Feature

The Ingredients for Good Leadership

Moving people and an organization forward by being positive, constructive, outcome-focused and relentless by James E. Lukaszewski

No matter who will be making education policy at this time next year, one thing we know for sure: The year will be more challenging, more difficult and perhaps more confused than this year.

Whatever the issue — No Child Left Behind, the political struggle over tenure or the annual search for more funds, better-trained teachers, improved infrastructure and more community participation — progress will take leadership, foresight and powerful personal strategies on the part of school administrators. Anything less, and next year will look a lot like last year.

Leadership is a lonely obligation. Every leader, no matter how many followers, is an individual actor, sharing ideas and concepts, mostly verbally, in the hope of producing a result that benefits the operation and the people whose lives those operations affect. Goals that are set must be worthy of achievement.

The questions every administrator and other school leaders must repeatedly ask are: How can I effectively move the organization forward in some way every day? When loyalty is at a premium and markets and workplaces seem unstable, what force will bring focus and forward momentum?

Important people, successful executives and true leaders use crucial leadership behaviors to move processes and people forward. These behaviors are the key ingredients of leadership. The more of these ingredients leaders take to heart, teach and expect of others, the more power they will have to achieve their objectives, and the more followers they will develop to maintain the momentum necessary to succeed. These approaches are so fundamentally sound that superintendents can uniformly apply these traits in any school system. Individual principals can apply them to a single school setting. A teacher can apply them to a class.

The power of these ingredients is that you can, as a leader, teach them to others who can, in turn, teach them to others within the organization. In fact, my suggestion always is that as you learn the power of these ingredients, insist others use them, too. The ingredients are helpful to everyone engaged in a relationship. They set the tone for so much of what you will do and accomplish and are a constructive example for others to follow.

Here are four powerful ingredients of leadership. (There are 11 ingredients that I teach in my strategic communication course for leaders.)

Be Positive: Help People Understand
Behave in positive ways. Use positive declarative language. Eliminate all negative words and phrases.

The key concept here is to eradicate the use of negative words and phrases. It’s the most powerful of all the ingredients. Make it a personal discipline. If you can accomplish even a part of this goal, your life will be different. Relationships will change. You will have a much more powerful and controlling effect over events and others. You also will be much more personally satisfied that, even in the most difficult of situations, you have done what was needed to be an honorable person and have helped others in ways that are truly useful to them.

In normal conversation, when someone says something with which we disagree, we invariably respond by saying something like, “You’re wrong,” “That’s incorrect,” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “It’s simply not done that way,” “No,” or some similar negative approach. You then may explain what is correct or how you really do things, but your listener is still dealing with the insult of your negative language. This makes it almost impossible for him or her to hear your constructive language. Negative comments put us on the defensive while creating critics and misunderstandings.

Eliminate Bad News by Eradicating Negative Language


The Bad News Eradicator is a little exercise I do with clients in which I present a list of common negative phrases and then ask my clients to turn them into positives. Below I’ve taken a series of negative phrases and spun them into positive ones.

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If you want to get things done, you need to tell people what to do. When you do so, include other information that would be helpful to their own personal success. Focusing on what others shouldn’t do, can’t do or won’t do confuses everyone and makes goals harder to accomplish.

The lesson is this: Your use of negative language controls your relationship with other people. When you eradicate or eliminate negative and emotional words, you become far more powerful and in control of almost any situation. Your positive approach blocks or defeats those who are negative.

Remember, it is negative language that causes all misunderstandings, disagreements, divorces, confrontations and even wars. Find a way to say things with positive language, even by positively rephrasing the negative statements you hear. You will see the difference it makes in relationships.

Be Constructive: Achieve More
Insist on constructive behavior. Seek to make and solicit positive, constructive suggestions. Eliminate the use of criticism and replace it with constructive suggestions. Criticism is sticky, negative and more memorable than anything positive.

A friend recently chaired the performance evaluation of the new minister in her church. She put together a brief letter to members of the congregation asking they provide some comments, criticisms and recommendations about the minister’s performance. She mailed 700 letters. Within 10 days she received more than 500 responses, each of which contained an average of three comments. Some contained even more.

They were devastating. If you added up all of the criticisms, there was no way this minister could possibly continue in the job and survive emotionally. Many comments reflected individual misunderstandings and lack of knowledge of the scope of the congregation’s mission or the daily activities required of the minister as the congregation’s leader. The criticisms boiled down to negative personal commentary.

My friend’s problem was, of course, that she had to share this information with the minister. If she didn’t have any alternative information, he might want to resign. The congregation actually liked this man and wanted him to stay.

