Understanding every kernel of truth in every data point you get back.
Leveraging relationships from different roles as a teacher, principal or superintendent.
Tips on making a decision to think about who’s not in the room and what this looks like three years from now.
Really embrace systems and habits thinking to develop your systems level thinking.
Caterpillars and butterflies will shape your leadership.
Human-centered model for school transformation with a framework with 3 domains is how you lead.
Be a “lead learner” and An Imperfect Leader.
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Read the Transcript here.
An Imperfect Leader
As a school leader, as a Ruckus Maker, you are gonna get feedback all the time. Sometimes that feedback might not be what you wanted to hear, but there’s truth, even a kernel of truth in every data point that you get back. What will you do with that information? My friend Peter, who joined me on today’s podcast as a superintendent, got super excited about some core values that he was bringing to a new system where he was serving. At some moment, he got the feedback. Those are your values, not our values. Have you ever heard something like that in your leadership practice? Something that you want, or something that you prioritize, not what I want or what I prioritize. What do you do when you get feedback like that? Lucky for you. Peter is an expert at systems level of thinking.
He’s an expert at being open, authentic, energetic, and vulnerable. He is the epitome of an imperfect leader that you can learn from. In fact, that’s the name of his amazing new podcast, as well as a new book that’s out. Towards the end of the show, we’ll dig into the content of his book and you’ll hear about a framework that is modeled and focused on human-centered design and school transformation. It’s certainly a framework that you’ll want to apply to your leadership practice. Hey, it’s Danny. I am a principal of development and retention expert. I’m a bestselling author and I host not one, but two of the world’s most downloaded podcasts. This shows for you a Ruckus Maker, which means you’ve made three commitments, you’re invested in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school right now. And we’ll be back after some messages from our show sponsors.
Learn how to successfully navigate change, shape your school’s success, and lead your teams with Harvard’s certificate in school management and leadership. Get world-class Harvard faculty research, specifically adapted for pre-K through 12 schools. Self-Paced online professional development fits your schedule. Get started at BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/harvard. With Teach FX, teachers are creating classrooms that are alive with conversation. Their app gives teachers insights into high level practices like how much student talk happened, which questions got students talking. It’s eye opening for teachers and scales, the impact of coaches and principals and Ruckus Makers. Start your free pilot [email protected]/blbs. If executive functioning skills are integral to student success, then why aren’t they taught explicitly and consistently in classrooms? I have no idea. I have no idea why that doesn’t happen. But what I do know is that our friends over at Organized Binder have created a new course that will teach your teachers how to set up students for success via executive functioning skills. Learn [email protected]/go.
Hey there, Ruckus Makers. Today I’m joined by Peter, “the Ruckus Makers” Stiepleman, and it’s so great to have him on the show. He’s awesome. I was on his podcast as well. We’ll talk about that. Peter’s a nationally recognized, well-connected educational leader who hosts a new podcast called An Imperfect Leader, which is directed at aspiring and new superintendents. He is the author of a book with the same name, an Imperfect leader: Human-Centered Leadership in After Action. There it is a beautiful cover too. Peter finds inspiration as a team leader with Be the Change Volunteers where he builds schools and supports the rural communities in the Peruvian Amazon. Peter, welcome to the show.
Danny, thank you so much for having me. I realize that when my parents made that my middle name, that at some point it would come to fruition, that it would be incredibly meaningful.
Smart parents for sure.
They had the foresight to do it.
Pretty good teacher via relationships from what I understand, and as a principal, you leverage relationships. And then as a superintendent, there’s a constraint. It’s hard to leverage relationships, and especially in a massive system of 19,000 human beings. What did you do at that level to make it work?
Yeah, that is so true. As a principal of an elementary school, about 350 kids, you could have such a deep and personal relationship with children and their families, and then all of a sudden you become the superintendent of 19,000 children, and you cannot use the same strategies. I mean, you have to have relationships and that interpersonal intelligence as a key component of what you do. But it wasn’t until I started to really think about systems thinking. Now, I don’t want the people who are watching to like, tune out, be like, ah, this isn’t thinking I’m out. No, it’s everything from sort of like when you’re making a decision to think about who’s not in the room right now, because you make decisions with the people most impacted by that decision, not just in isolation or like when you are making a decision to think, what does this look like a year from now, or three years from now, or five years from now.
