Every Thursday evening during my year-long Master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, our cohort of 42 aspiring principals gathered to interact with a guest speaker.  Our first speaker was Richard Elmore, one of the gurus of school improvement.  You can imagine our collective excitement, and perhaps a little sense of entitlement, as we gathered that first week to engage in a discussion with such a well-known scholar.

Elmore’s first statement revealed he wasn’t quite as impressed with us as we seemed to be with ourselves.

“I think it’s important to start by acknowledging the fact that there have been a lot more talented educators than you all who had the intention of improving public education who have ultimately failed in their effort.”

The moment was almost cliché.  Here we were at one of the great institutions of higher education, being told that we likely would fail in what we had come hoping to accomplish. That evening with Elmore became an ongoing point of reference for our cohort – it was a testy interaction from start to finish.

What seems clear to me now, is that we all arrived with a bloated sense of our own potential for effectiveness.  All administrators seem to have an effectiveness bias, assuming that their ideas are the ones that will garner results – and you can imagine the implicit bias lurking for a cohort of Harvard-trained school leaders.

In that context, it’s clear why an attribute such as humility is so crucial.  Yes, we need confidence to move a vision forward, but we also need a healthy dose of self-skepticism and an openness to exploring our our weaknesses and blind spots.  We need to recognize our inability to control all of the variables, and embrace all the different actors in the system who ultimately determine the fate of our leadership initiatives.  We need humility.

I was reminded of that in a powerful way last Friday.  We’ve had a shortage of substitute teachers in our district for several years now, and the challenge is never more acute than on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.  Several principals reached out to district office staff in hopes of enlisting additional classroom support.  I elected to run over to one of our intermediate schools for a few hours to help out.

I was excited to spend a few hours in the classroom.  I felt a little like Superman – coming over to save the day.  I genuinely love teaching and interacting with students in the classroom, and I thought this would be just another successful opportunity to build relationships with students and help them learn.  I would be the sub they wouldn’t forget.

I was very wrong.

I guess perhaps it might be accurate to say that my little tribe of 6th graders that day had an experience they would not forget.  Honestly, I got my butt kicked.  Luckily, there weren’t any major incidents.  Nobody got in a fight or cursed me out.  Our kids are far too respectful for that.  But I absolutely could not get them to 1) stay in their seats and 2) focus on the academic task.  It was like I wasn’t there.  I’m definitely not an invisible presence.  I’m 6’2” and I was absolutely assertive in the instructional strategies I attempted to employ.  I’m also a fluent Spanish speaker, and made it clear that I was as “with-it” a substitute as they would experience.

I think I lost them the moment I wrote my name on the front board.  “Dr. Allen.”  Perhaps I was a little hasty in putting my freshly minted new title to use.  They were a little confused.  “So, you’re a doctor? Why are you a substitute teacher then?”  I tried to explain, but they’d moved on.

It became clear, very quickly, that keeping my new friends in their seats for the next 2 hours was going to be a challenge.  I reminded them that they needed to ask permission to leave their seat.  30 seconds later, four students were up and about – all with legitimate excuses – sharpening pencils, getting tissues, putting marbles in the class jar.  It was like keeping water in a cup full of holes.  It was also obvious that I had no idea how the classroom systems worked, and my students were more than happy to take advantage of my ignorance.  At one point with a few minutes left in class, I paused and realized I didn’t know what to do.

Humility is about framing challenges with a sense of curiosity, as opposed to assuming we’ve already got things figured out.  It helps us look inward, instead of externalizing our problems to the people around us.  It keeps us teachable – which ironically, can be a hard characteristic to embrace for educators.  We fain expertise as a hedge against the things we can’t quite explain or the challenges we can’t quite overcome.  We have to always appear competent, especially to those who would judge our work without having much idea of the challenge of classroom teaching.  It’s easy to get defensive.

Last week provided me with an unexpected reminder that we can’t expect those around us to learn if we aren’t teachable and open to learning ourselves.  And that takes humility.



When I was accepted into my doctorate program at Berkeley, my faculty advisor gave me two pieces of advice:

Don’t change jobs.  Don’t have any children.

