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Project LEAD: Good Leaders Need to Raise the Heat Once In a while

The Jewish Education Project
The Jewish Education Project is a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York

Shariee Calderone

Why do some change initiatives in your school take off, while others fail?

How are some school directors able to mobilize their staff around innovative ideas, while others aren’t as successful?

Everyone knows it takes ample resources, time, and energy to make innovative changes in an organization, still, almost anyone call fall short of their objectives. While having a clear vision and a strategy for getting there might sound like the winning ticket, it may not be enough. Why? Well, it’s because as a leader you don’t operate in a bubble. Sometimes your colleagues and staff just aren’t there with you yet. And not being there with you means you will have greater difficulty reaching, making progress and seeing the impact of all of your thoughtful planning.

Beyond vision and goal setting, Bryna Leider, Project Director of The Jewish Education Project’s Project LEAD initiative, will tell you that it also takes having Courageous Conversations to move beyond the superficial and often technical fixes that most leaders focus on. Courageous Conversations are those uncomfortable conversations that most people avoid 99% of the time if they can. They are the conversations that raise the heat and stakes in a given situation. But the good news is, it’s often the conversation to have; the one that can help move your initiative forward by leaps and bounds.

“Courageous Conversations… a dialogue that is designed to resolve competing priorities and beliefs while preserving relationships.” – Heifetz et al, 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

As you will hear in the following clip, Courageous Conversations are not like other conversations. They are not the conversations you have during staff meetings or with teams of teachers. And they are not the conversations you have during regular “check-ins” or “one-on-ones” with a particular teacher.

Bryna Leider, Project LEAD Seminar, November 2, 2016

Having a high performing team doesn’t mean conflicts won’t come up. Conversely, if you are doing things right you are pushing people a little further beyond their comfort zone, And while some conflicts might seem simple or easy to solve at face value, they’re often the nagging ones that never seem to go away or get resolved. And they’re the conflicts that prevent you, the team, and your school from moving forward.

“A Courageous Conversation is a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions differ, and strong emotions are present”Intro to Courageous Conversations – Creating Powerful Conversations to Achieve Maximum Results – Diane Boivie

One way to identify when a Courageous Conversation might be useful is when previous interactions with staff haven’t resolved the conflict. Communication failure points can be the result of a number of different weaknesses, including “disempowered leadership” or “constantly changing goals” (Diane Boivie, Intro to Courageous Conversations). But no matter how you got there the goal now is to get out from being stuck, to resolve the conflict or situation, and move past behaviors that are holding things back. And to do that, your approach to the conversation is as important as having the conversation in the first place.

Here’s an example of a mediated conversation held between two employees at Acumen, facilitated by Eric Martin from Cambridge Leadership Associates. At first you will think the topic and area of conflict should be simple to resolve. But as you’ll see in the video clip, it takes a little raising of the heat and persistence to get at the heart of the conflict, and the emotion holding back the desired behavior change. (Note: this is an 18 minute video clip because, as you will see demonstrated, it sometimes takes a good amount of time for these conversations to play out. Plus there’s some narration.)

If you are now saying, “I get it”, and you want to follow Bryna’s advice on confronting conflict (something not working for you), here are four important elements you’ll want to keep in mind:

  1. Understand the role you are playing, especially if you were multiple hats
  2. Don’t be afraid to raise the heat
  3. Keep your inquiry focused on getting to the real issue, and
  4. Be mindful that the outcome often involves learning and loss (and potentially on all sides)

When educational leaders are exposed to this strategy and have opportunities to practice and role play, they can find it very beneficial. Here’s how one Project LEAD participant described already putting this new information to use…

I thought it was really helpful and I have already had a need to use it.  It was with one of my teachers. She had a strong reaction to something that had recently occurred and I couldn’t understand why. When we sat down, and I kept asking her more about it and really listened, I found out that there was something else bothering her. We were able to come to an agreement about it and move on. It felt great. Thanks. Patty Goldstick, Early Childhood Director, Temple Israel Center Nursery School

To read the previous post in the Project LEAD series, click here.

To learn more about Project LEAD and the strategy being used to support directors and teacher leaders in being change agents in their schools, contact

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