Or how about when you are a principal and you want to agitate for change? You want to be that Ruckus Maker and you want to make a decision, and you have to kind of think about, okay, well, I’m gonna make this decision, but I don’t anticipate seeing the results for a certain amount of time, and there’s going to be this tension in between. Making sure that you’re attending to that, and how do you sort of prepare for those conversations and those situations. It wasn’t until I started to really embrace systems and the habits of systems thinking that I became a better leader.
Was there a book, video, podcast, some other kind of resource that really helped develop your systems level thinking?
Absolutely. Everything from just on the basic level of my own personal sort of growth was getting things done. Just to build a better system on how to organize your time. Peter is the Fifth discipline or there’s an organization called the Water Center for Systems Thinking, and it’s really an entire organization almost dedicated just for educators. I highly recommend their work. They do such incredible things, and they have free modules in terms of how to become just a better systems thinker.
As a principle, you heard those are your values, they’re not our values. Tell us that story.
I was hoping you would ask that. And also dreading that you might ask that. Actually, this is about being vulnerable. Ruckus Maker absolutely thinks back on their experiences and grows from them. So this happened to me when I was a new superintendent, and I had done all this reading about you have to bring values and I was inheriting a system that had 35 different values. It was valued by the committee, anybody who said we should have this value, it appeared, got included, appeared on this list of values. I went and visited a Baldrige Award winner. Baldrige is like this way of sorting businesses to get this certification or this recognition of high performance. And so I said to this gentleman can you tell me a little bit about how you establish values? They said, oh, you decide the values, you bring ’em to the institution, to the organization, and then you apply them. Danny, if I had to say like, almost like Moses at Mount Sinai, I was like, here are our values.
Was on stone too.
That’s how antiquated my actual pursuit to do this was sort of biblical proportion. I brought them and nobody said anything. As things got difficult, because in any organization, there are times of rough patches and I turn to the principals who are the most wise individuals who are sandwiched in between central office and families and teachers. I don’t understand. We have these values. And that was the moment that she turned to me and said, no, no, those are your values. They’re not our values. And so we had to go through, first of all, I had to go through my sort of, oh my gosh. But then also a real process to say, okay, then what are our values?
What did that process look like? I’m assuming you went back to the drawing board and you did more of a co-created model, but take us through that process.
Absolutely. And this is a great model for anyone as you are trying to tackle anything as an entire organization. So instead of Peter bringing values to his cabinet and then bringing it to the district, this was a much different process. It involves student voice, teacher voice, principal, voice assistant principals, directors, coordinators, custodians, food service nurses, I mean, anyone and any title that was in the school district, we came together. I think there were about 200 of us in a room. And we went through this process of I want you to walk around the room and find someone and share one value that you think should be one of our values. And so they talked to each other, and then they took a moment to write down what they heard the other person say. Because it’s such an important part of this process is listening.
And then they had to go find someone else in the room and share what they brought to that conversation as well as what their previous partner had just said. And so now they had four values on their paper, and they brought it back to their tables where they had been sitting, and then as a table talked about the values, and then they came up with one value that they were going to share with the whole group, and they had to have a backup because it’s very likely that there would be one phrase or one value that would be already have been said since we had 30 plus tables. And we kept a list of all of them as people said them. And then we went through this process of not debating, but just sort of speaking up for sort of sort of speaking in support of, and so individuals would pop up and say, I really think that collaboration ought to be one of our values, because as a organization, an institution, we need to work together that solely one of us doing this is is not appropriate. People got to advocate, and then they sat down, and then we voted, everyone got three stickers. The sticker sort of voting for things, but we did, and you could vote for all of one value or you could divide up your stickers. And then we revealed a little bit later what our now our six values were going to be. A month later we came back and said, because we needed to have a shared image of what those values meant. A shared image of success. We started to define them. And so and then that work, particularly during the pandemic, was so important because we were really leaning on words like empathy and grace. Those were super important to the organization and to those who participated. It was a really great process and one that can be used in lots of different ways,
For sure. I love the collaboration of sticker voting, I’ve used that quite a bit as well. You’ve gone from 35 values down to six, which is a nice tight focus and something that everybody can get behind, commit to me memory and really live out. You wanna see these things: the guide, the work of the system. You have an idea about caterpillars and butterflies and how those, I do two ideas relate to leadership. What’s that all about?