In the second year of coursework, my wife gave birth to twins, doubling our number of kids.  Once my coursework was completed, I switched jobs and left the Bay Area for Southern California.  And then, just for good measure, we added baby #5 this past year.  When I look back over the past four years, the immensity of the work starts to stare back at me.

I think about being the principal of a high school while simultaneously taking courses every other Friday night and all-day Saturday for the first two years of the program.  The greatest part of the sacrifice was shouldered by my wife, Lynzie, whose already long weeks of me leading a high school morphed into weekends of graduate school.  The “slow” days of summer turned into three full days of classes each week.  I religiously used the 45-minute BART ride back and forth from San Francisco across the Bay to Berkeley to do my readings and pound out my papers.  One Friday evening, I made half the journey to class in the back of an ambulance with one of my students.  On several occasions, I found myself on the bus at 11 pm after Friday night class, going back up the hill to chaperone a school dance.  And then the twins came.  Honestly, it’s all a little hazy.

Despite the very real time challenges – the experience of doctorate coursework was absolutely exhilarating.  The readings, the discussions, the arguments.  The learning was intense, all-encompassing, and exactly what I was hoping for when I started the program.  I’m deeply grateful, to my advisor, to the professors, and to my fellow students, for creating such a fabulous and challenging learning experience and opportunity.

And then we moved to Southern California and I started a new job.  We were excited for a new adventure, but mourned leaving San Francisco and the friends we came to treasure there.  On more than one occasion during those first weeks, Lynzie and I cried together – a combination of our exhaustion and perhaps even a little fear.  All the while, the dissertation timeline marched on.  Orals examinations, proposal hearings, bimonthly check-ins via Skype, and in-person consultations with my advisor any time I could get myself up to campus.   Nights, mornings, weekends – whenever a spare moment presented itself.

Then the data collection began at the beginning of this year.  I had to wait until after my proposal hearing to start the collection, which meant I couldn’t start until mid-September, exactly the same time that Lynzie was due to give birth to Gabriel.  I pushed myself to conduct my baseline interviews.  I was relieved when September 19th rolled around – the day I’d set aside to conduct my interviews – and the baby still hadn’t come.  Of course that changed at 2 pm as I was finishing my final interview, when Lynzie texted me that her water had broke.  Gabriel was born just after 5 pm that same day.

As the Fall morphed into Winter and Spring, the writing intensified.  I set my weekly goals, either coming in early to work to put in an hour a few days a week, or setting aside half a Saturday to focus and make progress. As March and April rolled around, I adopted a new strategy, which was to lock myself away until I had a finished draft each time that I could send back to my advisor for review and feedback.  That ate up two full days of Spring Break, and the bulk of a few weekends.

Through all of this, Lynzie has been my absolute rock.  We are an absolute team and I am deeply grateful that we’ve been able to tackle this opportunity and challenge together.  Her capacity for work is unparalleled, and she helped me keep the faith in the difficult moments.  Each time feedback came back, she was there to help me square my shoulders and figure out where to fit the 15-20 hours of thinking and writing I knew it would take to make my revisions.  Add to her encouragement the ongoing support and encouragement of my family members, friends, and colleagues at work.  Everyone has been deeply supportive, and I’ve relied on that positive feedback when doubts that I’d ever actually finish crept in.

And then, I finally received the email from my advisor that he was satisfied with the work, and that I could send it along to my other committee members for review and revision.  The timeline drew tight, and still I worried whether I could complete everything on time.  A few more late nights and long weekends and somehow, miraculously, I had all 3 required signatures, just 24 hours before the deadline.

Don’t move.  Don’t have (more) children.  It wasn’t necessarily bad advice. But it also didn’t take into consideration the incredible people around me who have made this possible.

People have been asking me how I’m feeling about it all.  Yes, I feel relieved.  Yes, I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in the work.  But mostly, I feel grateful – for the opportunity and privilege I’ve had to study and learn, and to the incredible people who have rallied around me.

The Paradox of Efficiency


If you find yourself on a quest for maximizing your productivity, you’ll eventually encounter a fundamental paradox: efficiency does not play well with new learning.  We extol the virtue of cutting costs and finding efficiencies.  We similarly describe ourselves as lifelong learners who embrace the opportunity to learn new skills and try on new approaches.  Predictably, we like to see ourselves as deeply committed to both.  But learning, perhaps by definition, is not efficient.