Ask anyone to criticize and you are guaranteed to get several negative comments, instantly, most of which you couldn’t change even if you wanted to. I suggested that my friend go back to the congregation and solicit constructive suggestions the minister might consider as next steps for “Phase Two” of his evaluation. My friend did go back and use this technique. Out of the 700-member congregation, she received 12 suggestions. My friend went back to the minister, in all honesty, and showed the first assessments from the congregation, but then showed the follow-up work. The minister stayed and implemented every suggestion in the first 90 days.

The lesson is this: Criticism is always negative. It is always perceived as being negative. In fact, criticism is always remembered. If you want to make critics, irritate people and create victims, continue to use, permit or encourage criticism as a technique.

You have the power to structure and control productive discussions and debate. If you want constructive results, seek and insist on constructive suggestions. Because there will be far more recommendations, a lot more gets done and achieved. If you are constructive and seek positive, constructive suggestions, you automatically control and, therefore, powerfully manage how decisions are made.

“Constructive criticism” is an oxymoron.

Be Outcome-Focused: Wage Peace
This means always focus on the goal. Select an achievable, understandable, time-sensitive, worthwhile goal, and then go for it. Work in the future tense. Recognize that the past holds very few important lessons.

Some years ago, I was deeply involved in negotiations among some powerful anti-corporate forces: groups of labor unions, church groups and nongovernmental organizations. The issues were extraordinarily compelling and divisive in the news, and to some extent, in the streets. The challenge was to find a way to sit down face to face, put these matters in some perspective and develop a plan of action.

Fortunately, someone suggested we meet with a minister in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., just across the East River from Manhattan. He was reputed to have a strategy to manage such politically charged confrontations.

We met in his living room in December. This large, jovial man greeted us warmly, asked us to sit down together in front of a roaring fire, listen to some music and be quiet for a few minutes.

He then laid down just one ground rule for the day’s work: The discussion was to be entirely outcome-focused. This meant that whatever happened among us prior to entering his living room no longer existed or mattered (disagreements, arguments, behaviors, truth, fiction and lies). The past was completely irrelevant to our current discussions. If we couldn’t abide by this fundamental ground rule, he promised to end the discussions and bid us a pleasant day.

Because everyone owns yesterday from his or her own perspective, past perceptions will be permanent. No one owns the future — the next 15 minutes, the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. Therefore, when we choose to be outcome-focused, we choose to build the future together. There is room to accommodate.

Now back to Brooklyn Heights. Each time anyone began a discussion supported by something from the past, our host would halt the discussion and refocus it on tomorrow. By 4:30 that afternoon, we had negotiated and signed a one-page agreement. That agreement was reached on Dec. 15, 1995. Those who signed it still live by it today.

The lessons are these:
1. All victims live in yesterday. Their situation, and yours, can only get resolved when you both move into tomorrow.

2. Wage peace. Focus on tomorrow. Only take from yesterday positive, useful, constructive elements and ideas that can move today’s process forward, promptly (assuming you can find anything like this from the past).

3. Focusing on the future. This allows you to build tomorrow faster by moving beyond the problems, misunderstandings and time-wasting debates about yesterday.

4. You can do this. Progress is achieved by looking, acting and forging ahead. Being outcome-focused is one of the most powerful time-conserving concepts I have come across to move things forward. If you stay in the past, argue the past, try to rewrite the past, you’ll die there. So will your career and your hopes.

You get to the future faster by starting there.

Be Positively Relentless: Teach, Coach, Lead Powerfully
Always seek positive, incremental, personal improvement every day. Break problems into solvable parts. Prepare to be lucky, but remember that luck is limited. Leaders relentlessly measure their personal, incremental progress every day.

The most credible leaders and managers are those who relentlessly and intentionally:

• Grow and learn every day.

• Help those they serve to achieve some positive incremental progress daily.

• Identify and talk about those positive increments that those they work with, supervise or lead achieve every day.

• Assess what they have learned, and then teach others to assess themselves.

This is among the most profound lessons for students, teachers, administrators and leaders I know: True success comes to those who relentlessly seek positive, incremental, personal improvement every day. Isn’t this the daily goal for every child in every classroom? Leadership is the product of relentless, daily, positive, incremental progress.

This discipline will ensure that even your most frustrating days are rewarding and important. Ask yourself: What did I learn today? How can I apply that learning to something I’m currently working on or something I want to work on? What did others learn from me today? How or what have I improved in some way for someone else today?

Leadership is the strategic force that drives individuals, organizations, cultures and societies toward tomorrow, every day. Leadership is the discipline of being intentionally constructive with a relentlessly positive approach to helping others.

James Lukaszewski is a management consultant in White Plains, N.Y., and author of Why Should the Boss Listen to You: The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor. E-mail: tlg@e911.com.Copyright 2008, James E. Lukaszewski.