I’ll get closer to the microphone. So you can just see the little logo here. But yeah, that is important to me for a couple of reasons. One is, as a leader, you have to know the kind of leader that you are. And for me, the kind of leader and person that I am, I have to resist the level of energy that I sometimes have that you can probably soak it right now going okay a little much there. But I would say that that can also lead to impulsive decisions. And so the caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly sort of metaphor for the lifecycle of a butterfly has helped me as a leader sort of make better decisions. And so when I am working with a group or working with the school board, I may say we’re right now in a caterpillar stage, which simply means that we’re talking to people and learning from them, and really just moving around the organization and talking to people inside the organization and outside the organization to get a better sense of whether this idea has merit or value within the system.
And then Chrysalis says, okay, it seems like we’re moving forward now. Let’s really dig into what does this look like a year from now, three years from now, five years from now? What does this look like in terms of human resources? What about finance? What kind of facilities would we need? And, and making sure that all those questions to the best of our ability are answered. And then when you’re in a butterfly stage, you’re basically ready to launch and you’re starting to talk about communication and, and how do you make sure that it’s really clear on what we’re trying to achieve? I would also say for those Ruckus Makers who are familiar with an Ethic of Excellence, which is a book by Ron Berger, such an amazing book, everybody should read it. And he tells the story of Austen’s Butterfly, who is really a student, a child who draws this Tiger Swallow.
And its first iteration is quite crude. I mean, very much like a cartoon’s got a smiley face. And his peers say we’re supposed to be drawing this tiger swallow, and while that looks like a butterfly, I wonder how you might make it look more like the butterfly we’ve been studying. And he goes through this process of second iteration, third iteration, fourth iteration, fifth. And by the time he gets to the sixth, it is just the most beautiful tiger swallow butterfly based on positive feedback he’s gotten from his peers. And, so really it’s also a story about leadership and the work that we do as principals and as educators, that if we were to rest on just that first idea or that first attempt it won’t be as promising as when we really go through a process and get to that sixth. So that’s the butterfly motif for me as I was proposing that we start a bilingual program and we had all this media in the room and their teachers union and their principals, and nobody had heard about it except for I sort of said, Hey, I think this would be really great. And really had to back up and say, there’s, could be and should be a better process for bringing ideas forward.
What I love about that story too, there’s a lot of imagery there. When I’m teaching core values to schools and systems I talk about this idea, I call it sticky core values. So it’s more than collaboration or whatever. And basically it’s a story in the image. Just like you talked about going through the caterpillar all the way to the, to the butterfly stage of life. I love that because stories stick in our minds and they also really remind us, like, what is this thing that we’re trying to do? And it helped you pause right for a moment when you were investigating how to bring that language program to your district and slow things down a little bit. Really great example. Speaking of imagery you have a story about, I think it’s pronounced Daruma Dolls, and if I’m
Center of this logo. It’s deeply personal. A dear friend of mine, Sam Falbo, who does graphic design, created this for me, and I asked him, look, I want a butterfly, but would you mind also putting a dema doll in the center? And our school district had a sister city, has a sister city in, Japan, on the west coast of Japan in the Ishi coa prefecture, more than 30 years now. And I went to visit our sister city because I wanted to create, and they were very interested in having an exchange where our children could spend parts of their summer at a stem school in the base of Mount Hakasan, one of the three sacred mountains in Japan. And when I was there, I learned a little bit about darum dos.