Take driving, for instance.  We all recall the excitement and agony of learning to drive. Some of us, mercifully, escaped our first years of driving without a major accident.  I include myself in that group – plowing into my closed garage door excepted.  Driving is a critical skill in our modern society, and so we persist in our learning, risks notwithstanding.  Efficiency in driving emerges as we practice over and over again.  You’ve probably heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell has made common knowledge.  Expertise and efficiency come with lots and lots of practice as skills move into our muscle memory and well worn cognitive tracks.  It’s hard to remember not being able to drive.  It becomes intuitive.

That’s the beauty of efficiency.  We practice something over and over until we internalize it and can perform tasks with less attention and cognitive load.  Our brains love the efficiency.  If you don’t believe me, you should read Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow – perhaps my favorite non-fiction read ever – which outlines just how eager our brains are to take shortcuts to preserve energy.  We actually are predisposed to think less if we can.  We crave cognitive efficiency.

On an individual level, what does it mean to say we are a lifelong learner?  I assume it means we are deliberately choosing, at times and with some regularity, to be uncomfortable and inefficient.  That’s the genius of the “5-hour rule” you may have read about – carving out 5 hours a week dedicated solely to new learning.  That’s the value in reading books that directly challenge your well tread assumptions and experimenting with routines and practices that inevitably feel clumsy at the start.  It means committing your finite resources – time, energy, and money – to activities that you know will be deeply inefficient for some time.   You hope the learning will pay off in new skills and efficiencies later down the road – but often there’s uncertainty involved.

On an institutional level, what does it mean to say we are a learning organization?  It’s not hard to buy-in to the widespread belief that society is accelerating towards ever greater complexity.  We’re living in a moment where the uncertainty feels palpable.  We’re in the age of disruption.  Entire industries seem to be born over the course of a few short years, while others die out just as quickly.  It’s popular to say that the solution is to foster a learning organization – an attribute where new learning is constantly happening across the organization to address the ever-shifting landscape.  As Elmore would put it, we are constantly asking people to do things that they don’t yet know how to do.

But let’s be honest.  Learning is expensive.  Efficiency comes in doing what you already know how to do.  Just do more of it…faster.

In the context of schools, when budgets tighten, often the first thing out the door is a commitment to professional learning and willingness to experiment with new ideas.  We adopt a hunker-down attitude.  We do only what is deemed necessary.  This is a predictable reaction, and in the context of limited resources and resource needy schools and students, perhaps even defensible.

But it’s a devil’s bargain.

Which is why even in the hard times, you need to create spaces where, rather than doubling down on efficiency, you invest in your creative solutions and moonshot ideas. This is what Tushman & O’Reilly call building an “ambidextrous organization,” where you reap the benefits of efficiencies, while simultaneously encouraging and supporting teams within the organization that are deeply immersed in the difficult work of learning and experimenting with new ideas.  You embrace incremental improvement while incubating the possibilities for revolutionary transformation.

Be assured, if you don’t make that investment, there are others out there who will and are, and they will be ready to eat your lunch.



I have a long-running joke with my wife. On occasion, my beautiful wife will remind me of how something is done properly – usually in contrast to how I am currently approaching the task.  Her reminders sometimes have a tone of, “you should already know this Daniel.”  These reminders are usually small matters.  Appropriate loading of the diaper bag.  Correct utensil placement in the dishwasher.  Of course, she is right, and I try to be a conscientious husband and father.  But sometimes there are just so many rules to remember!  So I have to tease my wife.  I like to refer to the Allen Operating Manual, Volume 7, Section 12, where you find the details for correct dishwasher loading procedures.  It’s one of the larger sections in volume 7.

I sometimes have similar feelings towards rules at work.  Every process has a flow chart.  And the processes change, so sometimes the version you’ve committed to memory is no longer up to date.  Our bargaining agreement with certificated staff is 115 pages long.  We have a corpus of board policies and administrative regulations.  All of this happens in the context of state and federal education code.  All of which, I feel obligated to commit to memory.  Which of course I can’t.

