Be a Great Leader and Get Out of the Way
When you are the sun in the solar system of your organization, there is a sense of control. And for me, that felt safe.
As I mentioned in the first installment of Confessions From the Former Sun, when I was a new teacher I was the source of all knowledge and planning in the classroom.
Sure, there were frequent opportunities for students to do their own “research.” There were lots of collaborative study groups and student discussions. But as I look back, many of those apparently student-centered activities were really cloaking a completely teacher-created universe.
Their inquiry was around prompts typically generated by me. The discussion points were written by yours truly. And the perimeters for student discussion were so tightly managed that I could pretty much predict what each student would say in my “academic forums.”
When I started teaching adults rather than young people, I continued with this model. Many (most?) people were buffaloed into believing that the fact that there were interactive activities and discussions meant that this was totally learner-centered teaching. Heck, I believed it myself. It certainly looked like the learners were in charge.
I had created this environment with the idea of learner freedom inside the safety of structure, an environment warmed by the heat of my heliocentric self. And maybe that would have been good enough - I can certainly think of a lot worse ways to lead. But at one point, I realized something still didn’t quite feel right. Something felt not quite complete. This environment could move to “learning 2.0.”
The one who does the work is the one who does the learning
Author Terry Doyle explains in Learner Centered Teaching that the one who does the work is the one who does the learning. And whether I was teaching in a classroom, a board room, or an auditorium of professionals, I realized I was the one doing the work.
I did all the research so that they would be allowed to simulate the activity of research, I generated the information that they could then manipulate, rearrange, and - if everything went well - produce the intended summary of knowledge that I had laid out like breadcrumbs for them to find and gobble up.
A rumbling from the core of my personal Milky Way must have vibrated just enough to make a subtle, but significant change.
It was the tiniest of shifts
What if the learners and teams that I led moved from being the consumers of knowledge to being the producers of knowledge? What if the structures I created provided the opportunity for them to not just go through the actions of making decisions and finding answers, but actually allowed them to do the legwork of identifying and asking the questions?
My head was spinning with worries and also excitement:
It was scary. It was uncertain. And it became a major turning point in my understanding of what it means to lead.
Being the center of the universe feels highly efficient
Being the sun in a solar system of my own making felt highly efficient. Just like being “the boss” can feel efficient. I make the rules, I set the stage, and I control all the outcomes. It also comes with a potentially heavy price.
I made myself crazy making sure every potential scenario was accounted for, crafting every element of the learners’ experiences. And efficient? Those learning spaces ran like a finely oiled machine. But the pre-work I put in to imagine every possible outcome, the cognitive load I carried knowing that every element of the experience counted on my being the master of The Knowledge, the keeper of all the answers, that was surely not as efficient as it appeared, nor was it leading to the deepest level of authentic learning I was seeking.
So it was in this environment, where I was keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, that I discovered the blessing of becoming a facilitator.
You don’t have to know all the answers - you have to know how to bring out the best in people
A facilitator brings out the best in their participants, whether they be young learners or adult learners. A facilitator lifts up all individuals, removes artificial and unnecessary hierarchies, builds ownership among the team, and taps into the skill sets of each member.
The answers, along with the wisdom, are in the room, as well as the resources needed to build the learning for each participant. The facilitator’s job is sometimes to serve as ringmaster, cajoling and tying together the experience, sometimes as sounding board, and sometimes as mirror, to allow team members to reflect. The facilitator’s job is always to create an environment that sets the stage for learning and helps participants ask the questions that get them to their goals.
Notice that none of those jobs of a facilitator include having all the answers. What a relief! What a burden was lifted the day that I retired from my role as the center of the universe. Not only could learning happen without me having every factoid packed in my brain, every potential solution preplanned, learning and creation could happen at a much higher level. With the group’s collective imagination engaged, they were no longer limited by the boundaries of my capacity to hold The Knowledge, they were only bound by the limits of their own creativity and willingness to ask more questions.
Sometimes our best efforts to create a perfect learning experience hinder what true learning is all about.
A great facilitator can be a great leader, and a great leader knows to get out of the way.
Gentle Breezes -
PS: As I continue to reflect on my own growth, I invite you to join me in thinking about ways you have grown as a leader of humans - mistakes made, lessons learned, and aspirations developed. I also encourage you to follow the work of Terry Doyle, whose work on bringing theory to practice has been an important influence in my own work. He, along with Dr. B.M Doyle, will be publishing The New Science of Teaching (Stylus) this fall, which I am really looking forward to. Until then, I’ll be busy over here sharing with people what facilitation-in-action looks like. See you next time!