Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dropping Swords

This week, new British Columbia Minister of Education George Abbott attended the British Columbia Teachers Federation Annual General Meeting and spoke to a large delegation of BC Teachers.  This is the first time that an Education Minister has attended this conference in the last 15 years, and many wondered what it might be like for the Minister to walk into what could have been a highly emotional situation.  And while Minister Abbott was only able to foreshadow his thoughts on a few of the major issues that are going to be coming up in the next round of negotiations of the teacher contract with the Province, and although only a couple of teachers were able to pose questions to him, there were a few things that leaders can learn from his appearance at the AGM. 

In dealing with sensitive situations:

1)  While we can't "be there" all of the time, there are times that we need to "be there".  If there is a complex issue on the table or there is an opportunity for a set of circumstances to go sideways and spiral out of control, it is important for the leader to be there so that there is no confusion about the leader's position on that particular issue.

2)  Acknowledge the issues.  If a lack of or poor communication has been an issue that has led to how people are feeling, acknowledge it.  If the interpretation of a policy or guideline has led to an unfortunate situation, let them know you are aware of it.  Give the people in the room this voice by acknowledging the problems that you know are there.

3) Say what you mean and mean what you say. When we take a position on an issue, we need to make sure that position is clearly communicated.  We all know that there times when the position that we take is not necessarily going to be popular.  However, if that is the position that we have to/want to take, it is better to let people know where you stand now rather than waffle on it and disappoint them later.

4)  Articulate that there may be hard times ahead, but that there is common ground, and we will find solutions  In any complex or charged situation, at the very least, the common ground is that people are willing to come to the table.  That people are willing to meet to solve the problem.  And more often than not, there is much more common ground, like the success of a student, the satisfaction of a teacher, or what is best for the school or community.  Common ground is always there, just sometimes we have to look a bit harder to find it, and it is often underneath layers of hurt feelings and emotion.

5) Drop the swords  When people do come to the table, I always want to believe that they are there to solve a problem.  I have never found it to be quicker to solve a problem by raising voices, hurling insults, pointing fingers, or raising fists.  If we are here to fight, fair enough, let's have it out and bring the biggest swords that we can.  But I think we will find that at the end of that battle, we won't really feel too much better, we might have said some things that we might not be able to take back, and we will be in a position where a solution may be even more distant than when we began the fight.  In the course of the fight, we may have said some things that we can't take back, and the solution that we hoped for might not be the one that we get.

#5 is key for me.  If we come to the table dressed in battle regalia, often times we should expect a fight.  But If we can always remember to go into a situation looking for a common ground rather than a battle, I think we are miles in the process of finding solutions to complex problems. 

I need to remember to drop my sword.


  1. Cale,

    I really enjoyed this post. I think you are hitting on some of the main roadblocks that are preventing us from moving forward. Your quite thorough list would be applicable for all leaders, and frankly for anyone working with and collaborating with others.

    Being a leader is no easy task, but these are the types of things that separate the great leaders from the simply good leaders. Days are long, everyone is busy, and the list of things to do is not getting any shorter, but if we are to move ahead and pave the way for future generations we need to do everything on your list, and probably more!

    Keep sharing your thoughts and experiences, as I enjoy reading what you have to say. Great post!

  2. I misunderstood your title and thought that 'drop the sword' meant harsh cuts in the same way that a guillotine would slice when 'dropped'. And so #5 was really refreshing to read!

    I recently dealt with an issue that hit my ego more than I'd like to admit, and after consulting with some very wise people, I 'dropped my sword' and remembered that we really were on the same side... (Another reason the sword is the wrong approach, you wound not your enemies but your future allies.)

    If you told me 10 years ago that leadership lessons would come from a BC Education Minister I probably would have laughed, but if educators aren't willing to drop things and move forward, then we really need to asses our own leadership.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. Presence, transparent acknowledgment, clarity, finding common ground and the use of respectful, dull edged 'epees' (I don't think swords can ever be fully dropped in politically charged discourse) - you've hit upon the key leadership attributes that, hopefully, will carry us all through what promises to be a tempestuous September.

    Your last point (#5) really is the key: a leader's ability to welcome disruptive information by viewing it as 'appreciative diversity' and finding common ground within the complexity.

    As school based leaders, our challenge in the upcoming months will be to make sense of all of the change around us; it won’t be so much about easing our communities into accepting a new "Ministry mandate" but in helping them contextualize new "ways of learning" that will serve to meet the needs of our respective learners.

    Being in the “right space” when we come to the table, and we will be at many tables over the next year, will be, as you so correctly state in your last point, critical.
    I can only add what my former First Nations Worker once told me when I was a VP: "Drop the sword and grab the eagle feather."

    Thanks for sharing, Cale.

  4. Early in my role as a Department Head I was having a conversation with a colleague which was not going terribly well. At one point I crossed my arms, an action which was taken to mean that I was no longer going to listen (she said as much to me). While I did not intend the send that message, my actions were received that way, but I am glad they were. I have been mindful ever since to be careful about how my body language is received by others. Drop the swords is excellent advice for all.
    Thanks for Sharing!


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