And Darum dolls are those dolls that you see. Typically, they start with two vacant eyes, and you fill in one eye when you’ve set a goal, and then you fill in the second eye when you’ve completed a goal. So today is the official launch of my book, which I’m so grateful to you and the Ruckus Makers to be a part of, which is probably fueling some of this energy I’m having. And so today I will complete the second eye on my doll because I set this goal of writing a book and having it published and having it launch. And so but also I left one eye colored in and one eye vacant, because to some extent, as Ruckus Makers know, in public education, you get your fair share of black eyes. So you it’s really about goal setting, but also a reminder, this job is tough, and it has never been harder to be a teacher or to be a principal than it is today. For those who are out there who get support from people like you, Danny, leaders like you who, who are regularly convening, whether virtually or in person not losing sight of that community is super important. So the dermatologist also was just, just kind of grounds me and reminds me that we set goals. Sometimes they take a while to get there but not to lose sight of them.
That’s so good. Again, an image, a story the two eyes and how you work with those. I really appreciate that. And thanks for the little nudge, for the Ruckus Maker listening or watching. We do offer support to school leaders, and so I will never promise that the job will be easy, but it’s certainly easier when you have a board of directors, you have weekly support from top coaches and mentors, and you get to dig into that work. Navigate it deeply on a, on a weekly basis. So people wanna check that out, go to betterleadersbetterschools.com/mastermind to learn more. So today, the book’s out. An Imperfect Leader is there, we saw the cover, feel free to
It’s sort of the image, which I appreciated you pointing out Systems is all about systems. The difference slowly comes through dials that we turn and leverage points we seek and the constant conversations we have and keeping set on goal and knowing that it’s not a linear path. And knowing that sometimes it takes time, sometimes it takes years to get to where you’re showing. It’s deeply personal. It speaks to the experiences of a superintendent over a seven year period. But it also launches and releases a leadership model that draws on so many people like, Carol Dweck in terms of mindsets, Peter Sangan in terms of systems certainly Ron Berger and an ethic of excellence and just takes some of the those really human-centered leaders and puts it into a framework that I think just for me makes sense. And you know, when you ask me, so 19,000 kids, what really helped you sort of, well, it was systems definitely, but this leadership model of a human-centered model for school transformation became my anchor, sort of became my, oh, that’s how you lead.
Absolutely. And I think it’s probably a good spot to take a quick break for our message from our sponsors, but when we get back, let’s talk about that model. You know I think having a human-centered framework for school transformation is really important. And Ruckus Makers would love to hear more about that.
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All right, we’re back with Peter, the Ruckus Maker, Siegelman. And today his book ” ImPerfect Leader, human-Centered Leadership in After Action. And prior to the break, we talked about how having this human-centered framework, right as a foundation of everything you do, can lead to great results. So can you unpack that framework a little bit for us, Peter?
So the way that the framework works, and potentially I can share maybe when this gets posted or something like that, just what the framework looks like. Sure. but at the center is deeper leading and deeper learning. We all are trying to get to this place where we’re constantly working to get better. And I think that’s probably a big reason why you and I connected so meaningfully. You are so wonderful to be on my podcast, an imperfect leader because of that human-centered piece that you bring to the work. So human-centered is all about the people. And so there are three domains when you think about this model. The first is collective aspiration, which simply is just the heart of anything that we do. It really speaks to what we want to create together and how do we want to be together?
The second is nested patterns. So we talked a little bit about values, and that could kind of fit into what our nested patterns are. It’s just as an organization, how do we work? So do we demonstrate empathy and compassion? Do we show a growth mindset of those types of things? And then lastly, the leaders’ learning work is the last domain, and it really is the mind of the work. So systems are in there. But also what I think is probably the most important of the leaders’ learning work is serving as a lead learner. So Ruckus Makers, who are principals or teachers, know how important it’s for teachers and leaders to be working together. And so you don’t you just read to us and remind us about all these different organizations that are sponsoring your program and who really are about getting better.
