The Fish Rots from the Head


Note: ​School Leadership Reimagined is produced ​as a podcast and designed to be ​listened to, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the correspo​​nding audio before quoting in print.

You're listening to School Leadership Reimagined episode number 62

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 another episode of the school leadership reimagined podcast. I'm your host Robyn Jackson, and today we're going to talk about another Mindsteps ism. So tell me this, have you ever found yourself frustrated with your staff? I mean, it's not that they've done something egregiously wrong, but there's some sort of underlying habit that really gets on your nerves. Maybe everybody's always late to meetings, or maybe you take a while to get meetings started because everybody wants to chit chat and smile instead of getting down to business. Or maybe the teachers don't. I mean they're great people, but maybe they, you know, there's a low grade complaint about the kids or, or maybe you're seeing some other habits in your culture and it doesn't feel like it's a big major issue, but it's super annoying. Well, if you've ever felt this way, I've got a Mindsteps isn't for you, but you're not going to like it.

Are you ready? Here it is. The fish rots from the head. 

I know that's gross, but the fish rots from the head and I'll tell you what that means in just a second. But before I do, I want to talk to you about builder's lab. One of the things that I'm seeing a lot of school administrators face right now is this kind of low grade frustration because at this point in the year, you have set plans at the beginning of the year and now you're looking at your data and you're seeing that you're not making the progress you want to make or perhaps you're seeing that we are executing our plan perfectly. We're doing everything we said we're going to do, but we're not seeing the results that we want to see. And I want to tell you that if you've ever faced that frustration or if you're facing that frustration right now, first of all, it's not your fault because you had a plan and it's not your plan's fault.

It was probably a good plan. But it may be that you wrote a plan to solve a problem that wasn't the real problem. And I see this all the time and I know that we have all these root cause exercises. We do the five why's, we do the fish bone diagram and those proport to get us to the root cause. But do they really? And in most cases the answer is no. There's something else going on. And so we spend all of our energy and our efforts solving the wrong problems. And that's why we're not seeing the results we want to see. So if that's you, if you've ever felt frustrated or if you're frustrated right now because you're super hard, you're working nights, you're working weekends, your teachers are overwhelmed, you're doing all of this work and you're not seeing the results that you want to see.

The problem isn't your plan. The problem is something else. 

And when you come to builder's lab, we'll show you how to fix it. You see, if you don't solve the right problem, if you don't pick the right problem to solve, it doesn't matter how good your plan is. It doesn't matter how committed your people are, you're never going to see the results you want. So if you want our help and helping you figure out what is the right problem to solve, and I promise you we're not going to make you go through any, you know, silly root cause exercises, we're not going to do the five whys because the five wives can lead you down the Primrose path. We're not going to do some of the things you've been doing before. We have a process that we use and we call it micro slicing. Now, you may be familiar with micro slicing because we've often taught people how to do micro slicing, where they're going into classrooms with teachers to figure out what is the root cause of a teacher's practice.

But what you may not be aware of is that we also have a process for micro slicing your entire school and it's something that we teach starting on day one in the afternoon of builders lab so that by the time you are done with builders lab, you will have a comprehensive understanding of your challenges in your school. You'll understand what the root causes and you're going to walk out of there with an ironclad 90 day plan to solve the root cause rather than treating the symptoms. So we have two builder's labs coming up this summer once happening in Washington DC and the other one that's happening in Vegas, the one in DC is June 29 through July 1st and the one in Vegas is July 20 through 22 and if you're listening to this sometime in the future, there's always an upcoming builders lab. So all you need to do is go to Mindsteps inc com slash builders dash lab, that's Mindsteps inc com slash builders dash lab and you can find out when and where the next builder's lab is happening and most importantly get your ticket again, that's Mindsteps inc com slash builders dash lab or you can give us a call in the office at +1 888-565-8881.

Now let's get to today's Mindstep-ism, which is the fish rots from the head. 

And I'll tell you the first time that I learned it, which is pretty recently. So here at Mindsteps we have a weekly meeting where we sit down, we bring everybody into the office, we look at what we said we're going to accomplish that week. We look at what we need to accomplish the next week. We look at our quarterly and yearly goals and see how we're doing. And I will be honest, I am not always on time for that meeting. I mean to be on time for that meeting. But stuff happens. You know, if I've had a really rough travel week and I'm just getting home and I may be exhausted, so I may send out a text to the team and say, Hey, I'm running 10 minutes late or 15 minutes late because I slept through my alarm.

Or you know, I may have had a tough, you know, week or sometimes I may have an interview that I'm giving and the only time the interviewer can interview me is during that time of our weekly meeting or, or whatever. You know, it's always a good excuse and I think that I'm justified in making it. I do have tough weeks. I am exhausted when I get off the road sometimes, or sometimes I really do have to give an interview. But here's the problem. I've created a culture now where the excuse is an acceptable substitute for performance. So what was starting to happen was that when I would ask my team member for a status update on an assignment, they would give me an excuse. It would be a good excuse, a legitimate excuse. And then I would say, Oh, okay. But then the work wasn't getting done and it wasn't that my team was lazy or that, that they weren't committed to the work.

