives him "energy." Ever since I read his words I have been in complete agreement - getting away from the office and into buildings is like an instant shot of 5-Hour Energy. Whatever stress or mental block I was previously experiencing seems to go away! Many times when I find myself lacking motivation to get through the day I stop what I am doing and head to one of our school buildings to get my mind back on track.
Article #8: "Looking Forward"
Summary: I have always found that having something to look forward to and think about during the toughest moments of the day get you in the right mindset for tackling the day's challenges. This topic is discussed in several books, including Tools of Titans and Happy Money.
In Titans, Tim Ferriss references an interview where the guest constantly reminds himself, "Tonight I will be in my bed...tonight I will be in my bed" when going through a difficult situation during the day. Knowing that eventually you will make it through your toughest moments to something that you enjoy can provide the positive mindset needed to get through stressful situations. Personally, I like to tell myself, "At the end of the workday I will get to have my N.O. Xplode fruit punch pre-workout drink" which may sound random...but honestly tastes amazing at the end of a long day!
In Happy Money, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton discuss the a concept of deriving pleasure from "anticipating the future." For example, most people who book a trip experience a happiness boost in the time heading up to the vacation. Often times, this feeling of excited anticipation can result in more positive feelings than the trip itself! Whether it is something as small as a favorite drink at the end of the day or something bigger like a weekend getaway, I have found that visualizing a positive experience during a moment of stress provides me with a booster-shot of positive energy needed to complete my work at a high level.
Article #7: "Naps are like Zambonis"
Summary: I have always enjoyed naps, but until recently I have always felt a bit guilty about taking an afternoon snooze. I believed that naps were for lazy people, and that I should be doing something more productive with my time. Therefore I was happy when I read in Daniel Pink's book "When" that taking naps are actually proven to improve cognitive performance and improve mental health. Pink suggests, "Naps are like Zambonis for our brains - they smooth out the nicks, scuffs, and scratches a typical day has left on our mental ice." When I read this, it made perfect sense! I had always felt like a quick nap rejuvenated my energy, but it felt great to read it from such a trusted author in behavioral psychology.
Now that I finally feel I have been given "permission" to take naps, I always try to look for times when I can shut my eyes for a few minutes. Keeping naps short, however, is a key to a successful nap. Pink maintains that the most ideal and "productive" naps last between ten and twenty minutes - with anything longer resulting in "sleep inertia" which is the confused, boggy feeling that is typically felt after taking a longer snooze.
Article #6: "Never Yell or Argue"
Summary: I first remember hearing this quote when reading one of Todd Whitaker's books and am certain I have heard it several other places since. I'll be the first to admit, during my first few years of teaching I certainly did not follow this rule. I recall getting so frustrated I would do all three of those things (yell, argue, use sarcasm) with students in my classroom - this was something I touched on when I wrote my PhD dissertation.
But having worked with thousands of different kids in a variety of settings I now realize that adults never win when they show disrespect towards students. Certainly, there may be kids who can handle the criticism and respond favorably to the "tough love," but my experiences have told me that adults should never put down or embarrass students, especially in front of others. Instead, we must always remain calm and find other ways of bringing our concerns to the student's attention. By providing re-direction in a respectful way we salvage the relationship and focus on correcting the behavior moving forward.
Article #5: "Being Too Positive"
Summary: When I first came across this quote in John Maxwell's 5 Levels of Leadership I had an immediate "ah ha" moment...it was as if Maxwell had taken the words right out of my mouth. The entire quote is as follows: "I have sometimes been criticized for being too positive. But it’s a weakness I’m willing to live with because the usual benefits are so high. Besides, I’d rather live as a positive person and occasionally get burned then be constantly skeptical and negative."
For as long as I can remember I have been overly positive and optimistic about all aspects of life. At times, I can recall being questioned and even ridiculed by others because of this mindset. This discouragement I experienced for having an optimistic outlook has made me question if viewing the world through rose-colored glasses is the correct approach. I happened to stumble upon this quote at just the right time, giving me the confidence to reinforce this habit of mind. Similar concepts include assuming positive intent and most respectful interpretation.
Article #4: "What Do You Want to Be?"
Summary: One of my favorite books of all time is Atomic Habits by James Clear. Although I read this book just a few months ago, I have already noticed some dramatic changes in my life as a result of following the advice of prescribed in this book. By keeping close track of my daily habits, I have been able to successfully replace some of my poor habits (such as mindlessly browsing social media) with good habits (such as reading and writing). Furthermore, by closely examining my eating habits, I have been able to shed roughly fifteen pounds in the last two months (**make that thirty pounds in three months**).
One of my favorite themes from this book was the idea that, "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become." What this means is that every time you make a decision you are making one tiny step toward the person you want to eventually become. Taking time to reflect upon each action you take and asking yourself "is this who I want to portray" is a powerful habit of mind to possess.
Article #3: "Technology Relationships"
Summary: When I attended my first Iowa Association of School Boards Convention in 2018 I had a chance to hear a gentleman by the name of Matt Beaudreau deliver one of the keynote addresses. There were several great ideas that Matt shared about "bridging the generational divide"- the growing concern that young Americans graduating from college are not equipped with the skills needed succeed to lead in the modern-day workplace. But one idea has really stuck with me since that day back in November.
Matt suggested that "Having a technology relationship with someone will lead to a face to face relationship with someone." I quickly realized that many of the relationships I have formed - either with students, staff, and other professionals - have started as technology relationships that have later grown into "in-person" relationships. While others may contend that technology relationships are shallow or meaningless, I believe much of the success I have had working in education has come as a result of intentionally trying to build relationships with individuals through the use use of social media - especially Twitter.
Article #2: "Exercise Six Days a Week"
Summary: When I went on my Honeymoon during the spring of 2017 I packed a book with me called Thinner This Year by Chris Crawley and Jennifer Sacheck. Although reading a book about eating healthy and working out while vacationing at an all-inclusive resort with unlimited food and drinks might sound contradictory, this book gave me a nice "shot in my arm" that has helped me to continue working out into my mid-30's.
There was a theme that resonated time and time again in this book that said "Exercise, six days a week, for the rest of your life." While I have been working out and lifting weight consistently since 2005, it was great to see this put so bluntly in writing.
Another candid line that can be found in the book that has really resonated with me is the following: "Movement, all the time, is the single, great key to keeping your body from going completely to hell after age thirty or forty or fifty. Which is it absolutely guaranteed to do, in idleness." I don't know about you, but the idea of my body turning into mush after the age of forty is pretty frightening and alone is one factor that gets me motivated to go the gym day after day.
Article #1: "Be a Maker in the Morning"
Summary: It wasn't until 2014 when I read The One Thing by Gary Keller that I really started thinking about how I could strategically organize my day. Keller proposes that a person should be a "maker in the morning and a manager in the afternoon." Ever since I read those words my mindset has been that the difficult "deep" work should be done in the morning while more managerial type work should be done in the afternoon. Other books (such as When by Daniel Pink and Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss) also support the notion that, for most people, the work that needs the most concentration should be completed before lunch.
Keller also provides another outstanding takeaway, asking “What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?" Many times upon entering the office for the morning I ask myself this same question and attempt to tackle the most important tasks in my job. These tasks could include projects, writing, and other "creative" work. Furthermore, I try to leave other "busy-work" - such as returning emails and writing personal notes - for the afternoon.