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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Experiments And Experience

Over the last twenty years I have been invited to speak throughout the country, and abroad, at conferences focusing on creating effective schools. In preparation for these seminars and in an effort to enhance my own performance, I enjoy reading about meaningful research that’s been condensed into a brief narrative or reflected in an experiment that offers a much easier to understand format for audience members. I collect information like this to support my presentations as examples that convey important leverage points in forming an effective organizational culture that promotes school improvement.

Here are two examples I’d like to share. They both serve to explain how I feel toward a couple of significant elements of leadership. Each of these experiments was contained in the book, In Search of Excellence.

The first provides insight into the value of empowering employees. If you successfully articulate a guiding vision, train people properly, provide sufficient resources and supply task specific assistance when needed, and offer opportunities for employees to extend themselves free of direct supervision, (what I refer to as snoopervision) you are apt to discover increased success.

“In an experiment, people were divided up into two different groups. Individuals were then sent one at a time to a room with the following instructions. "Your task is to put together as many puzzles as possible in a designated time period. There will be disconcerting noise (jackhammers, blaring noise, confusing, loud sounds...).
The second group was also separated as individuals and given the same directions. There was one exception however; these people had a switch that they could use to eliminate the noise.
The results of this study were interesting. The group with the switch, not surprisingly, completed far more puzzles than the group without the switch. But, the significant finding was that nobody in this group used the switch. It was just the knowledge that it was there if they needed it that provided the security for the participants to be successful.”

Whenever I review this piece I apply it to myself. I can swim, but I’m not a very good swimmer. As a youngster I watched my father dive into Sacandaga Lake like an Olympic swimmer to snatch up one of my brothers who had been beneath the surface for too long, rush him to shore, and administer CPR to revive him. My younger brother was blue and still for a while as he lay on the beach. That sapped my confidence in swimming in anything but swimming pools where I could clearly see the depth of the water and be close enough to the sides in the event I need to relax. Understanding my surroundings or environment enables me to feel more composed and assured. I know I can get to a side of the pool quickly when needed. The security of clearly defined boundaries permits me to have fun in the pool without fearing anxiety attacks that are brought on by the murky deep waters of a lake or the distance from shore.

The second selection presents a clear picture of goal setting that might surprise some people. It’s a realistic form of developing goals that stretches individuals but falls short of overwhelming those involved.

An experiment was conducted that involved individuals going into a room that had a stake standing upright, and three rings. Each person was told to go into the room and throw the rings on the stake. They were not told where to stand. Observers looking through a two way mirror plotted where the people stood and the distance from the stake.

They found three distinct groups. One group practically stood over the stake. Another group stood way over on the opposite end of the room from the stake. The third group was about halfway between the two. The risk takers were those in the middle because they were realistic in their expectations - far enough away to challenge themselves, but not so close that it was too easy.”

Leadership involves a considerable burden of responsibility. Chief among my duties as the leader of Green Island Union Free School District is the task of being a shepherd and guiding our collective efforts to increase performance levels at Heatly. It is a role I accept with a great sense of accountability to the community. As such, I do not want to accept risks beyond our capacity as an organization, nor do I want to limit our progress with stunted goals that fail to promote the pursuit of our mission. Like the experiment noted above, I want us to reach forward and grow by identifying realistic and inspirational goals.

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