The #1 Leadership Mistake


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You’re listening to School Leadership Reimagined, episode number 41. 

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hey Builders!

Welcome to season 4 of the school leadership reimagined podcast! I’m your host, Robyn Jackson, and this is episode 41. 

I am so excited to be back! It’s been a crazy summer.

Before we dive in,

We’ve got ONE MORE Builder’s Lab coming up this year. This is the last Builder’s Lab for 2019 and it’s happening October 7-9, 2019 in Dallas Texas. 

Builders’ Lab is our 3-day Intensive where you and I get to work together to figure out how to turn your school into a success story. We keep Builders’ Lab really small and intimate with less than 100 people so that I can have a chance to work with you directly. In just 3 days you’ll have a clear plan for exactly what you need to do to turn your school into a success story with the people and resources you already have. That includes how to get everyone in your school invested in and committed to your vision and willing AND able to execute your vision. How to pinpoint exactly what is keeping you back right now and how to remove that obstacle once and for all so that you can move your school forward in the next 90 days. 

Plus, unlike other conferences, we don’t just send you home after every thing is over and leave it up to you to put what you learned into practice on your own. We end our intensive with an implementation lab where you can get started right away using what you’ve learned with YOUR school to solve YOUR challenges. That means that you have already accomplished something BEFORE you even return home. And that’s not all. For the next 90 days, we follow up with you to make sure that you stay on track and actually implement what you’ve learned. 

I honestly believe that this is the BEST professional development experience you will ever have. To register for the intensive, go

Ok, let’s talk about the number one leadership mistake

I see leaders making all the time. In fact, all of us have made this mistake at some time or another and it is why we can get so frustrated with teachers. In fact, if you’ve ever felt like a teacher just wasn’t getting it no matter how hard you tried to help him or her, you’ve made this mistake. Or, if you’ve ever felt frustrated because not matter how much you tried to motivate a teacher, that teacher still wouldn’t move, then you’ve made this mistake.

This mistake is really the source of a LOT of frustration that leaders feel, especially when you are trying to move your school forward. 

I remember the first time I realized I was making this mistake. I was an assistant principal at the time and I was working with a teacher who was really struggling in the classroom. She wasn’t planning for students. Every lesson felt phoned in. Her classroom management was horrible. Every time I would go into her classroom, it seemed like she would perk up and start teaching, but I knew that as soon as I left, she would go back to scrolling through her phone and letting the kids do whatever they wanted to do. 

I tried everything. I tried modeling strategies for her. That didn’t work. Every time I taught her class, she would sit in the back and zone out while I was doing all of her work. She LOVED when I modeled lessons for her because it was like getting a free sub for a few minutes. 

I tried meeting with her to go over her lesson plans and help her develop some sort of instructional focus for her lessons. She would give me some half-hearted lesson plan that she either copied from other teachers on her team or she dug up from several years ago, and then passively sit there while I tried to go through it with her. Sometimes she would just say, “tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

I tried to get her to work with other teachers, but after a minute the other teachers resented having to work with her because they were doing all the work and she woudl sit back and let them. 

I tried sending her training but she would sit in the back and scroll through her phone the entire workshop. 

I tried having the coach work with her but she resented the coach and said that she was fine and didn’t need any support. 

I tried giving her more feedback. I thought, maybe if I help her see how bad she really was, she would improve.  I was in her classroom ALL. THE. TIME. At least once a week. Then I tried to sit down with her and go over my feedback and she would sit there and endure my feedback, or she might try to argue with me over my feedback , but in the end, she never acted on my feedback and nothing changed in the classroom.

So finally, I wrote her up. I put her on an improvement plan. Now this was interesting because once I had her on an improvement plan, she actually did improve enough to get off the improvement plan. But, as soon as she was off the improvement plan, she went right back to doing everything she was doing before. 

Now I was really frustrated. So I did what I was trained to do as a leader. I started trying to evaluate her out. I started building a case for dismissal.

She immediately started to fight. She called her union rep and demanded that he be present for every meeting. Whenever I entered her classroom to observe her, she tightened up, shot me the evil eye, and started to teach the kids, but I knew that as soon as I left, she would go back to her phone.

It just kept getting worse. She talked about me in the staff lounge to anyone who would listen. She sowed distrust. She told people that I was out to get her and that it was personal. She complained so much that it started to erode trust on my staff. Even though the other teachers knew that she wasn’t really effective in the classroom, they began to wonder, if Robyn is going after her like this, am I next? It also started to get to me.

Has that ever happened to you?

Have you ever had a teacher who you felt really needed to go, but the process of getting rid of that teacher was so emotionally draining that it started to create this constant, low-grade stress for you?

That’s how I felt. I was spending so much time and energy trying to get rid of this teacher that I had little left over to do the work that I actually wanted to be doing. But, I felt that I couldn’t move my school forward as long as this teacher was still in my building, so I had to get her out.

Well, one day, things came to a head. I was meeting with her to go over my last observation with her. As usual, she would perk up when I was in the classroom so I couldn’t get her with anything too egregious, so I was sharing with her the same feedback I had given her in the past -- you know, I noticed that it took your students over ten minutes to complete the warm up and several students were disengaged throughout the lesson, and blah blah blah. 

