The Paradox of Power: How empowering others increases a leader’s strength

by Ryan B. Jackson

Leadership and power go hand-in-hand. Right? Leaders cast vision, rally buy-in for this vision, before finally using some sort of influence to execute this vision. Therefore, it takes some form of power to effectively orchestrate this complex process and highly sought-after skill.

Yet, power is a polarizing construct due to its varied connotations and historical applications. Too much power to one person and it doesn’t take a history professor to predict the outcome: Hitler, Kim Jong Il, Emperor Nero, Jim Jones (have fun creating your own list). Too little power and simply see any lame duck president over the past 200 years. For the purpose of this blog post we’re going to steer away from conversations of moral compass, moral imperatives and the age-old fascination with good vs. evil. However, the point remains that leadership and power are seemingly synonymous — the more focused question then becomes How should leaders best utilize their power in order to build capacity and maximize output from those they lead, while inevitably trying to realize a pronounced vision?

As one of the foremost current experts on motivation through effective leadership, Daniel Pink explores the relationship between motivation and autonomy (Get motivated here–> I specifically reference Mr. Pink because a particular quote of his has been turning over-and-over in my head for the past two weeks: “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Now, three months ago this quote would have merely stood as inspiration  as I analyzed how to use autonomy to motivate the teachers, students and staff that I serve. But, like iconoclast Bob Dylan forecasted, “For the times they are a changin’.”

Seems now I am more and more fascinated with the empowerment vs. engagement zeitgeist that acts as a hovering hurricane just off the coast of education. Is it still good enough to simply engage students? Would leadership guru Jim Collins respect me if he found out I was doling out autonomy to my staff for the sole purpose of good engagement? For the sake of cynicism, let’s clarify that the argument between engagement and empowerment is more than mere semantics. To engage someone is to emotionally involve them, with a cemented commitment to this involvement. However, to empower someone is to increase their proverbial strength through the process of relinquishing some of your own power.

Herein lies the leadership conundrum: Do leaders want emotionally connected followers who engage in a well-directed task or is leadership something truly greater, an act of empowerment, where followers become leaders themselves strengthened through inspired authority? The latter question directly addresses what I’ve coined the Paradox of Power, which is the head-scratching assertion that leaders actually gain strength by giving it to others. At the admitted risk of cliche, it’s tough not think of empowerment and its incorporation of strength, power, leadership and advancement and not see a military tie-in. Specifically and historically, one analogy stands-out above the rest when viewing empowerment through the lens of military might. Take the Atom bomb, for instance. As a stand alone representation of power the Atom bomb is quite useless, just a bunch of plutonium fission, bolts and alloy. It’s not until the bomb is dropped that the true power of critical mass is realized, resulting in a nuclear chain reaction.

Extend this analogy to a classroom. When a teacher sets out to do more than just engage students, when the instruction now serves as a catalyst of sorts, empowering students to apply this new knowledge in experiential, indelible learning modes, the teacher is now exercising his or her own critical mass, while utilizing a multiplier-effect as students commit to more than just the lesson at hand and instead fuse this learning with personalized approaches to broader understandings.

The tip of the empowerment spear in education is undoubtedly project-based learning (PBL). Here, teachers empower students with the necessary skills before facilitating a grander learning process which sees students researching, designing, creating and presenting their cross-curricular, hands-on projects. Look no further than teachers like Mike Mitchell (@panthersart), whose Mars spacesuit-design PBL marries his students’ love for art and science and garnered the attention and eventual mentorship of Project Runway Season 16 runner-up Amanda Valentine (@avvalentine). Or, Ryan Murphy (@ryanomurphy), whose students’ passion for Shakespeare grew exponentially after the AP Lit students code-switched Shakespeare’s Hamlet, turning the renown masterpiece into a hyperreal urban tragedy feature film titled Hamlet X: A Hip-Hopera. Two examples of teacher-leaders who choose to empower students and saw their return on learning investment skyrocket.

As an assistant principal serving in an urban high school, one in which 90% of our students live at or below the poverty-line, I find empowering teachers more than just a practical tool. In fact, empowerment has become the cornerstone of our new teacher cohort program, where first and second year teachers meet monthly for a variety of reasons none more powerful than the professional development they receive from that month’s veteran teacher who self-selects a strength, designs a unique 30 minute learning experience before finally empowering the cohort with invaluable information. Before you know it, the Paradox of Power has reached a critical mass, symbolized by a chain reaction of teachers leading teachers, those teachers empowering students and students controlling their own learning.

Now ask yourself: As a leader, are you empowering others?

Attack the System: Embracing the Chaos Monkey

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

How many times have you heard “I’m frustrated with the system!” or “the system failed us”? Too many times to count, I’m sure. That’s because the reality is we’re surrounded by, even filled with, countless complex systems. The question ultimately becomes, how do we lead within, through, even around so many multi-faceted, pre-existing systems?

Let’s key-in on leadership, as leadership is ultimately about systems. Whether leading from within, tackling the intrapersonal juggernaut of behavioral change or simply leading a nuclear-powered warship into international waters, a system, of some sort, is inevitably in place.