On the one hand, I see these “rulebooks” and other operational procedures as  foundational texts.  Just like a talented musician typically builds his or her mastery of the fundamentals – scales, chords, music theory – a talented administrator calls on a robust familiarity with these key informational texts – policies, processes, and red flags.  Creativity and effectiveness as an administrator often flow from a deep familiarity with these sources.  Returning to my analogy of standard operating procedures in my marriage – a healthy relationship is based on the fact that most of the time, I actually do know what the best practice is and I do it.

But rules can also be stifling.  They can limit our ability to envision the full range of possibilities.  They can lock us in to doing things the way they’ve always been done. In some respects, that’s the definition of what a rule is.  We’ve got all kinds of cliches that speak to the danger of expecting different results when we continue to take the same regimented actions.  Relationships grow stale if they aren’t reinventing themselves.

In my opinion, hard-core rule followers don’t make the best administrators.  Too often, following the rules is more about liability and positional protection than it’s about doing what gets results for kids.  Our bureaucratic education systems are notorious for attending obsessively to inputs and processes while paying less attention to whether those processes get us the results we desire for students and families.  Unfortunately, the gut check usually comes when we are called on the carpet for breaking a rule, not for when student academic performance is lower than it should be.

Nor do indiscriminate rule-breakers find tremendous success in transforming schools.  Eventually, breaking the rules catches up with you.  Audits produce findings.  Arbiters strictly apply legal codes.  Soon enough, you may find yourself dealing with the cleanup of hasty decisions, and that slows down the system even more than the old rules and bureaucratic controls.

So, I’m constantly looking for balance.  I’m actively trying to deepen my command of the foundational texts and their practical application, while simultaneously keeping a strategic ear to the ground to determine where we can bend the rules, or throw out the current operational procedures altogether.

In Search of Servant Leadership

People Pleasing

I’ve always been taught to be service-oriented.  A life well-lived is one where you are looking out for the welfare of those around you just as surely as you look out for yourself.  I believe this approach extends itself into the realm of leadership.  I try to consciously practice principles of servant leadership in my work.  To me, that means in all of my interactions with colleagues and coworkers, I try to constantly ask myself the question – “what can I do to support you in being successful in your work?”

Being too authoritarian is rarely a label I’m given.  My challenge is often quite the opposite.  My challenge is not to give in to the constant temptation to be a people pleaser.

It’s absolutely true that my natural inclination is not to disappoint people.  But that is an attribute that cuts both ways.  Yes, I’m going to follow through on my commitments.  Yes, I’m going to bring my full energy and thinking to the problem at hand.  But for me, the fine line between serving those you lead and pleasing those you lead comes down to the quality and honesty of your feedback.  Some ideas aren’t as good as others.  Some behaviors – especially when it comes to issues of equity, negligence, or outright wrongdoing – simply have to be confronted directly.  Those are the leadership moves that aren’t always as intuitive for me.

As one of my graduate school professors once told me, in front of our entire cohort of aspiring administrators – “You know, Daniel, I hear what you are saying, and I think you are trying to be critical, but it just doesn’t land with me.  Your feedback doesn’t have enough of an edge to get my attention.”

Sometimes my need to be helpful, and I mean genuinely helpful, leads to my taking on tasks that don’t necessarily align to my most important priorities.  I allow the priorities of others to dictate my focus.  In a school district with dozens of schools, thousands of employees, and tens of thousands of students, you can’t afford to take on too many other people’s monkeys before your back can’t lift the weight.

I’ve been feeling the strain of that balance recently.  We’re navigating some uncertainty as a district in terms of budget cuts, announced layoffs, and shifts in organizational priorities.  In the transition, I feel a real urgency around some of the projects and initiatives that I lead.  I really feel like if I take my eye off of those priorities, they’ll lose their potency and potentially even lose their organizational support.  Yet it is precisely in this context that the other requests for support and intervention intensify.

One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn when I started as a high school principal was that my school consistently needed more service than I could give.  I imagine all schools do.  So I have to weigh every interaction carefully – making sure that I don’t give away my finite capacity chasing things that won’t ultimately register an impact for kids.

