Leading Amidst Personal Adversity

There’s an awesome five-minute speech that Rocky delivers to his son in the movie Rocky Balboa (2006) that I often listen to. I even worked part of it into my graduation address last year. As an Italian kid who was raised in Elmont, a lower-middle-class Long Island town, I grew up a huge fan of all things Rocky, so to me his speech is as inspirational and “spot on” as they come. It probably also resonates with me because Rocky is the portrait of person who comes from basically nothing to accomplish things beyond the realm of possibility due to an unwavering belief that he had in himself and his own potential. Anyway, at one point Rocky said to his son, “life ain’t always sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” He’s right. Life certainly doesn’t discriminate, and we are all potentially a day away from personal adversity, or worse a full out crisis. This isn’t a glass half empty outlook. It’s just the reality. As a Principal, it’s easy to lead when everything is perfect. It’s easy to lead when there is order and when all is well both personally and professionally. But what about leading when there isn’t personal order? What about leading amidst personal adversity and crisis?

I’ve had close friends in leadership positions who dealt with some real personal adversity while being charged as leaders to be “the rock” for everyone else. Leadership is lonely enough when everything is perfect, so I always went out of my way to support those individuals in any way possible when they were dealing with some “stuff” at home. Whether it’s a quick “check-in” text or helping to manage all of the moving parts, I know that little things can sometimes mean a lot and that everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. And I mean everyone.

When I first started as the Principal of DFHS in 2011, I recall a conversation that I had with @dfdcidberry about leadership and he echoed a statement that I heard @ToddWhitaker say years earlier about how we measure strong leaders. He said, “The best leaders create organizations that can both sustain and grow, at least for a period of time, in their absence.” I’ve witnessed both sides of this, both with myself and with others, and have seen organizations both flounder and flourish respectively as leaders have dealt with periods personal adversity.

So what do these healthy, self-sufficient organizations look like? And how do leaders go about creating them? Here’s some “musts” for leaders because, as I said, we are all just a day away…

1) Hire the best people. This is singularly the most important factor in determining the success of any organization. Take a look at any successful organization and you will find talented people who are creative, motivated, inspired, and on the cutting edge. Even with weak leadership, these individuals can “carry the ball” and accomplish amazing feats. Too often we see leaders who cut corners during the hiring process and don’t put in the necessary time and energy that is needed to recruit and hire the very best. This is a recipe for disaster. If the talent isn’t there, the team won’t win. Ever. It’s as simple as that.

2) Maximize Potential: Second only to hiring the best people is identifying places in the organization where each individual can maximize his/her potential and can be the most successful. While evaluating talent on the hiring side of things is certainly paramount, it is equally important to evaluate talent in terms of the places in an organization where each person can be the most successful. For school leaders, this includes identifying the best classes and grade levels for teachers, identifying individuals to serve in leadership roles, and creating a program and system that will thrive with the talent that is available. It’s differentiation at its finest. It’s assessing the strengths and limitations of each individual so that those strengths can be enhanced and highlighted while reducing and/or entirely negating any existing limitations.

3) Empower (and trust!) Others: At this point you are probably getting the point that the very best organizations have talented people who are provided with the necessary conditions to thrive. Too often, leaders feel the need to have their hands in everything and think that they need to “know” everything about everything. This is insecurity on the part of the leader at its worst and will only serve to stifle an organization. In schools, leaders need to give teachers the power to make decisions around curriculum and professional development. Decision-making not only needs to be distributed, but members of the organization need to be trusted to make those decisions, and supported if things don’t always go perfectly. From my experience, an amazing thing happens when people are treated like professionals. Yup, you got it…they act professionally.

4) Foster a Growth Mindset: While hiring and empowering the very best to lead at different levels of the organization is certainly critical, it’s equally necessary that school leaders foster an environment that encourages and rewards ongoing growth for both staff and students. As a school leader, I continually keep all members of our school community focused on the vision and mission of our school and work with all of the constituencies to design ongoing action plans to keep us moving in the right direction. The key here of course is for the action plan to come “bottom-up” so that there is ownership that comes from the degree of empowerment that was discussed above. At our school, teachers are empowered to create new courses and design new curriculum while students regularly propose new ideas for clubs and community service. The simple, yet complex, mindset that I always push to teachers is to always question (and research!) what the best schools (and academic departments) are doing locally, nationally and internationally so that we can continually grow and evolve. As Tony Robbins said, “if you’re not growing you’re dying.” This principle needs to be owned by everyone and not placed solely on the shoulders of the leaders. If not, an organization will not grow and is destined to fail.  

5) Find Balance: Awhile back I wrote a blog about what is most important for school leaders and provided a “keeping your eye on the ball list.” I still stand by that list and think that principals need to prioritize what is most important or else things will become so overwhelming that absolutely nothing will get done. That said, the importance of personal wellness cannot be understated for any leader. Leading others is a great responsibility that is often high pressured and is always 24/7. Like it or not, that’s just how it is. So if leaders don’t have personal balance it’s going to be real hard to lead others. Finding balance can be accomplished in so many ways, but the key is to find opportunities for personal exploration, growth, and most importantly fulfillment. It is only when personal balance is achieved that people can lead with higher degrees of clarity, focus, and of course empathy.

Toward the end of his speech to his son, Rocky willfully looks into his son’s eyes and says, “…it ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Adversity is going to happen to all of us. No one is immune or exempt. For me, it came at a time when I least expected that it would. And that’s exactly how it works. Thankfully, I had been intuitively guided with the mindset outlined above. Remember, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. At DFHS, we continue to grow each and every day.  

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