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.

What’s Essential?


When you’re teaching in a classroom, you never have to ask yourself whether your work is essential to the purpose of a school.  Yes, you wonder whether your instructional practice is effective.  Yes, you have days when you know, deep down, that students really didn’t learn much.  And while being in a classroom does not guarantee you’re having positive impact on student learning outcomes, it’s not very hard to draw a direct line between your daily work and the raison d’etre of the school.   

I felt much the same way as a high school principal.  I could see a clear relationship between my actions and the learning environment of the entire school. I had power to set the professional learning agenda, plus the benefit of engaging in daily interactions and cultivating supportive relationships with my students and their families.  What I missed from the daily interaction with students in the classroom, I made up for with a broader set of relationships and interactions across the entire school.  I cultivated a community of students, parents, and teachers – all with the goal of accelerating learning opportunities and outcomes for my kids.  Being a principal, while intensely demanding, was deeply satisfying.

And then I came to the district office.

I have to clarify.  I love my job, truly.  And I believe that my work is essential, and that I am having an impact on student learning.  But it is not the same work as being at a school.

There are no bells ringing once an hour.  You aren’t surrounded by hundreds of students engaged in endless exchanges of “good morning” and “great game last night.”  You don’t feel the crisis unfold in real time.  Typically, you’re not in the room when the tears come – whether it be from students, parents, or your staff members.  And just like you miss the minute by minute and hour by hour challenges, you only get glimpses of the triumphs.  You’re a step removed from the dailyness of school.

Often, teachers, and even site administrators, can come to the conclusion that anything outside of direct support to meet the daily exigencies of the school qualifies as non-essential dressing.  Indeed, when I’m rhetorically over here drowning in my classroom, I might not see how a district employee is essential to the success of my students.

I’m the first to admit that the work of a district office can be problematic.  I’m surprised every day at just how much compliance work goes on.  Most of it is tedious.  Some of it strikes me as necessary.  And even less of it feels essential to transforming learning outcomes for kids.  And while I agree completely with Michael Fullan, who suggests we move as much of the compliance to the side of the plate as possible, I guess we still have to eat our veggies.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a shift in how many district administrators think about their work.  The rise of the district effectiveness movement introduced the belief that the district could be the source of support for school level transformation.  In other words, teachers and site administrators mired in the dailyness of running school could benefit greatly from the focused support of district staff.  This movement flipped the compliance mandate, suggesting that the district’s primary role was to encourage instructional innovation and develop leadership capacity within the system.  In other words, the district exists to serve the needs of the schools, and not the other way around.

Which brings us to our current context in a district where a budget downturn is imminent, and hundreds of employees have already received notices that they might not have a job next year.  Embedded in the conversation of who will be laid off or downsized is a conversation about where the cuts should be aimed.  How deep do you go at the district office?  How much trimming can a school withstand before the reduction in services bleeds into a corresponding deterioration of learning environments and outcomes?

These are not easy decisions.

Sometimes we hear platitudes like “keep cuts away from the kids” or “focus on saving jobs” without really defining what is essential.  Basic services at the site level are critical, but so are the enrichment programs that give life and meaning to the student experience.  Safety is another paramount priority, but so is developing a welcoming and inviting learning environment where we can be attentive to the personalized needs of students and families.

As for what is essential at a district office, it seems clear that in the context of reduced budgets and staffing the only chance of navigating to a better place is through the development of a smarter and more skilled workforce.  Difficult financial times are precisely the times for focusing on building transformative leadership capacity and improved instructional practice across the system.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds.  There are a lot of dedicated teachers and staff who have similar uncertainties.  Regardless, it’s an opportunity for all of us to ask the hard questions about what is essential to ensure the best possible experiences and outcomes for our students.

Personalized Learning in Lindsay Unified


I’m not sure when I first heard about Lindsay Unified School District.  Their work to shift towards personalized learning is often cited in broad reform conversations.  Sometimes, the work in Lindsay gets reduced by media to the “system that got rid of grades.”  Not exactly.

Today I finally got to visit Lindsay for myself.

There are a lot of things you could focus on when you come to Lindsay.  Some are of the shiny and exciting variety.  Open classrooms, proprietary learning software accessible across devices, and a just-published book by the Marzano Research Institute.  As impressive as those features may be, what catches my attention are those foundational shifts that are harder to see.  Here are three that struck me as essential.

Strategic Vision & Leadership Tenure

No big surprises here – Lindsay has had stable leadership at the superintendent level for a decade.  That’s a characteristic of high performing districts that has been well documented, and it’s certainly the case in Lindsay.  Furthermore, most of the leaders I spoke with, from district personnel to site leadership, were developed within the Lindsay system.