Sometimes that means disappointing people.  Sometimes that means saying no to people you care about or who have supported you in the past.  If we are guided by a true sense of servant leadership, we’ll be willing to make the hard decisions and give the feedback that clarify our deepest commitments.


Truth 2 Power

Truth 2 Power

I’m always preaching the importance of vision.  It’s the backbone of leadership.  You are continually connecting people to the purpose of our shared endeavor.

To practice what I preach, I held a series of leadership development sessions with members of the departments that I supervise.  Together, we discussed both the work we do and the aspirations that drive us in that work.  Together, we developed a vision statement for our department.   Here it is.

“Our purpose is to create and support programs, experiences, and mindsets that dramatically deepen student engagement, and can be proven to accelerate student learning and post-secondary success.”

With that vision in mind, we set out to redesign our efforts to collect student feedback at the high school level as part of our Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).  Last year, we designed student forums that brought together 300 students at each high school to vote on and then discuss issues that students felt were most essential to improving their learning experiences at our schools.  We held seven of these sessions over the course of 3 months.  Our design process was iterative and intensive, meeting on multiple occasions to discuss how we could quickly create a learning environment where students felt safe and respected – enough to speak their truths and challenge the status quo.

This year, we wanted to up the ante.  We were no longer satisfied with going out and listening ourselves to the perspectives and stories of our students.  We wanted to connect our students to the “shapers” – the policymakers, artists, and other public figures whose ideas, decisions, and actions influence the movement of our communities and institutions.

Our planning team met on numerous occasions.  Yes, there were tremendous logistical matters we had to attend to.  Arranging bus transportation.  The technical elements of live streaming the broadcast.  Communicating with participants and other stakeholders.  Securing participation of guest panelists.

That logistical work was hard, and essential.  But it wasn’t what we spent the most time discussing and, quite frankly, arguing about and deliberating over.  We wanted to design a deeply engaging, transformative experience.  We wanted to create a space where people could and would share their honest thoughts and feelings.  We wanted authenticity.  Our decisions focused on how to prime participants for a powerful learning moment.  We had to explain our purpose to our guest panelists multiple times.

“This isn’t going to be a typical panel discussion.”

“You’re here, primarily, to listen.”

Not only is this not the usual practice, but it’s so engrained that we were afraid we might not be able to hold the space in the way we wanted.

This isn’t to say that our guest panelists didn’t have important things to say to our kids.  They do.  But we wanted their contributions to take the shape of encouragement and affirmation of student thoughts and stories.

So, last Friday, we held our event.  Truth 2 Power.  As we got closer to the start time, my mind was exploding.  So many disparate systems would have to come together.  Busses of students rolled in as guest panelists donned their mics.  I would be facilitating the session and discussion with our Deputy Superintendent, Dr. David Haglund.  Ironically, all of my preparation, my review of participants’ bios, students issue topics, and the discussion protocols, was to allow me, in the moment, to clear my mind of the small details.  I needed to focus on creating the space.  Putting students at ease.  Encouraging authentic conversation.

I won’t speak on behalf of participants.  We too often fill the space with our own words rather than student voices.  What I can say is that I was moved by the stories of determination, perseverance, tragedy, and triumph.  We heard from Adrian, and Violet, and Stephanie.  Students whose voices have long been dormant spoke up and expressed their newfound determination.  Many participants were brought to tears.

There are lots of takeaways to reflect on.  The blessing of working with a passionate, talented team.  The challenges of clear communication to stakeholders.  But the thing on my mind this morning is just how much planning and work has to happen if you want to foster a learning environment where robust, rigorous, and provocative discussions can happen in a safe and genuine way.

And even though it’s hard to do – it’s the purpose of our work.

“Our purpose is to create and support programs, experiences, and mindsets that dramatically deepen student engagement, and can be proven to accelerate student learning and post-secondary success.”

It’s a vision worth pursuing.

Check out the archive of the live stream at

The Learning Organization

Learning Organization

The Learning Organization.  It’s a concept that best captures my vision for the work of a school district.  The district doesn’t exist primarily to balance budgets, or to maintain the physical plant, or even to develop and deliver a rigorous curriculum.  Those are important tasks.  If you mess up the budget, you end up in the newspaper and lose your job.  If the physical plant fails then lawsuits start showing up on your door.  If you fail to develop a high quality curriculum, then the potential for powerful learning is greatly diminished.  Fail to meaningfully address these critical managerial tasks at your peril.

