Friday, January 25, 2013

The Pendulum Theory in Leadership

     Early in my career I discovered what I would call the Pendulum Theory in Leadership. Isaac Newton's "Law of Motion" says for every action there is a reaction.  The Pendulum Theory states that a force or motion always comes back.   In other words "the pendulum always swings back".  This theory can actually work in most areas of a person's life – politics, personal decisions, decisions at work.

     Here is an example of this theory at work in a leadership setting.  Early in my administrative career, I wanted to crack down on certain items in the high school handbook.  Sometimes in life it's necessary to have some discipline in an area that might be getting a little out of control.  If the students were not paying attention to an area of the handbook, then I had to step up and do my job as a building principal.  I pushed the pendulum and would get them into the routine of following the rules.  Inevitably the pendulum would come back my way.  It came back in various forms – time spent on tasks, students’ lack of cooperation, answering parents’ questions and, in some cases, complaints.  Not everything associated with the back swing was negative.  Sometimes the swing back was thoughtful gestures, thank yous and support from staff and parents.  At other times, the swing back changed the rules or how the process was handled.  Either way, the rule for the theory is clear: The pendulum always swings back.
     The back swing of a pendulum can be exhausting for a leader.  It can be physically and even emotionally draining.  If a leader isn't careful, the pendulum back swing will knock you on your butt.  There is one main preventative step that a leader can take to lessen the blow.  Communication.  If the rationale for pushing the pendulum forward is communicated effectively, people will have a better understanding of why the pendulum is being pushed in the first place.  Some people may still not like the force being pushed their way, but when a leader communicates effectively they can always fall back on the fact that the information was provided before the pendulum motion was started.  
      It is important to remember that this should not prevent a leader from making the right choices.  It is just something that needs to be thought about and prepared for when making a decision.  If law or policy dictates the pendulum to be pushed, then so be it.  Thinking about the back swing motion will help a leader identify the individuals or groups to which they need to communicate before putting everything into motion.  Some questions a leader could ask before setting the pendulum in motion are:

  • What individuals or groups will be affected by this decision?
  • What needs to be communicated before making the decision?
  • Is this decision important enough to outweigh the impact of the back swing?
  • What will be the fallout from the back swing to myself, the people I work with, and the organization I am leading?  Will the fallout be positive or negative?
     These few questions and others that you might think of will help you evaluate the decision you make and the result of the pendulum back swing.  For a leader this process takes a little longer, but thinking through the decision and the effects of a backswing will be well worth the time spent.  Keep this in mind: the pendulum will always swing back.  Don't let it knock you on your butt.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

It Takes a Village to Protect a Child; Part Four

     This part of the series revolves around the topic of communication.  After the decision had been made to lock the exterior doors the next step was to inform everyone involved.  The staff had been informed and the letter to the parents was starting to come together when I received a phone call from neighboring school district.  It was the superintendent of that district.  I'm always glad to hear from a fellow colleague to help discuss school related issues.  William Howard Taft was once quoted in saying that the Office of the President of the United States can be the "loneliest place in the world".  Although a superintendent's job isn't near the responsibility of the President it certainly has some of the same characteristics in dealing with responsibility.  The weight of the world can feel overwhelming whether it be the weight of running the largest free country in the world or running of a small school district.  Having someone to relate to can help out in any situation.
     Since the neighboring district had also went into a lock down the superintendent wanted to make sure that we were releasing the same information to the parents of this area.  It was a great idea.  We worked on a plan to notify our parents.  Since it was the last day before Christmas break, school release times varied.  For us we were going a full day.  For the neighboring district they were out a couple of hours earlier.  We both agreed that we would release our information when it would make the most sense for our own people.  After hanging up I continued working on the parental notification letter.
     It only took a few minutes to receive a phone call from one of our parents.  The parent wanted to know if we were in lock down.  I filled the parent in with all of the necessary information and then asked how they found out.  Facebook.  I knew at that moment the news would spread like wildfire.  I thanked the parent for calling and immediately called the neighboring district office to visit with the superintendent.  They put me through to the assistant superintendent, who was working on their letter to parents.  It turns out that both the superintendent and assistant superintendent was working on the same "'live" document in Google.  The assistant superintendent e-mailed the document to me and all three of us worked on the document together.  It was interesting to see three blinking cursors working at the same time on the same document.  What was more interesting to see, two districts working together to get the same information to parents in this tense situation.  Before I hung up with the assistant superintendent I let him know that I had already received a parent phone call.  He had also received his first.  We both knew it wouldn't be our last of the day.
     Within minutes of hanging up I received another parent phone call.  Same procedure, fill them in with the details, answer their questions, and reassure them that everything was fine.  I did this for most of the next hour.  As lunch time was coming to a close the parent phone calls were tapering off.  I was finally able to finish the letter to parents and at the end of the school day we sent out a phone message explaining the details of the day.  We also put a copy of the letter on our school website and our school Facebook.
     Through this day's experience I learned that communication for a district can't get out fast enough to beat the social media.  Once the information is out then a district is spending a lot of time answering questions.  If this situation wasn't a "hoax" and were a real lock down with an intruder, then getting information to the parents would have been difficult.  We would be focused on contacting emergency management and keeping the kids safe in the building.  Information to the parents would just have to wait until the crisis was over.  I do believe social media would take over in that instant and the news would spread very quickly. 
     What I do know is that protecting students in today's world is going to take everyone.  From the community member that may report something out of the ordinary in the neighborhood, local and state authorities being more aware of potential mental health patients, legislatures funding the necessary help for these individuals and protecting our schools, school officials being more sensitive to information and making sure the building is secure, and parents and students alike reporting any unusual behavior in fellow students or community members.  The list could go on and on who could join the effort to help prevent another tragedy as in Newton, Connecticut.  Although it can be an enormous task don't we owe to these kids?  Since it takes a village to raise kids shouldn't they also be part of protecting them?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

