ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - June 2001


Issue Highlight — A Sad and Grateful Remembrance
- Peter Block reflects on the life of friend and colleague, Joel Henning. Read about his lifelong contributions and what we can learn from his vision for a brighter future.

 In This Issue...
A Lesson In Leadership
Holding On
Microfiching For A Solution
Solving The Presentation Puzzle
Reopening "The Diary Of A Shutdown"

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

A Lesson In Leadership
Inspiring Others by Unleashing the Power to Work Their Passion

Think back to your favorite teacher in school—the one that inspired and challenged you, the one that encouraged learning through energy and creativity and really made a difference in your life. Talking to Dr. Lorraine Monroe might just bring such a teacher to mind.

  Few people can legitimately claim to have had such a profound impact on education and leadership as Monroe. She has dedicated her life to the improvement of schools and has boldly rewritten the rules of the classroom. She empowers teachers to be “creatively crazy” and has turned around even the most destitute inner city schools. Dr. Monroe was the founding principal of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Central Harlem, a school well known for poor attendance, violence and low academic achievement. Her strong, charismatic leadership helped 96 percent of the first graduating class go on to college and it remains one of New York City’s best high schools.

  Founder and executive director of the School Leadership Academy at the Center for Educational Innovation, a New York-based nonprofit group, she helps others see the benefits of creative educational leadership. Her groundbreaking work has been featured on “60 Minutes,” in Reader’s Digest, Ebony magazine, The New York Times and Fast Company. Dr. Monroe is the author of “Nothing’s Impossible: Leadership Lessons from Inside and Outside the Classroom” and the anticipated “98 Things Great Bosses Always Do,” due out by the end of this year.

  Dr. Monroe’s message awakens the creativity in all of us and unleashes every person’s potential to be an inspiration to others and a stronger leader in their organization.

NFC: You say that good leadership always comes back to what leaders say and do to make that vision active. You describe these as “vision acts.” Can you give an example of behavior that would qualify as a vision act?

Monroe: First and foremost, the leader must exemplify the mission in his or her behavior. If the mission is about the improvement of people and the improvement of instruction, then the followers should see the leader getting smarter and learning. Leaders should be able to do anything on the instructional side themselves that they’re asking the people to do. They should have the ability to train people to do the work of the organization and make the mission happen. It’s very important that you honor what you expect and what you respect, and that you model what you expect and respect. It’s one way of showing that the vision is real as opposed to a statement that’s on paper or posters.

NFC: Can you share an example where you’ve gotten smarter in order to lead?

Monroe: Just this morning our organization was discussing what we have learned this year that we are either going to jettison or do better. We frequently revisit things and say, “How can we smooth this out so that it’s better?” One of the things we do is train the leaders before beginning intensive work with the rest of the organization. Then sometime later, generally upon request, we address the staff of those leaders. What we’ve come to realize is the importance of training the staff immediately after training the leaders so that they know, when we come in as consultants, who we are and what we stand for.

NFC: So, the lesson you learned is to provide staff with training immediately after providing leaders with the training?

Monroe: Yes, because you train the leaders to believe in your particular system and how to work your system; they understand the “Monroe Model.” But it’s difficult for them to make it work without the staff having some grounding in what it is they are talking about. We’ve found that people say, “Why didn’t we know this early on? Oh, now I see, now I see.” It’s giving second- and third-party support to the school leader. It’s very hard to begin to change if people don’t understand what the change is about and how to work the change to their benefit.

NFC: I know one of the things you do as part of the “Monroe Model” is walk around and observe people as they work and provide them with immediate feedback. What else do you do in this model?

Monroe: We have training tools that we teach people to use. We train the principals to observe instruction. We say, “If the leader doesn’t go, then the leader doesn’t know.” So we train principals to be highly observant as to what is really going on in their schools. That behavior is good for any kind of leader. People will give you glorious reports and tell you, “Yeah, everything’s hunky-dory. Don’t worry, we’re on top of it!” And when it comes to the outcome you think, “Why did this happen?” It happened because you relied on written reports or second-hand information. We train people to delegate some administrative and supervisory functions, but primarily to put their eyeballs on it. In fact, in our madness, we hand out eyeballs to principals and conduct entire sessions on, “What are you going to put your eyeballs on?”

NFC: What do you encourage them to put their eyeballs to?

Monroe: Exactly what the teachers are doing. This is very important because teachers can write great lesson plans and talk a great lesson, but nothing beats the administrator going in the room and watching the person at work. This process works just as well on a factory floor or in a corporation. The point is to understand what is really going on.
The second part of our technique is, “What do you do with what you see?” How do you, on the basis of what you have observed, train people to become better? That’s very crucial in turning an organization around. You want people to get better all the time. You want them to be as reflective as good executives are. A good executive is always looking, trying to get better, trying to facilitate for staff. And you want people to become what we call “reflective practitioners.” That is, they themselves become very reflective in terms of, “How good was I this time and how can I be better next time?”

NFC: How do you encourage them to become better? How do they know when they’ve gotten better?

Monroe: We give teachers and administrators both written and oral feedback. Before we leave a school we are visiting, we give the principal a one- or two-page, post-observation paper that says, “this is what we see and here are three things that you should be working on.” We almost never give more than three things and they’re generally things that we have taught in the beginning. It takes some people a year or more to get it. We believe that leaders have to observe their people and do internal staff development. A lot of corporations have people come from the outside to train their people, which is good, you need that third party support. But the other real help for people comes if the leaders in the organization are able to address the particular needs and the specifics that people should be working on. That’s the best use of staff time and staff meetings. The leaders are able to say, “When I walked around to your rooms, I saw that we need to hone our questioning or getting-started skills.” The specificity of this type of training helps staff to get better and better because it’s not something that is handed down from on high. It isn’t the state or the government that said it, it’s the leader who has been in the building, has visited the classrooms and has seen what needs to improve.
  The other part is that staff respects the leader because he or she not only knows what he or she is looking at, but also demonstrates how to make the staff better. It’s rare for an individual to come to work and not care about getting better or not have a sense of pride in what they are doing; particularly in our work of education, which is sacred. Transforming children’s lives, hearts, minds and spirits is more than ordinary work. This work is not to be taken lightly, and part of the leader’s responsibility, particularly in schools, is to inspire people to comprehend the incredible weight of this work and the incredible possibility of doing phenomenal things with children.