But they don’t represent the most important leadership task at hand.

The role of leadership is to elevate learning to its highest priority.  And I’m not just talking about student learning.  A learning organization recognizes that deepening the skill and capacity of its employees is a fundamental strategy for any enterprise trying to dramatically improve outcomes.

Today I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation about building capacity for systems transformation.  In other words, fostering a learning organization.  The lesson was led by Peter Senge, who is a bit of an organizational theory guru who teaches at MIT.  I’ve led plenty of leadership learning sessions that draw heavily on Senge’s work, and it was a lot of fun to finally learn from him in person.

Of course, while it’s easy to say that developing the capacity of staff should be the highest priority of the system if it is serious about dramatic improvement, it can be very hard to accomplish in practice.  Especially in schools.  Our discussions today got me thinking about those professional responsibilities that strengthened my own capacity to lead systems-level change.

Punching Above My Pay Grade

I owe a lot of my professional growth to a small group of mentors who have taken an outsize interest in my leadership development.  For people like Dr. Gregg Good, Dr. Alex Molnar, and Gia Truong, I wasn’t just another employee doing a job.  They all saw in me the potential to learn and contribute in powerful ways that went far beyond my job description. While I was still a classroom teacher, Dr. Good asked me to lead a team of administrators to visit an out-of-state district to learn more about implementation of the International Baccalaureate program and how we might develop a strong language policy at a school with various language communities.  Dr. Molnar put me in charge of a major research project and publication.  As my direct supervisor, superintendent Truong encouraged me over and over again to come to my own conclusions, and act out of a sincere sense of what was right and effective versus simply doing what I was told to do.

In all cases, these mentors offered me one of the most valuable assets a leader can extend.  Trust.  They trusted me to take on projects and initiatives that, on paper, I probably wasn’t entirely qualified to take on.  I made mistakes, sure, but on the whole I delivered when given the opportunity.  Perhaps even more importantly, I deepened my capacity to lead meaningful change on a broader scale.

Reflection Time 

The central importance of taking time to reflect on our leadership work was reinforced yet again today in my learning session at the Carnegie Summit.  You have to take time to stop and reflect.  Take stock of where you are, what you’ve accomplished, and where you need to go next.  For Senge, who has conducted research into organizational improvement for decades, this need for reflection time has emerged as one of the three most vital leadership capacities.

In practice, reflection time takes many shapes.  It takes shape as a blog site, where I occasionally stop to try to make sense of what I am experiencing.  By committing my thoughts and challenges to paper, I’m forced to work out the jumble of thoughts happening in my head.  Sometimes it takes the shape of a retreat.  I openly encourage principals and teachers alike to find time to get away from their schools and classrooms.  Yes, this can be controversial because the structure of schools demands our physical presence every day.  But it is nonetheless essential.  We have to get away to have space and time to reflect on the organizational architecture of the institutions we lead.  We have to regularly flex our strategic muscles by taking a step back and considering the systems in which we are embedded.

Get Personal

This is closely related to the time we set aside for reflection.  Leading change is not technical work.  It is adaptive in nature.  When done in any meaningful way, leadership moves people.  It moves them off of entrenched positions and perspectives.  It forces people to confront uncomfortable scenarios and corrosive relationships.  It is emotional work.  It is sometimes lonely and uncertain work.  As Hefeitz and Linsky suggest, it is dangerous work.

It is dangerous precisely because it is so personal.  We don’t like to acknowledge how we contribute to the mess.  As Senge called it today, we are uncomfortable seeing our own handprint on the dysfunction of the system.  Much of our work today was spent doing a “left column analysis,” designed to highlight the gap between what we really observe, think, and believe and what we are willing to say.

As my wife will attest, my work stories typically have me at the center – the protagonist.  It would be better to more regularly cast myself as the villain.  How am I undermining the highest purposes of the organization and what steps can I take to mitigate my own weaknesses?  Asking those type of questions of ourselves can be deeply unnerving, yet is an essential exercise for one aspiring to develop a genuine learning organization.