The Humble Learning Leader

Article by Paul Smith, Director, CUES
In the mist of various leadership qualities that have emerged in the research over the past decade, leadership styles – as applied to the educational setting – have been addressed frequently. The idea of effective leaders being humble is not new. Jim Collins, in his book Good To Great, characterized Level 5 leaders, the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities identified in his research, as “a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” He goes on to state, “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” So how does one operationalize humility in the classroom and schoolhouse?

Learning to Be Humble – “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.” -Benjamin Franklin

The desire to learn precedes the understanding that one has the need to improve. Learning is a humbling experience. You have to admit that you lack certain abilities and qualities in order to become better at something. In education, creating an environment for learning begins with helping those you lead to be comfortable with not knowing a certain topic and then assuring them you will help facilitate their learning. Leaders model for those they lead, students or adults, that we are all learners. Leaders who give the impression that they have nothing more to learn set a poor example of being a humble learner. In the classroom, admitting to your students that you, as well as they, have a lot to learn in the course of study will set the stage for teaching and learning. We often ask those we lead to take an inventory of professional growth needs on a year to year basis. Humble leaders model this by openly sharing their desire to improve as well.

Reciprocal Humility – “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” ― C.S. Lewis

In the 1980s I was encouraged to have my students to keep a portfolio of their learning in my middle school mathematics classes. The portfolio consisted of artifacts of their learning and self-reflections at certain checkpoints throughout the year. I would ask my students to reflect on what they did well and what they needed to improve on. I found that students struggled with articulating what behaviors they possessed or did not possess in their learning process. I realized I had not modeled this for my students. I began to ask them to reflect on how I was doing as a teacher, how was I serving them in their learning. What could I do to help them become better mathematicians?

Knowing the makeup of adolescents, I had to explain what were acceptable and non-acceptable recommendations (the suggestions to never have homework or test ever again were not constructive, but the frequency and means of assessment would be constructive). I can remember the look in my students’ eyes when I announced that I was going to let them critique me in writing and that I would read each response: “You mean we get to grade the teacher!” This was quite eye opening for me as a young teacher in the inner city. I had to humbly consider each student’s constructive assessment of me and make adjustments, and I had to admit to my students that I had more to learn about them. The same is true when evaluating adults that I supervise. I make it a practice after each evaluating conference to ask, “How am I doing, and how can I assist you in your growth?” The message is clear: being a humble leader is a two-way proposition.

Failing to Be Humble – “In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.” ― Winston S. Churchill

Do learners have permission to fail, and with that failing to see it as an opportunity to learn? John Hattie, in his meta-analysis on what affects school achievement, states that “the most powerful effects of the school relate to features within the schools, such as climate of the classroom, peer influences, and the lack of disruptive students in the classroom – all of which allow students and teachers to make errors and develop reputations as learner, and which provide an invitation to learn.” Humble leadership produces an entrepreneurial climate, where not hitting the mark is embraced as a means for improvement.

In the classroom, students are often presented a fixed mindset when it comes to evaluation. You completed the test, you got some correct, some incorrect, and then it is time to move on. A growth mindset, on the other hand, would create a climate that promotes how we can learn from our mistakes. I have often said to my students, “It is not where you start, but where you end when it comes to learning.” This means that student have latitude to learn from their errors and have opportunities to demonstrate mastery of concepts at another point in time through various means of assessment. None of us like the idea of falling short of meeting a goal, but with humility, we can see where we have failed in the process and set a corrective action towards improvement. We begin to know what it means to learn from our mistakes.

I would take time to have students complete an error analysis in assessments from my class. I would also ask them to process those mistakes with their peers and discuss approaches that would have been better in tackling questions and errors. The climate of humbly admitting that making mistakes is part of learning is conducive to producing level 5 leaders.

Team Humble – “The man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the one who thinks others can’t live without him is even more deluded.” ~Hasidic Saying

It is not a far stretch to believe that people are different. The issue is that we lead in our classrooms and schools as if everyone should march to the same drummer. The teacher/leader who fails to appreciate the unique aspects that each individual brings to the learning environment is one who lacks the humility to embrace each team member’s individuality. Humility promotes the team above individuals.

Teaching adolescents for 17 years was challenging in that they can be very self-absorbed. Utilizing cooperative learning was not the issue; rather, teaching students to work together was. Middle school students, for the most part, were unaware of their own strengths and weaknesses, let alone their classrooms. Building a community of learners who learn to value what each person brings in the classroom took time. Interest inventories, learning preference inventories, and thinking strategies were just a few approaches I used to help classrooms become more team oriented. Students were taught to appreciate each other’s strengths and to call on others on the team who might have better paths towards solving a problem. I encouraged students to be humble leaders and learners.

As a principal, I also was aware that my staff was wired with unique qualities that would assist our school in moving forward. I asked my staff to take the same inventories as the students. This helped me as a new principal to get to know how we could work well as a team. It also allowed the teacher across the hall to know their fellow colleagues better. Humility creates an environment conducive in thinking that others may have a better approach on an issue that me.

Humility Motivates – “Our best thoughts come from others.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, argues for what motivates individuals in the work force. He addresses three elements that enhance intrinsic motivation, the third of which is a sense of purpose: “The most deeply motivated people hitch their desires to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself. Satisfaction depends on not merely having goals, but on having the right goals – goals that are greater than their own self-interest.” This would suggest a humble approach to how we lead and motivate others. As a leader we need to remind our team that we are part of something bigger. In education the purpose is a grand one that has lasting effects on our school, community, state and county.

Humbly motivating others is a skill that I have seen played out in coaching strategies. The second of the three elements in Pink’s work is that autonomy has a powerful influence on individual performance and attitude. Coaching an individual acknowledges that autonomy. The key approach of coaching is having a conversation that assists an individual in coming to a solution in a given situation. Coaching recognizes that individuals have the capacity within to come up with a solution, and the coach just facilitates in getting them to that solution. It humbly says I don’t have to tell you the answer, but I can help you autonomously discover it.

To revisit Jim Collins, moving students, classrooms, schools, districts and federal departments of education from good to great will take a level 5 leader who leads with humility – a level 5 leader who emulates humility and ask others to pass this characteristic on to others.

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