Do we really listen?

Today’s TED talk, Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!, is excellent and contains some valuable lessons regarding leadership and entrepreneurship (along with some good humor).

Key takeaways:

  • “We western people are inperialist, colonialist missionaries. There are only two ways we deal with people – we either patronize them or we are paternalistic.”
  • “If people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone. This should be the first principal of aid. The first principal of aid is respect.”
  • “Become a servant of the local passion, the servant of local people who have the dream to become a better person. So what do you do – you shut up; you never arrive in a community with any ideas; and you sit with the local people.”
  • “Nobody in the world can succeed alone.”
  • “Listen to them – but not in community meetings. Let me tell you a secret. There is a problem with community meetings. Entrepreneurs never come. And they never tell you what they want to do with their own money.”
  • “We work one on one. To work one on one you have to create a new profession – the family doctor of enterprise. The family doctor of business who sits with you in your house and helps you find the resources to turn your passion into a living.”
  • “What I did that first year was walk the streets.”
  • “I shut up and listen to them.”
  • Peter Drucker: “Planning is actually incompatible with an entrepreneurial society and economy. Planning is the kiss of death of entrepreneurship.”
  • “You have to learn how to get these people to come and talk to you.”
  • “The truth about entrepreneurship – the product that you want to sell has to be fantastic; you have to have fantastic marketing; and you have to have tremendous financial management. Guess what…we have never met a single human being in the world who can make it, sell it and look after the money. It doesn’t exist. This person has never been born.”
  • “There is only one thing that all successful companies have in common. Only one. NONE were started by one person.”

In education, we have leaders at all levels who arrived and didn’t take the time to have conversations with those already doing the work of the organization. They may have even been hired because they have demonstrated experience with “turn around” efforts. But are these leaders really listening once they arrive in the organization?

On the other hand, is it all listening as Sirolli suggests – “What I did that first year was walk the streets. I shut up and listen to them”? Does an organizational population necessarily know what they don’t know? The classic example often cited is the success of the Apple products – iPod and iPhone. Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t sit down and listen to what people wanted….they created something the people didn’t even know they wanted until it was thrust upon them. What is the important takeaway from Sirolli’s talk is that the leader cannot come riding into town with grand ideas without having any understanding of the organization – the people – and the context in which they are working. But they do need to have a pool of resources to pull from when moving an organization forward. First, leaders need to understand the unique context of the organization and then lead the people to the resources they need to fuel an inherent entrepreneurial spirit.

Am I really listening?  Or am I listening through my lens in order to get what I want out of the relationship and what I think will benefit the organization and its people?

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Leadership Roles

At a keynote presentation at the annual PASCD conference, Dr. Chris Moersch referenced an older article by Philip Schlechty entitled, On the frontier of school reform with trailblazers, pioneers and settlersIn the article, Schlechty proposes five types of roles people assume throughout the change process.

  • Trailblazers – independent and don’t need a map. The stories trailblazers tell will inspire others to explore, but they often run into struggles as they implement change.
  • Pioneers – easy to inspire. They want to move to the new way and move closely behind the trailblazers.
  • Settlers – willing to make a change but need to see the roadmap of how the journey will go and see what plans there are for safety and troubleshooting in times of trouble.
  • Stay-at-homers – do not intend to go to the new way because they are successful where they are. The danger is that signs of disrespect or trouble will cause them to “dig in” deeper.
  • Sabateurs – actively committed to stopping change. They do not plan to go and will work to stop others from going.

From a leadership perspective, I find these very interesting to understand all sorts of stakeholders around me, especially school leaders. The descriptions help to provide some clarity as to why people operate the way they do when confronted with change.

How would you describe yourself as a leader? Which category is most applicable? Under which kinds of change?

Exxon Mobile and School

I can’t say I watch much television, but I’ve been seeing this commercial a lot lately, and I find it a bit disturbing. Watch it. (It’s only 30 seconds.)


If we want to improve our schools, what should we invest in?Great questions…you’ve got my attention!

Maybe new buildings?Maybe. But it’s about more than stuff.

What about updated equipment?Maybe again. We’ve tried integrating technology. One thing is clear – it’s more than just the stuff. We need to work with teachers (and school leaders) to change teaching practice, school structures and culture now that students have access to just about anything through a computing device. If we don’t change the practice, structure and culture, what’s different?

They can help. They can, but it’s more complex than just providing nice shiny buildings and technology.

But recent research shows nothing transforms schools like investing in advanced teacher education.Hmmm….wonder what the research is. And how are they defining “transform”? Better test scores? And what is “advanced teacher education”? It’s not clear, but it probably doesn’t include changing teaching practices. Just look at the images in the video – teacher at the front of the room, students in rows. No collaboration. No connection to the world. Very “factory model.” Notice the computers disappeared after a two-second appearance. Honestly, how can we possibly be preparing students for college and career in this kind of learning environment.

Let’s build a strong foundation.

Let’s invest in our teachers so they can inspire our students. – Yes…we need to develop our teaching professionals better, but what is the framework. This 30-second clip has a limited and dated framework. Evaluating teachers in standardized ways (what we’ve been doing to students for the past decade we are now starting to do to teachers) and linking student performance on standardized test scores to teacher evaluation is no way to “build a strong foundation.”

Let’s solve this.Not with Exxon’s simple-minded thinking.

How would you answer the original question?

If we want to improve our schools, what should we invest in?