It Takes a Village to Protect a Child, Part Three

     In the last post you read the results of the phone call from the sheriff and our decision to lock our exterior doors. 

     As I was went to the front office to track down the principals, I stopped by to see how my secretary was doing with the front door.  When I arrived I was surprised to see that she wasn't there.  My business manager had stepped in to give her a break.  What a great guy to step up and help her out.  What is even better; he is an ex-military man.  Twenty some years of Army experience, screening our front door visitors.  "Army Strong" or "Army of One" either way I think of it even now it makes me feel like saluting!  I visited with him for a few seconds, thanking him for helping out, but I couldn't stay long because I needed to notify my principals and the staff about what we were doing for the day.  I also knew that I needed to start working on notifying our parents.
      After a few minutes I was able to sit down in my office with both of the building principals.  I told them how everything had developed and the precautions we were taking. We discussed the day’s events and were confident that we could move forward with an “as planned” day.  We talked a little longer about the events of Newtown, Connecticut, and how it will affect schools across the nation.  I told them I wouldn't be surprised to see more federal regulations and support to make schools safer for kids.  That, however, wouldn't be decided by the feds on this day.  As we continue to hash out the ills of society and how it affect schools, I knew that I needed to wrap up the conversation and get to work on notifying my staff and then the parents.  The principals could sense this and we quickly wrapped up our short meeting.
      As the principals left my office, I pulled open my laptop and starting putting together an e-mail to my staff. Within a few minutes I had the e-mail ready, but it needed to be proofread.  As I started to look over it, I htought about our neighbors.  This wasn't the district that had received the threat, but a close neighbor to our physical location.  How close?  A five-minute drive away, and close enough if we were in an exterior lock down they would want to know the details of why. 
     I was wrapping up proofreading and hitting send to my staff e-mail, my phone rang.  I looked up at the right hand top corner of my computer to see that a little over thirty minutes had passed since the start of this whole decision making process.  The phone was on its third ring as I looked at the caller ID.  It was our neighbors. "Mike Sanders speaking," I said.  On the other end was the neighboring district's superintendent. 
     How they found out I'm not sure, but I am glad that the superintendent was contacting me.  I would have felt terrible if something would have happened to their kids.  Again it was a true sign of a village of county agencies working together to help protect our kids.  Evidently the county sheriff’s office had notified the city police about the situation and the city department had in turn notified our neighbors.  Our phone conversation and continued communication was going to bring us together to work on notifying the parents of each district.

Join me in the next post to see how the two districts work together to inform their parents.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

It Takes a Village to Protect a Child, Part Two

This is the second part to the series, “It Takes a Village to Protect a Child.”  In the first part of the series, I stopped just before I received a response from our county sheriff regarding a threat to a nearby school.  As I answered the phone, I hoped to myself that he had positive news.....