NFC: Creativity is a thread that you’ve woven throughout your work and career. You talk about being “creatively crazy.” How do you teach people to get crazy about creativity?

Monroe: Initially, you give people those bread and butter skills that will allow them to survive in the classroom and thrive in instruction. I just did a workshop with a group of 40 people and said, “You’ve got the basics, what is important now is to move from craft to art.” And when you’re moving people from craft to artistry, they begin to open up. When leaders go around they begin to see people who have this spark or see them trying to do things in different ways. What you want in any organization is a group of people who not only know the craft, but who are ready to do the wild and crazy positive things. For example, “How can we do a study that allows us to know the universality of human beings when we are doing poetry? What is the universality across three novels or three different cultures? What key theme do we see running through all of this?” The creatively crazy teacher actually takes the kids to these communities where diverse people live; they have an opportunity to eat the foods, listen to the music and learn the dances. That’s the creatively crazy person who knows how to teach and who loves teaching our children. The other person says, “You read the book and write a good report because that is required for the standards or the state examination.” The creatively crazy person has a passion about what he or she is doing and the ability to communicate that passion to others.

NFC: I think when we recall our school days and remember that unforgettable teacher who sparked something special in us; it now seems to me that it was always the creatively crazy one.

Monroe: Exactly. When I observe people, I say, “You have to communicate to the children the reason you chose to major in this subject. Otherwise the subject is not going to live—facts and pieces of information don’t move kids.” It really doesn’t matter what the subject is. If the teacher loves it the kids will love it. If the teacher knows how to bring the outside in, whether it’s through technology, speakers or food and music, children long to be with that teacher. I think a lot of teachers are hungry to learn the basics in how to do this so they can become the magic. I see that most people want to be good, rather than just come in to collect a paycheck.

NFC: Creating that magic certainly puts a new demand on people in the organization, but it must also put a new demand on the leaders, like you, to create this environment. Can you speak to your passion for creating an environment that sparks this magic?

Monroe: When you create an environment that gives off the “organizational hum”—that is when you walk into a school and you say, “Something’s going on here”—you can just feel it. You have the pride of a leader because you have put not only the instructional level in place, but you have given people permission to work their passion. You get to be better at releasing people and spotting the person who’s just kind of waiting. But you are also surprised, as I have been, by making the statement, “I want you to be innovative, I want to support any creative ideas you have that will further children’s love of a subject or love of learning.” It is so pleasing to me to see people that I had never expected would have those abilities come out of the woodwork and release a kind of energy that is so powerful. People will surprise you when they are trained and released.

NFC: Who or what influenced you to become the leader that you are? Were there other leaders early on who influenced you?

Monroe: My mother and father were wonderful examples of human beings. I had a father who was highly charismatic; he could walk into a room and take the room. He had a gift of speech, he was handsome and he was very, very smart. My mom was all that, but quiet with it, with a high level of stability; she was the person you could rely on. My father was wild and wacky in a good way, which I liked. I certainly have gotten characteristics from both of them and have amalgamated them into something that is me.
  I also had great teachers. In third grade I started student council. As secretary in the fourth grade, I learned about public speaking and leadership. To watch teachers who worked their magic and be taught by them was certainly very powerful to me. I learned leadership by watching leaders who were charismatic and highly forceful about what they wanted.

NFC: Is there anything else you would like to share about education in the future or anything that you have a passion about?

Monroe: There are two things I would like to share. One, just in terms of quality and participation; there is no question that as a student, as a kid, as a teacher and as an administrator, I’ve always worked for quality and equality. I’ve worked predominantly with poor, discounted, at-risk, disadvantaged kids. I have found the only disadvantage they have is they’re undereducated. So it has been my passion that I would “give to the least of these what the best pay for,” i.e., provide a rigorous private school education to kids for free. I am highly democratic when it’s appropriate. There are times when a leader has to say, “this is what it is,” but I like participation. I like working with people who are smart, who think quickly, who don’t necessarily have my style, but who understand the power of this mission to transform children’s lives. I love being with people and participating and exchanging ideas with other smart people, people who have ideas and who think outside of the box.
  In answer to your second question about education in the future, I have some very deep concerns about the urgency of the need for fundamental change in the education of poor, disadvantaged and at-risk kids, whatever the color.
  The reason I’m very interested in leadership, particularly school leadership, although I talk to corporate leaders also, is it’s fundamental to the good working of our country that something positive happens to the children who have been underserved and disserved. School, for most kids, is the place where their lives can change. It’s the only stable, predictable element in a lot of poor kids’ lives; therefore, the school experience has to be sterling every single day. Every single day a kid should leave school knowing more than he or she knew when he or she walked into the building at the beginning of the day. And for me, that means I need to train school leaders on how to make that happen. I need to train them on how to create organizations so that, “no child is left behind” and all children have a shot at what is really pure and wonderful and that because of school they believe life is full of limitless possibilities. It is our responsibility to remove the limitations, to remove the shadows, so our children can finish their schooling and live lives of very few regrets because of the fundamental skills we have given them and the love of learning and the cherishing that we have had for them as individuals.


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