Learning from mistakes? Leaders do it, too.

May 23, 2010 at 8:59 pm 1 comment

I’ve been thinking about being wrong a lot lately.  A friend of mine just wrote a book all about this topic.  In fact, Kathryn Schulz might even be the world’s first wrongologist.  And she just interviewed Diane Ravitch, George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of education who, thankfully, has completely changed her mind about two of her most strident beliefs: testing and school choice.  Check out The Wrong Stuff interview here on Slate.  It’s really interesting.  And like I said, it got me thinking…

So I’ve always believed that schools should be places where mistakes are embraced.  If learning is the priority in a school (which it absolutely should be!), then we all need to be able to take risks without fear of failure.  And I mean all of us – students, teachers, staff members, leaders, parents.  It can be harder to celebrate one’s own moments of being wrong, though, than to honor those of others.  I made a mistake a few weeks ago that I’m still contemplating.  I reacted from my own hurt feelings rather than from the standpoint of a leader, which was what my administrative team needed at that moment.  It’s a long story, but the short version goes something like this…

I am the first-ever director at a small progressive school that has been around for almost 50 years, a school where I was a student and later a teacher and co-administrator before leaving to teach in other places.  The school was always run by a committee of co-administrators who were also full-time teachers.  When I returned to the school in this new role a little more than a year ago, I immediately tried to take some of the weight off of them.  I began taking care of administrative tasks, facilitating faculty meetings, and communicating with parents.  We continued to meet weekly (and still do), which is when we make most decisions together.  But the changes in administrative structure are not yet all worked out, and we have been needing and wanting to discuss the responsibilities of co-administrators for many many months now.  Week after week we postponed the conversation in order to deal with more pressing issues.

A few weeks ago, I was out of town and missed our weekly administrative meeting.  After I returned I learned that they had begun our discussion of administrative roles during the week I was gone.  I asked how they could have had that conversation without me there.  My response didn’t help us get any closer to defining our roles, not at all.  I now wish that, instead, I had been able to take a deep breath, step back, and do the opposite of what my impulses and feelings led me to do.  I wish I had been able to say to my colleagues, “Great, tell me what you figured out.”  That would have served us all better, in the short run and the long run, too.  I’m already learning from my mistake.  Next time I intend to be the leader we need me to be.  And as it turns out, being wrong can actually be alright.

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program in 2008. For the past 15 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI. She has written a handful of postings on the Alumni Blog about her experiences leading and learning in a small progressive school. Alisa loves learning. She loves moderating The Alumni Blog. And she really loves her nephew.

Entry filed under: leadership.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Rima Shore  |  May 24, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Hi Alisa, I’m sending you the link to an article that I ask students in Adult Development to read: http://www.nsdc.org/news/jsd/kegan233.cfm.  It’s relevant because I think it reframes the idea of “mistake” (in the context of leadership) by acknowledging competing commitments. So the idea is that when leaders get into trouble, it’s often because they’ve gotten in their own way, and they’ve gotten in their own way not because of ignorance or ill intentions but because they have competing commitments. So in this case, I’d say that you were committed to empowering your fellow leaders and to making room for their own initiative, but you were also committed to the kind of emotional honesty that comes from bringing your whole self to the job…and at the moment that you reacted, the latter won out over the former.

    Sometimes, using a protocol as a map can help you navigate through rugged terrain.  I think the “columns” chart that Kegan and Lahey used can be very helpful as you sort out your thoughts/feelings and next steps in a variety of situations.  Let me know if you find it helpful (or perhaps you know it and have already used it?).

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