It was very clear that the starting point for Lindsay a decade ago was developing shared core values, guiding principals for learning, and clarity around the graduate profile.  Those founding documents are often the first things that go out the window when there are disruptions in leadership.  The stability of top leadership has allowed the vocabulary of the vision and corresponding strategic documents to seep deep into the professional culture.  Nobody in Lindsay talks about students or teachers.  They refer to learners and learning facilitators.  The six word mission statement – “empowering and motivating for today and tomorrow” – has been a guiding statement for over a decade.

As one teacher we talked to more bluntly put it.  “Lindsay is stubborn.  Our board and superintendent are stubborn.  Unlike every other system I’ve worked in, they developed a vision and keep at it.  You can’t escape it.  If you don’t like it, you leave, because it isn’t going away.  And I believe in it.”

Aligned Curriculum System

In terms of teaching and learning, Lindsay has shifted to a truly transparent, standards-based curriculum.  That’s easily the feature of the Lindsay story that was most impressive to me – because as a teacher and administrator myself, I know how hard that work is.  Really hard.

Each class is defined by a set of learning targets, pegged directly to the standards, that outlines the learning that is expected.  It has taken Lindsay Unified several years to outline the evidence that they want to see in order to certify that students have demonstrated mastery or proficiency of those targets.  I’ve rarely walked into a high school where every course has a clear standards-aligned syllabus that was accessible to students.  At best, these types of planning documents exist behind the scenes as teacher artifacts that don’t carry real meaning to students.  At worst, there is no deliberate connection between the standards and what happens in the classroom.  If Lindsay Unified had done nothing beyond ensuring a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum across their 4,000 student system, it would be considered a success.

You really can’t talk about shifting ownership of learning to students when it isn’t clear where the path goes and what success looks like.  And the details matter.  I refer to those details as the three pillars of competency-based learning: standards-aligned targets, high quality assessments, and accessible content.  I think Lindsay has the targets and assessments to a high degree, and they are constantly trying to build their capacity to discover and design the content.

Systemic Willingness to Learn

There is a fine balance to walk between stubborn adherence to core values and guiding principals, and stubborn unwillingness to change course when the data and lived experience suggest something isn’t working.

I heard some interesting quotes over the course of our visit.

“Those were some painful years.”

“We found that out the hard way.”

“It’s tough because a lot gets asked of us.”

Those are statements that reflect the reality of a learning organization.  You are constantly leaning into the unknown.

Richard Elmore uses the sentence frame – “I used to think, but now I think…” to give space to the hard fought learning and insight that comes despite our original assumptions.  I heard several examples of this during my visit to Lindsay.  Both teachers and administrators referred to the original mantra “every student learns at their own pace.”  The vision was oriented towards individual students progressing independently.   You might have students all over the map in terms of their progress.  That’s certainly the image that pops in my mind when I think of true competency-based learning.

Interestingly, Lindsay has adjusted their mantra.  Now they say, “teacher pace or faster.”  An acknowledgement that teachers can offer needed structure and accountability to move students forward, especially for those students who haven’t yet developed the motivation or executive functioning to actively monitor their progress.  “Teacher pace or faster” may not be as attractive a slogan as “every student at their own pace,” but it’s a design principle that has emerged from real system learning.

Dissent & Control


I stole that title from a truly phenomenal high school social studies teacher.  On the books, Ben taught AP Government.  But we all know that wasn’t exactly what was going on in his classroom. Dissent & Control was the title of the senior research project in Ben’s class.  The essential question was how we balance, as a country, the need to control opinions & behaviors with the right to dissent, protest, and disagree.

Managing Ben, quite frankly, could be tough.  He has the heart of an activist.  During the Occupy Movement, he sometimes spent his afternoons and evenings across the Bay at the encampment in downtown Oakland.  I didn’t ask too many questions, just encouraged him to make sure he was available and present for his students – which he always was.  But often when we proposed changes, Ben voiced concerns.  On our Instructional Leadership Team, sometimes Ben was the lone vote for dissent.

Ben didn’t believe the AP curriculum was adequate.  When our charter management organization entered into a grant agreement to boost AP scores using a common curriculum, it created tension.  As a small charter management organization, our principal team was usually at the table when binding decisions on curriculum were made.  Some members of the team expressed concern that I would allow a hold-out.  I myself had moments of doubt – wondering whether it would be in the best interest of the school and students to either force a strict adherence to the AP curriculum or move him from teaching seniors.