I was just about to go into my reflective questions when I just couldn’t endure playing the feedback dance anymore. I knew that I was going to ask, “What could you have done to get the students more engaged in the warm up?” and she would sit there and stare at me or blame the kids, or offer up some useless strategy, or whatever, and I just couldn’t stomach another one of those conversations.

So I just asked her, “Do you even WANT to be here?”

She looked at me in shock. 

So I asked her again, “No seriously, do you even WANT to be here? Because I’ve been giving you feedback for months now and nothing is happening.”

She squared her shoulders and hissed, “You haven’t been giving me feedback. You’ve been trying to get rid of me. No, I don’t want to be here, but I’m not going to let you drive me out.”

Boom. That’s when it hit me. All this time I was trying to help her improve her skill, but she didn’t have a skill problem. She had a will problem.

It was at that moment that I first realized that I was making a crucial mistake. It’s the same mistake that I see leaders making all the time and that’s this:

You cannot solve a will problem with a skill solution. And, you cannot solve a skill problem with a will solution.

You see this teacher had a will problem. She didn’t want to be there anymore. But, instead of addressing her will problem, I swooped into her classroom with all of my feedback, modeling, coaching, and support when all of those are SKILL solutions. They didn’t work not because she was some horrible person who was cheating students of an education. They didn’t work because they were the wrong tools. You can’t solve a will problem with a skill solution.

I looked at her for a moment and felt horrible. She was right. I wasn trying to get rid of her. That’s what I’d been trained to do. But for the first time, I saw things through her eyes. She knew that she wasn’t effective in the classroom. She no longer wanted to be there. But, the moment I started going after her, she felt she had to fight for a job she wasn’t even sure she wanted. 

It was really humbling. 

After a moment of complete silence, I swallowed my pride and said, “I’m sorry.” She sat there staring at me with her arms crossed over her chest seething, so I said it again. “I’m so sorry.”

She softened a bit. I don’t think she expected me to apologize and she seemed unsure about what to say next.

So I asked her, “If you don’t want to be here, where do you want to be?”

She sighed. Then she said, “About a year ago, I bought a little cottage on the lake. It’s so peaceful. I’m tired Robyn. All I can think about is sitting on my little dock outside my cottage and listening to the lake.”

So I asked her, “Why don’t you just go do that then?”

She said, “Because I can’t retire. I’ve got two more years left. If I can just get through 2 more years, I can afford to retire.”

Now, let me pause here. 

For those of you who are thinking, but what about the children? Must the children suffer through 2 more years of her? They don’t have the luxury of 2 years of lost learning! You’re right. We cannot afford 2 more years, or 2 more months, or even 2 more weeks of poor instruction just because she wants to retire. 

But the solution is not to try to force her to improve her skill. How many times have you done that. How many times have you tried to make a teacher who doesn’t want to be better better?

It doesn’t work. You’re wasting your time.

The solution is also not to double down on trying to get rid of her. This teacher knew how to avoid dismissal. She knew how to turn it one when I or anyone else came into the classroom. She knew how to get off an improvement plan. You could go after her if you want, but the likelihood that you would actually win is slim and you know it.

So what do you do? 

Well, if you’re a boss, your only solution is guerilla warfare. You give her the classroom with the broken heater so that she’s freezing all the time. Or, you give her 5 periods of study hall. Or maybe you turn the parents loose on her and encourage them to complain about her to the district to see if you can force her out. 

Nobody wins and there is always collateral damage and it’s usually your students. Plus, it kills your culture and even the teachers who believe she should be gone will balk at your tactics and wonder how long before you start treating them the same way.

If you’re a leader, your only solution is to try to work with her. So, you give her more feedback (skill solution), offer her more support (skill solution), and document everything in hopes that she either slips up, or that you have such a thick file that the preponderance of evidence will finally convict her. In the meantime, you’re spending so much time with this one teacher that you have very little time or energy to do the work that you really want to be doing to move your school.

But, if you are a Builder, then you recognize that skill solutions won’t solve a will problem, so you shift tacks. Instead of continuing to do something that isn’t working, you start using will solutions to move the teacher’s will. Then, you can make progress with the teacher and help the teacher actually WANT to be there or leave on her own.

Either way, your culture stays in tact because your other teachers see how you’ve handled this one teacher and they actually start to trust you MORE. Plus, your students don’t suffer because the teacher is either getting better, or the teacher is leaving.

You need the right solution to the right problem. 

So right there in that meeting I made the shift and it changed everything. Instead of bombarding her with more skill solutions, I used a will solution and it changed everything. 

I said to her, “I can see that you really don’t want to be here and it must be so frustrating,”

She nodded.

I continued talking, “What’s more, I bet you already know that you aren’t being effective in the classroom and that must be frustrating to you as well.”

She hung her head and began to cry softly. She said, “I know that I could be doing better, it’s just that I don’t have it anymore. If I could retire now I would. I know I’m letting the kids down and that just kills me, but I just don’t have it.”