And could you imagine a principal who just sends people to training as opposed to learning alongside their teachers that’s serving as lead learner? But lastly, a lead learner is someone who admits when they make a mistake. And how many of us have worked for people who seem so reluctant to be vulnerable? And so that’s what a lead learner is, and it’s someone who’s willing to be vulnerable and is willing to say, I made a mistake. And then to take that midcourse correction to rectify whatever it is where they’ve aired. So that’s the model in a short frame. But you could certainly learn more about it. My website is www.peterStifelman, no Ruckus Maker in there.com. I took out the middle name, otherwise its way too long. Wait
Till it’s just implied. Right.
Yeah, it’s implied. That’s right. It’s silent
It’s silent RuckuS Week. I love the name of what we do. Better Leaders, better Schools, I think how we serve in the name. But then after typing it right via email and website for the last eight years, almost I’m just like, wow, that’s a long one. I have, I figured out
Cramp up in the middle. Can’t do it.
I’ve got little four letter codes now that I could use okay. To expand it. But anyways hindsight’s always 2020. I love the idea of the framework. I’m just curious too, within the book, I don’t know if there’s if there’s stories, case studies or is there like a way that you push the reader on how to implement the framework?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked. The book is a collection of stories. In fact, there’s a whole section on the power of storytelling and its importance in this work. And so each chapter looks at one big issue that the superintendent faced in that year, and then forces the superintendent to break that down into, so what happened and what got overlooked, and what did they learn about relationships and what frustrated them and what could they have done differently? So different from what got overlooked sometimes is your own personal role in that experience. Sure. And then in the end, what was something that was good that came out of the experience? Because through one’s experiences and mistakes, that’s where our greatest learning happens. And so and at the end of every chapter actually has some questions from the water center. They were so generous to give me permission to use some of their habits of thinking systems thinking tools to prompt the reader to think about their own experiences. And It’s everything from bringing values to sharing goals, there’s a chapter on LGBTQ plus posters that a gay straight Alliance club put around the school. And in a community that was very split, progressive and conservative, the superintendent was trying to navigate and find common ground and how that was a real learned experience. So I won’t tell you exactly what happened because I think you should read the
Yeah, no, that’s great. It sounds very practical. And one of my sort of values or things that I teach, I say ideas are great, but not the greatest. The only thing better than an idea is actually taking action. So it sounds like you really push the reader and the Ruckus Maker to do that. And I am excited for what got launched today. So I highly recommend that.
Everybody grabbed Peter’s book and perfect leader, human-centered leadership after action. I wanna end if you mentioned that you had a kind of famous Aunt.
I was sure you gonna,
I wanted to just because you don’t hear this every day. So who was your aunt and what was the lesson that she taught you?
So my aunt was justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And man, when you ask what did she teach? You’re talking about an individual who was on the law review at Columbia and Harvard and graduated first in her class. And not only battled sexism personally, but also just fought for gender equality. And so we are all a product of how we’ve been socialized. So you can expect that the sort of cultural feel that existed in my family was about that. Exactly. In terms of gender equity and working towards a more just community in a more just country. I would tell you though, she would send me speeches that she had read or had written. And there’s a quote in one that I use all the time as I think about change, because our systems will work aggressively to return to the status quo.
And that’s why I just love this whole idea of the Ruckus Maker, because it is about agitating for change to mess with the status quo, to say we can do better. And so she sent me a quote that was exactly this, that “real change, enduring change happens step at a time. And so it’s really important to think about that as a Ruckus Maker, that while we want to agitate for change, these systems that we’re trying to change have been in effect for hundreds of years. And so really it’s about making that incremental change as much as that makes us impatient. And sometimes seems as if it’s not what we typically want to pursue. We wanna see real change real fast but enduring change a step at a time. So I would say that’s probably one of my greatest learnings from her.
So important and appropriate for a ruckus speaker too, because in the system of education, sometimes there’s the pressure, often there’s the pressure to make the change happen immediately, but it’s,
Yeah, you’re hired by a school board or you’re hired by a superintendent who says, I want you to go to that school and I want you to make change. And really what they’re doing is setting you up for failure. Because real change is step by step.
Step by step the research shows that it takes years. I think like five, that’s right. Seven, I wanna say for high schools and like three to five for elementary.