Yet, in many ways, Ben was one of the most essential members of our faculty.  If we truly aspire to teach critical thinking as a habit of mind, then Ben represented the best of what is possible.  He taught kids to question, inquire, push for clarification, and then probe even deeper.  He equipped students with a set of analytical skills and tools that would serve them throughout their lives.  That’s not just my interpretation of Ben’s impact – it’s all the things I heard students say about their experiences in his classroom.

As a teacher leader, Ben invited us to see another perspective, consider alternative explanations, and to never forget that social justice is how we live our lives and not just our curriculum. Over time, I would sometimes play out different scenarios in my mind in anticipation of how I might respond when Ben voiced his dissent.  It was an intellectual practice that continually strengthened my own decision-making process.

As administrators, we make decisions on a regular basis that balance individual student needs with the health of a school community or larger organization.  We weigh the financial health of a public institution with the needs of our students – needs that always outpace our ability to address them.  I wonder if I’m not being vocal enough when decisions are made that I perceive as harmful or unfair.  At other times, I wonder if we are ceding too much decision-making to the data – as if numbers bore the whole truth or didn’t play favorites.

I often find myself walking that delicate balance between dissent and control in my own personal political life.  I’m feeling a pull towards dissent that I really have never experienced as acutely as I am experiencing now.  Some mornings I wake up feeling like I will have let my family, community, and country down if I don’t do something or say something.  I know I need to speak out – but I also wonder how much noise to make.

I’m sure Ben wondered too.  I know there were plenty of moments when he felt a surge of genuine concern or anger about a decision that was being made.  He wasn’t afraid to vocalize his perspective.  I’m sure Ben probably felt, at times, that his job might be on the line.  And quite frankly, he would have been right.  But to his credit, and I hope to mine, we persisted together.

In the end, I think it made both of us better.

Busy-ness Peddling


How do you respond when someone asks how you are doing?

“Things are a little crazy, but I’m doing well.”

“I’m doing fine, just really busy.”

“Good, although I’ve got back to back meetings this morning.”

I’ll speak for myself when I say that there are countless temptations every day to refer to my level of “busy-ness.”  Markers of “busy-ness” show up in our choice of vocabulary and topics of conversation.  Both in our professional and personal lives, “busy” can become shorthand for how we talk to each other.

“Man, life is busy” could be innocuous small talk.  Just a friendly way to build on common experiences with the people we interact with each day.  But sometimes I’m suspicious that the constant talk of more to do then we have time to do it reveals something deeper.  I’m not a psychologist, but I wonder if it has to have something to do with an emotional need to present our contribution as valuable, or perhaps to remind people that we’re pulling our weight.  In a highly regulated labor environment like public schools and classrooms, we associate value with time worked and not necessarily with outcomes achieved.  It’s baked into our contracts and our professional culture.  In Santa Ana, we even share a funny line about how employment is measured in dog years – every year in Santa Ana is the equivalent of 7 years somewhere else.

It could be that we happen to work in an profession and environment as teachers and educators where we feel starved for the public recognition and financial support that our work deserves.  In other words, our individual need to prove our worth is a miniature version of our collective need to prove that education is a real profession on par with other professional fields.  It could be that the expectations for what an educator should be responsible to accomplish – singlehandedly overcoming the impacts of intergenerational poverty, systemic racism, or family disfunction, for example – are not entirely reasonable.

Even if some of that existential need to share how busy we are is the result of legitimate stresses of the work we do – I think expressing our busy-ness actually makes the situation worse.  The way we talk influences the way we think and feel about our work.    Our language seeps into and shapes our classroom, school, and organizational cultures.  And it doesn’t build empathy in the way we think and hope it does.  At best, it reinforces a sense that value is measured in hours worked and not on impact.  We start narratives about teachers who leave early or stay late, without much good data to inform us who, actually, is making a bigger difference in the classroom.  At worst, we’re perceived as whiners, setting us up collectively for the inevitable comparisons between other industries and professions and our relatively short working days or calendar years.

As a former high school principal and currently as a supervisor of principals, I know firsthand that running a school is a time-intensive endeavor.  I have a lot of empathy when a principal shares the extent of their busy-ness – and I don’t have to doubt their frustration that they simply can’t do it all.  At the same time, the ability to manage a resource as precious as your time is a marker of your leadership skill set.  Everyone is busy.  Everyone is overworked – and yet in that context some leaders move organizations much further than others.

So yes, I’m busy.  Life is crazy right now.  But it’s the work I chose and the work I love – and I have just as much time as anybody else.