Not long ago, I was standing in front of a group of principals trying to explain the term unconference to them and how this form of professional development inspires teachers to step out of their comfort zone and take on leadership roles. After I had experienced Edcamp Harrisburg, a type of unconference that focused on topics of education, technology, and 21st century learning, I was determined to spread the word about this new way of thinking about professional learning.
I stammered to explain that an unconference is highly participatory and encourages teacher presenters to share their passion about education and what works in their own classrooms. I saw several principal’s eyes glaze over and others had a disbelieving expression on their face. So I asked: “How many of you have teachers within your schools who are absolutely excellent? Are there teachers who are energetic, passion-driven, lifelong learners in your schools?” Every single one of the principals raised their hands. I continued, “How many of you make sure that expertise goes beyond the classroom and your school by encouraging your experts to participate as speakers in education conferences?” Only a few hands went up.
As I rallied them to see the benefit of this type of collegial sharing, I immediately recalled something I read in Leader Speak by Lucia Murphy, Ph.D. (Sosa-Fascha Press, 2007):
“Inviting others to their greatness is also analogous to identifying the landing spot on Mars, and having the faith to press the ‘launch’ button on the spaceship.”
It takes courage to try new things. Steps to change are often painful and filled with fear and uncertainty. On top of that, when “one is in charge,” it takes even more gumption to give others authority to get something accomplished – even though you are responsible for the outcome.
The fruits of failure
As a school or teacher leader, that leap of faith, no matter how small, can have amazing side affects personally and professionally. Self-assurance and personal self-worth can be deepened and broadened. This can be seen when a new principal “grows” into the position as leader of the school. It can be seen when a new teacher encourages the students in his/her classroom to strive for personal excellence because that teacher models it for the students. Successes and failures are all learning experiences and assists personal growth in so many ways. I have come to deeply appreciate failures because they are moments (to borrow something I came to understand in PLP- year 2) in which my first attempt in learning didn’t bear the fruit I intended – a lesson in being human and a chance to start the journey again and learn from my experience.
The end result of the journey is the trust of others. Dr. Murphy continues:
“… when you align yourself first to your values and beliefs, then think and act in ways that are consistent with that alignment, people begin to take notice. You become different. You become attractive. People will trust you because what you say and do resonate. People will trust in you because you bring the same out in them. It’s contagious.”
For me, contagious leadership strives for personal excellence and supports others as they grow towards that themselves. There is a communal aspect in this type of leadership. One does not lead alone, at the top, in complete control. Rather, others springboard off the leader’s direction and vision, and the leader is strengthened by their new energy. This reminds me of the way a musician tunes a bass violin. A string will only resonate with others when they match frequency. This relationship can be seen in any team that works well together.
But, in the real world, dissonance within a team can also produce positive results, when members of the team respect each other. Pushback and cordial disagreement — a conversation among critical friends — can broaden perspectives and grow the “collective intelligence,” making the team or any community of learners more effective.
At the best unconference experiences, contagious leadership abounds. And isn’t this the foundation of every social networking site, every blog, and every wiki, the reason Voices from the Learning Revolution exists? Isn’t this the true definition of collaboration? The sum of the parts is always greater than the individual. Together, we are stronger, smarter, and more creative. Leaders who get this are not only better for it, but can lead others to create communities of excellence. Lead on!
Image: Chris Champion, Creative Commons