You’re so right. How do you build immediately you walk in, you say, trust me. like, oh, okay, glad you’re here.
You’re gonna love these changes and the results.
You’re gonna love ’em. And I’m the fifth teacher you’ve had in four years, or a fifth principal. You’ve had a fifth principal in four years. Fifth. But you can, you can expect that , but it’s gonna work this time. It’s gonna
It’s gonna work. So I really appreciate that because and often to Dan Sullivan he runs a program called Strategic Coach that I just joined. He has a, he has a book and a concept called The Gap in the Gain. And I can relate to this. I bet you can too. But, so you set the goal and then you haven’t achieved the goal, even though you set it five seconds ago, maybe five days ago, five weeks even. And then all of a sudden you’re frustrated because there’s that gap that exists between where your current reality is and where you wanna be. And he always says the solution is to look backward, to look at the progress you’ve achieved. So I think at least for me, I have a couple more questions for you to end the podcast, but I, I want the Ruckus Maker to remember that it is that incremental step-by-step change. And when you’re frustrated that you’re not there yet, you’re looking the wrong way. Look backward and just see all the great progress that you’ve made.
Peter, document whether it’s photos or, or just being in schools, because looking at that photo evidence of the progress you’ve made, it, it really is. It’s empowering
A hundred percent. So here at the end of the show, I like to ask the guests the same questions. And we’re at that point now. So if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would your message be?
I’ve listened and enjoyed so many of your guests, and often is about the message for children. I’m going to sort of say the message for your teachers and your community, which is by Rutger Bregman who wrote humankind. And his quote is, new ideas start on the fringes, and then they move towards the center. And just an example would be, eSports, how we thought that was such a foreign idea and now it has moved towards the center as an accepted way of engaging and, and including children in our communities.
Where were the scholarships when I was playing Nintendo?
That’s what I wanna know. Yeah, totally. Well, anyone should reach out to Tony Ani out in the St. Louis area. Man, he’s doing amazing stuff in the Midwest for eSports.
Very cool. We’ll check that out. And Peter, if you were building your dream school, right, you weren’t constrained by any sort of resources. Your only limitation was your ability to imagine. So what would be the three guiding principles, building this dream school?
I’ll call them the three C’s. Curiosity, that good things happen when we lead with questions. Like what if compassion that leaps of faith happen when we are with others. And then the last is collaboration. We thrive when we abandon isolation and we come together and do it together. The three Cs, that would be the guiding principles.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, Peter, of everything we discussed, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
So this is my final, I get the last word.
You get the last word.
Awesome. I’d say this, that every decision has consequences and many of them are unintended. So be a Ruckus Maker, disrupt the status quo. And while you’re doing that, be prepared for the system to work aggressively, to return to stasis. So plan for those unintended consequences and try to bring together as many Ruckus Makers in your community as possible, some of whom have been like 13 year cicadas, , or like the agave Americana, that, that cactus that only blooms one in a hundred years, cuz they have been lying dormant, waiting for you to wake them up.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@BetterLeadersBetter schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud, and using the hashtag #BLBS. Level up your leadership at Better Leaders better schools.com And talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
Transform how you lead to become a resilient and empowered change agent with Harvard’s online Certificate in School Management and Leadership. Grow your professional network with a global cohort of fellow school leaders as you collaborate in case studies bridging the fields of education and business. Apply today at http://hgse.me/leader.
With TeachFX, teachers are creating classrooms that are alive with conversation. Our app gives teachers insights into high-leverage practices like: How much student talk happened? Which questions got students talking? It’s eye-opening for teachers, and scales the impact of coaches and principals. Start your free pilot at teachfx.com/blbs .
Why do students struggle? I’d argue that they lack access to quality instruction, but think about it. That’s totally out of their control. What if there was something we could teach kids there was something within their control that would help them be successful in every class? It’s not a magic pill or a figment of your imagination.
When students internalize Executive Functioning Skills they succeed.
Check out the new self-paced online course brought to you by OB that shows teachers how to equip their students with executive functioning skills.
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