I nodded sympathetically and handed her a tissue. “So we have a dilemma. You need 2 more years to retire but another 2 years of this would be torture, wouldn’t it?”

She nodded and blew her nose.

“At the same time, we can’t put students through 2 more years of this either. They deserve a teacher who wants to be there.”

She nodded, but I could tell she was starting to tense up again as she braced herself for whatever I was going to say next.

So I said, “So our job is to find a way to help you get the 2 years you need for retirement without making the students suffer.”

She looked shocked.

I asked her to give me a day or two to think about some solutions and I would get back to her. Then I asked her, “In the mean time, would you promise to give the students your best effort over the next few days?”

She promised and I got to work. It’s a long story but after looking at her certifications and her teacher contract and talking to the union, I discovered a loop hole that allowed her to finish out her last 2 years as a media specialist. I broached the idea to her and she got so excited. It turns out that she loved teaching the research project to her students and was actually excited about the idea of supporting students in the media center. There was an opening at another school for a media specialist and she interviewed and got the job. 

After spending the better part of the school year trying to solve this will problem with a skill solution, once I used the right solution, everything was resolved in a month. 

That was the first time I realized that will problems can’t be solved by skill solutions and vice versa. You can’t help a struggling teacher improve with an inspirational speech. You can’t help a resistant teacher improve by sending him to a workshop. 

You cannot solve a will problem with a skill solution and you cannot solve a skill problem with a will solution.

I bet right now, you can look back over the last 12 months and recognize a time when you have made this same mistake. It’s a mistake we ALL make and it’s because of our training.

You see, most of us have only ever been trained with skill solutions. Think about the leadership training you’ve gotten in the past. Most of it is designed to move teacher skill. Very rarely are we trained on how to move teacher will.

You know, one of my favorite sayings is, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And it’s so true. If the only training you’ve ever received is focused on skill solutions, then every problem looks like a skill problem.

But not every problem is a skill problem. Sure, sometimes a teacher struggles because they are don’t have the skills they need. For those teachers, coaching, feedback, support, resources, etc are just what they need to improve.

But sometimes, a teacher struggles because they are not motivated to improve.

In that case, all the coaching, feedback, support, and resources in the world won’t work. They need a will solution.

That’s why one of the first things we teach at Builder’s Lab is how to tell the difference between a skill problem and a will problem. A skill problem is a matter of CAN the teacher. A will problem is a matter of DOES the teacher.

It’s an important distinction to get right up front. You’ve got to understand whether you have a will problem or a skill problem first, so that you can choose the right solution.

And here’s the thing. I’m not going to just send you home with a plan.

So, if you’re frustrated by a teacher because you’ve been working with that teacher for weeks, months, maybe even years and you are not seeing a change, then you need to ask yourself, am I making the number one leadership mistake?

Or if you have tried everything and a teacher or team is still not moving, then maybe go back and examine whether or not you are using the right solution for the right problem.

Trust me, once you start by figuring out whether or not you have a will problem or a skill problem first, you’ll save yourself a LOT of frustration and when you choose the right kind of solution for the right problem, you’ll resolve that problem a lot faster and a lot more decidedly so that you can spend your time and energy on work that really matters to you.

Now, if you’d like some help determining whether you have a will problem or a skill problem 

or if you want to learn some will and skill solutions, I invite you to join us at our next Builder’s Lab where you’ll spend 2 whole days developing will and skill solutions to resolve your biggest challenges, remove your biggest obstacles, and get every teacher in your building willing AND able to achieve your vision for your school with the people and resources you already have. Our next Builders’ Lab is October 7-9 in Dallas, Texas and you can get your ticket at

And, if you’re listening to this episode sometime in the future, go to to find out when the next Builders’ Lab is and get your ticket. 

Next time, we’re going to continue exploring some of the basic tenets of Buildership

by talking about your vision, but don’t worry, we’re not going to be crafting long, wordy vision statements or doing corny visioning exercises or anything like that. That’s what bosses and leaders do. 

Instead, we’re going to examine why so many teachers never buy into your vision. And, you’re going to discover how you can take your boring, uninspiring vision and make it so compelling your teachers will not be able to resist it and your district will rally to support it.

So tune in next time to find out how to sell your vision  #LikeABuilder

All right. As I do every week, don't forget to connect on linkedin.

That's where you can ask me questions or follow up with a message on Twitter

Find me at Robyn Jackson on Linkedin and @Robyn_mindsteps on Twitter and let's connect. 

And then I would love for you to share this podcast with at least one other person this week. Especially if you've got something valuable out of it. So would you mind sharing this podcast with at least one other person? Would you do me that favor to share?

Find somebody who's not already listening to this podcast and share it with them. And then if you're so inclined, I'd love it if you could give me a review on iTunes just because it gives me feedback and helps other people find the podcast.

It's spreads the fire about this buildership movement that we're all a part of, not only because our kids deserve it, but because we deserve to be something better than leaders. We deserve to be builders. That's how we reignite our own passion for this work. And that's how we make a bigger difference.

I hope you'll join me next time.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

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