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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Look Around Corners and Over Horizons

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement from a manuscript I prepared for publication. The posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

What can a Vision do? 
     My sister and her husband coach a high school cross-country team in New York that has captured eighteen straight state championships in addition to seven national high school championships. Their accomplishments earned them National Coach of the Year honors for 1998. (Harrier magazine) The team’s competitors are numerous in a populous state like New York. There’s nothing in the water to differentiate these girls from their opponents. Their vision of success and what it takes to succeed is more important to the coaches than the rigorous training regimen of the runners, their well disciplined organization, and their total commitment and support of team members. They have inspired countless individuals to college scholarships and expanded opportunities.  
     One distinct capacity they manifest is the ability to motivate members of the team. And, make no mistake about it, despite individual state champions among their stable, the coaches have shaped a cohesive group with a shared vision. This belief is evident in the interactions runners have had with the media that are sprinkled with references to the “team rather than the individual.  
     An example of their motivational tactics involves the principle of “feedforward” presented by Pribram and explained in other terms by Charles Garfield in his book, Peak Performers. On the eve of a state championship meet not long ago the coaches feared that the team was not ready to run at their potential. Earlier that day my brother-in-law had videotaped the course the girls would confront the next morning. During the afternoon he dubbed music from Chariots of Fire to accompany the video of the course. Next, they assembled the team in their living room and loosened up with several relaxation exercises. They had the girls picture the perfect race in their minds. Then, they played the video for the girls. They observed that as the television depicted a hill on the course the girls responded with tightened calf muscles. They were running the race while they sat comfortably in chairs. 
     The next morning the girls established a record for margin of victory at a state championship meet. They had already run the race in their minds the evening before. There were no surprises along the course. They didn’t hope to win, they expected to win.  
     Coaches now routinely seek to tap into the potential of a player through mental imaging or mental rehearsal. Books have been written touting the benefits of mentally picturing the perfect stroke prior to swinging the tennis racket, golf club, or baseball bat. This practice is embodied in the twist of the saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it” to the slightly different statement with promising consequences, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” (Ray and Rinzler, p. 4)     
     Schools have been thrown into a much more competitive arena since I started as an administrator over three decades ago. Back then, the community or school board’s frame of reference was how the school compared to neighboring schools or the invisible schools that comprise the “national norms.” Those reference points have been replaced by high stakes tests reflecting the increased intervention of the federal department of education. Data is readily available via countless websites for comparative purposes and consequences in the form of embarrassing designations presented in the mainstream media. Recognizing that the game has changed and we are competing in a race like the aforementioned cross country runners, with measured standards and winners and losers, we must have a clear picture of where we want to go, why we want to go there, and how we will get there. What will you see? How will you feel? What will you experience in the “perfect” school? 
     A vision is the appropriate starting line. A vision should serve as a beacon for the school community. The meaning and direction expressed in the vision provides a mental image of what “could be, and should be.” Schools appear to focus much more on where they are at a given point in time and data, instead of imagining where they should be, or could be. According to Marcus Buckingham, author of The One Thing You Need to Know, creating and sustaining a credible vision that has the capacity to “look around corners” and imagine possibilities is a major responsibility of a leader (XXXX). It’s a challenge because it’s much easier to know where you are than where you could be. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky, when explaining how he has scored more goals than anyone in the history of the sport, states that, “It’s more important to know where the puck will be than to know where the puck is.” (Bennis, p. 199) The vision can function as a filter that screens actions and decisions of the school by way of asking; “Does this facilitate the pursuit of the vision?” 
How can you Communicate a Vision? 
     A vision is captivating and motivating. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, suggests that what the vision does is perhaps even more significant than what it is. (Senge, p. 153) For instance, the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a classic example of communicating a vision. (King, 1963) When King delivered his famous address to over two hundred thousand people in Washington, D.C. the civil rights movement was galvanized and propelled to greater action 
     A review of King’s presentation yields several essential ingredients for articulating a vision. King adroitly utilized proven components of an inspiring speech. He provided repetition, (key words and phrases -‘dream’; ‘let freedom ring’; ‘together’; are used many times). He added imagery, (embracing all people from all over by with his emotion delivery and quotes from the song, America). And he dispersed metaphors, (supplying words that listeners could easily transfer into a vivid mental picture of a better future). He appealed to the central values and beliefs of his audience. The message was timeless, encouraging, believable, stimulating, and most of all, it was right.  
     King presented followers with a more attractive future in such a fashion that they enlisted in the crusade toward that day “When we let freedom ring.” A believable, fair, and inviting vision, effectively and passionately communicated, will tug on the heartstrings of followers with the strength of the most enthusiastic bell ringer. 
     Authors Chip and Dan Heath speak of “sticky ideas” in their book, Made to Stick. Their words offer great advice for successfully communicating a vision. The vision should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible emotional, and delivered in story form. (Heath and Heath, p. 18) 
Selling the Vision 
     Napoleon claimed that, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” (Maxims) Another Frenchman, philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, contends that among the greatest of human forces is, “a great hope held in common.” (Spears and Lawrence, p. 238) Actor and playwright H.G. Wells looked at it somewhat differently, in a parallel commentary, when he described advertising (a modern, technological form of communicating a vision) as, “The science of teaching people what they want.” (Clark, p. 15) Effective leaders are sensitive to the expressions of people regarding their aspirations and frustrations, fears and celebrations, needs and excess, and they respond with a vision of a future that synthesizes these feelings and presents followers with a panorama of consensual hope. Buckingham notes that, “… if you know someone’s fear you will know their need,” (p. 129) and later adds, “Discover what is universal and capitalize on it.” (p. 132)     
     Bill O’Brien suggests that many of today’s organizations are typically designed to meet the first three levels of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs while, in reality, these needs (food, shelter, and belonging) are readily available throughout much of our society. He urges companies to provide opportunities for employees to pursue the higher levels of self-respect and self-actualization. (Senge, p. 347)  
     There are those among us, in the legion of school leaders, who are skittish or downright defensive whenever business is mentioned in the same breath as school. However, communicating a vision resembles the exercise of selling an idea. Robert L. Shook discusses the concept of selling “intangibles” is his book, Professional Salesperson. (p. 41) He states that the key to an effective sale of an intangible hinges upon the salesperson’s ability to appeal to the customers imagination. The salesperson should tap into the needs of the audience and stimulate their desire for a perceived benefit.  
     Billy Skinner, author of The Soul of Selling, (p. 42) suggests that there are two basic, global motives for seeking goods and services. The first is the enhancement of self-esteem. This is based on the perception one holds for what he/she considers good and what makes the person feel better about him/herself. Skinner describes this concept by using the image of a mirror reflecting pictures of who, and what, the customer wants to be. The desired end product of the feeling is pleasure or joy in self. The second motive, subtle fear, is nearly the inverse of the first. This feeling evolves from the concern that something will deprive a person of a perceived good. It is fueled by the pursuit of peace of mind. An effective example of acting upon this motive is found in the insurance industry, where salespeople subtly evoke fears of one passing away and leaving their loved ones unprotected. 

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