Recognizing the correlation between leadership and the context of the system you are leading within is unquestionably a pivotal point in an effective leader’s maturity. Yet being aware of this relationship is merely the beginning, albeit an imperative jump-off. Great leaders not only understand the context of their leadership paradigm but strive to perpetually improve upon the system they either created, adopted or had forced upon them.

I have become increasingly fascinated with Nassim Taleb’s (@nntaleb) Antifragility ideology, having first ran across it reading Buster Benson’s Live Like a Hydra (found here: Ultimately, Taleb’s concepts are anything but groundbreaking; however, the universal theme is indelible: systems grow stronger after effective leaders analyze and react to failure. In @Buster’s post, he highlights how Netflix took a proactive approach to protecting its online streaming system from continuous crashes by literally attacking its own system. Netflix engineers essentially created a server-crashing program, coined the Chaos Monkey, designed to bombast their own system looking for holes and weaknesses. This antifragile approach exercises Netflix’s proverbial system muscles through strenuous attempts at burning down their own platform. Therefore, thanks to the Chaos Monkey we get to enjoy non-stop, uninterrupted episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia because Netflix had the wherewithal to attack itself first, only to restructure the weak spots and advance even stronger.

Or, how about the classic climax of 8 Mile, where Eminem’s upstart rapper persona B-Rabbit, in the epic final rap battle, verbally attacks himself first — stripping away his opponent’s anticipated ammunition — before delivering an onslaught of verbal napalm to the fever-pitched delight of a frenzied audience and an outright stunned Papa Doc.

Antifragility and tools like the Chaos Monkey are not solely for Fortune 500 companies with miles of humming servers and Grammy-winning hip-hop legends. In fact, after my alcohol-free metanoia, I made an unyielding commitment to fitness that would serve as my personal Chaos Monkey. Weightlifting for me has now expanded beyond a mere fitness regimen used to tighten-up my spare tire — I now use resistance training as a specific tool to attack my physical and mental systems, sharpening them as I account for weaknesses in the body while reflecting in the mind. Muscles gain strength only after experiencing failure (tears in fibers grow back more durable), as the mind clears while the neurotransmitter dopamine releases during a workout. The result is a stronger body and a sharper mind, an orchestrated and anticipated outcome of attacking my own system.

Serving as an assistant principal in an urban high school nestled firmly in Nashville’s most impoverished zip code, I am constantly charged with evaluating, analyzing and updating the school’s operational system. From building maintenance to school security, from teaching and learning to community outreach, one of my key roles is to ensure the synergy between the integral parts within the system is optimized. Having mentored under Executive Principal Dr. Ron L. Woodard (@Champion4Chldrn) for the past several years, his lasting expression on a school’s system stays with me: “Students will show you where your weaknesses are.” This simple yet profound approach to organizational structure impacts each aspect of our school’s system. If classes are generally unruly or quiet to the point of zero-activity, there’s a good chance you have kinks in your teaching and learning system. If the school’s hallways are crowded and loud during class time, it is obvious there’s a breakdown in the school security system. If only a handful of parents or guardians attend Open House, there’s a major disconnect in the school’s community outreach system.

Furthermore, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the correlation between antifragility and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Whether building a new system from scratch or charged with managing an existing one, the way we perceive and respond to adversity as it applies to our system is make-or-break. Systems gain strength from resistance but only when we perceive adversity as an asset — a paradigm shift for most. And, attacking our own system proves fruitful only after we learn from the outcomes and apply change based on intense reflection.

Systems may be the most ubiquitous, albeit transparent, constructs on the planet, and our attempt to craft or reform these systems lies largely in our ability to recognize not only the functionality of these systems but also our personal role in the advancement of this functionality. The latter being quite possibly our greatest mission as an ever-growing number of young professionals seek to reform established, broken systems while simultaneously working within them. The question, however, remains: Will we have the courage and tenacity to attack our own systems for the sake of the greater good?

Great teachers are also great leaders

by Leticia Skae

Teachers often think of themselves as facilitators, bearers of knowledge, and sometimes even just as task enforcers. Though teachers can be all of these things, I doubt many teachers see themselves as leaders but I challenge all teachers to think of themselves as so. No, not just a team lead or a department head, but a leader. Remember, a leader is only a leader if he or she has followers. One cannot be a leader without people to lead, regardless of the title. If a teacher is to be successful, he or she must be able to lead a classroom, with management and with inquiry.

So, when you go to plan your units, think of all of the ways that your students could follow. Are they willing participants? If not, how can you encourage them? Do they value your class? Do they see a purpose? If not, how can you instill this? Furthermore, do your students trust you? Strong leaders are able to embody their followers trust. However it is that you gain students’ trust; charisma, data/facts, routines, perseverance, etc., make sure that you earn it and keep it; because, once you have earned your students’ trust you can lead them into success.

From now on, you are no longer simply an educator. You are no longer to think of yourself as a TVAAS score, a knowledge keeper, an implementer or simply an organizer. You are to think of yourself as a trailblazer, a forerunner and a model to all of your students. Lead them in the behaviors that you know will help them succeed and show them you have the confidence and knowledge in what you are teaching them. We are all leaders, no matter what title we bare.