     When I answered the phone, I was out in the hallway checking one of the exterior doors facing our front parking lot.  As I looked out the side window of the door, I could see our county sheriff sitting in his police vehicle in our parking lot.  His presence in the parking lot left me reassured that he was taking this situation seriously and if “something” was going to happen we would have someone at our building immediately.  
      “Hello Sheriff,” I said.  He got right to the point. “Mike, I just want to let you know what I have found out.”  He explained that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation had been working on this situation throughout the night to determine whether or not it was a credible threat.  He said they didn’t believe there was any credibility to it.  A flood of relief came over me when he finished explaining the situation to me. “Mike it sounds like a hoax.”  I knew at that moment proceeding forward would be different than if he would have given a more serious response in our conversation.  I couldn’t help but think how much I appreciated him working so quickly on the issue.  Within a span of less than fifteen minutes, from the time I had the conversation with the teacher and the student to the time the sheriff said it was a hoax, I had what I needed to move forward in a decision for the day.
     The moment I heard “hoax” from the sheriff, I decided activities at the school could go on fairly normally.  At least as normally as the last day before Christmas break could be.  Christmas parties could still go on as planned.  Kids could still have recess outside and the field trip to town, which was going to leave within the next hour, could still proceed full steam ahead.   The next step was to try and make everyone feel safe by taking some precautions for the day.  
     I told the sheriff we were going to go ahead and leave all of the exterior doors locked for the day.  He thought that was a good idea and even offered to send out a plain clothes officer to be on duty for the day.  “I appreciate that and we will take you up on the offer,” I said.  He said the officer will be out immediately.  As I thanked the sheriff, he told me to let him know if there is anything else they could do.  
     As I started back toward my office, where I would pull the building principals in my office to update them on the situation, I couldn’t help to think how well this had worked out.  The information came to my school via students who then notified a teacher and then reported it immediately to me.  In turn, using the office staff and then county agencies, we were able act and make a well-informed decision for the day.  I thought to myself this is what it’s going to take to help protect children in today's schools – everyone in the community being sensitive to information and acting together to insure the safety of our kids.  It really is going to “Take a Village to Protect a Child” in the society we live in.  As the morning progressed, this thought became solidified as I watched the actions of people in our surrounding community. 

Join me in my next post to find out how the morning proceeded.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

It Takes a Village to Protect a Child

     Yes, it is a spin off one the most quoted phrases in the past decade, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,” but it’s very appropriate.  I want to talk about what it takes to protect children in today’s school system.  It takes everyone.  From school staff to county agencies, from parents to the students themselves.  To protect our children it takes everyone working together for a common cause.

     The story starts the last day before our Christmas break.  The day started out great.  The high school pep club was sponsoring an “Ugly Sweater Day.”  We all had a great time chuckle at each other's sweaters.  I was getting to see the majority of the staff and kids because I was spreading some Christmas cheer, handing out stipend checks to our staff.
     As I left a teacher's office and walked across the gym, I heard my name yelled.   I looked back to see one of my high school teachers walking with one of our high school students.  As they approach me, I could tell by the look on their faces they were concerned.  The high school student was carrying her phone in her hand with a look of I have some important information on her face.  The teacher explained to me that the student had received a text from a student in another district.  The other district had received a threat and security was at a high alert.  Even though the threat wasn’t directed at our school, the threatened school was close enough to our district to warrant checking it out.
     I thanked the student and teacher for their diligence in making me aware of the situation and I headed back to my office to make a phone call to our county sheriff.  As I shut the doors to my office, my mind wandered back to the terrible tragedy that Newtown, Connecticut, had been through just one week earlier.  What a heart wrenching experience for a community to loose so many young people and dedicated educators.  As I dialed the phone, I shuddered at the idea of it happening at my school.
     The country sheriff's secretary answered the phone.  He wasn’t in his office.  She asked if this was urgent.  I said, “Yes!”  She assured me that he would call back immediately.  As I hung up the phone and spun my chair around to my desk, I worried about how I would handle the circumstances that might lay ahead of me.  Although I waited less than a couple minutes for the sheriff to call back, it seemed to take an eternity.  I explained the situation to him and he said he would contact the affected county authorities and call me back.  I told him as a precaution that I was going to lock our front door.  He thought it was a good idea.  I thanked him and hung up the phone.
     I moved quickly to the front lobby and turned the key to allow the panic bar on the door to be in lock position.  The next step was to inform the front office staff what we were doing.  My secretary volunteered to man the front door and screen our visitors.  As I came back to the office, the high school secretary wanted to know what the front office would need to tell people.  Right off the top of my head I couldn’t think of anything.  My mind was busy processing what my next step would be once I heard back from our county sheriff.  After a few seconds I told her to give me some time and I would send information out to our staff notifying them of all the details.  Until then she could simply refer people to my office.  My next step was to double check all exterior doors to make sure there wasn’t an oversight on any of the doors.  In the middle of the process, the sheriff called my cell phone.  As I answered the phone I hoped to myself that he had positive news.....

Check out my next post to discover what the sheriff says and how we proceed as a school district.