I had set a precedent that the excuse was a good substitute for the result. 

You could give me a result or you just give me a good enough excuse. And so I started getting frustrated because nothing was getting done and all I was getting was excuses. And then one morning I just had a long trip. I was out on the West coast. I had taken a really long flight and gotten home, you know, I had all these delays. I got home way after midnight. I had only had four or five hours sleep. I was getting up to do the the weekly team meeting and I was about to type this text that says, Hey, can we push the meeting back a half hour? I'm just late and it hit me. The fish rots from the head if I am frustrated by their excuses. Where did they learn that the excuse was okay.

They learned it from me because here I was, instead of showing up at a meeting on time, I was about to offer an excuse. The fish rots from the head, so I got myself up. I skipped putting makeup on that day. I probably looked crazy, but I showed up at the meeting on time because the fish rots from the head, and then I had to admit to my team that I had been offering them excuses in place of results and that I was going to commit to change. I didn't ask them to change. I changed first and the more that I started keeping my commitments, the more they began to keep their commitments without my having to say anything. Why? Because the fish rots from the head. Now, whenever I say this to people, they say, that's discussing, that's grows or you're blaming us or it's not my fault or they're just lazy, but every single time I've said it to someone, if we really start looking at their behavior, we find that their behavior begins driving organizational practices.

I was working with the leadership team earlier this year and the school was in crisis, so they brought me in to do a one day consultation. 

And so I sat down the entire leadership team at the table and we started going through the micro sizing process that we do, building our builder's blueprint to try to pinpoint where the root cause where the challenge was. And the principal said to me, my teachers are just so stressed out. And I turned and looked at her and she was one of the most stressed out people I'd ever seen. And I looked at her and I said, yeah, I get why they're stressed out. The fish rots from the head and she got immediately offended so I got to work on my tact and saying this, but she immediately got offended and then I said, listen, you are stressed out and your team is picking up on that.

And then her APS in the room started nodding and the coaches started nodding and they started telling her, listen, you are so stressed out that we are stressed out. You look like the school is not doing well and she goes, we're not. And they said, we know that's all you ever talk about. And so everybody is in a state of constant panic and stress because the only thing you ever talk about is how we're not hitting our numbers, how we're not meeting our goals. So the teachers are stressed out, they're trying to make you happy. They're trying to raise the numbers, but you never are happy. We're stressed out because we see you stressed out and we say, well, you're our leaders, so we must have to, if she's stressed out, we need to be stressed out too. Or else we're slacking.

You're staying here till midnight every night.

We feel bad about going home at nine o'clock but we have kids and families and so, again, the fish rots from the head. And so we have this powerful conversation in that admin team meeting to help her realize that a lot of what was happening in the school was a direct reflection of her own state of being. So she had to start making a decision, even if she felt stress and she felt like she needed to get more work done. She needed to take that work home so that she could signal to her team that they could go home. And she also needed to kind of mitigate her own stress because the teachers were picking up on that stress and they were starting to feel stressed out. The fish rots from the head. I was in a board meeting recently and the board members were complaining about the constituency they represented and how people didn't have this feeling of a sense of urgency.

And I was sitting in that board meeting and I was looking around at those board members and I said, there's no sense of urgency around this board. They set a goal, they announced a goal at the beginning of the year and they weren't tracking data towards their goal. So why would there be a sense of urgency in the constituency when the board stated a goal, but they weren't doing the work themselves to make sure that that goal happened. So when it came to my time to speak, I said, well, ladies and gentlemen and non-binary individuals, the fish rots from the head. We've got to look around ourselves and say, if we want a sense of urgency, where does it start? It starts with us. Well, needless to say, I wasn't invited to any more those board meetings, but here's the point. If we don't face that fact, then all we're going to do is blame and shame the people that we've been called to serve.

That doesn't get us anywhere. If your staff is overwhelmed right now, you need to check yourself. 

Are you conveying a sense of overwhelm? If so, they're picking up on it and they're reflecting that to you. In fact, your staff state of mind is a true reflection of what you project to them. If they're stressed out, you're projecting stress. If they are laissez Faire, you're projecting that same sense. And a lot of people say, no, I'm not. No, I'm not. I, I have a sense of urgency. They don't have a sense of urgency. It's not about what you say, it's about what you do. So if you have a true sense of urgency, what in your behavior is reflecting that? And then do you see the similar behaviors happening on your staff now? It may not be a one-to-one swap. You know, my team showed up for the meetings on time, so it wasn't that they were sending notes and saying, Hey, I'll be a half an hour late to the meeting.

It showed up in something else. It showed up in other areas of their work. So for me, I'm conveying, you know, listen, excuses are a good substitution for results because of how I'm showing up at the meeting. But they leave that meeting and they take that behavior and they show up to the their work in similar ways to how I show up in my work. So the fish rots from the head. So what do you do about it? Well, this episode is not about shaming you. It's about helping you see the extraordinary power you have to shape your culture and to heal your climate. If you are seeing behaviors happening in your culture, habits, little things that are annoying or that are impeding your progress towards your goal rather than trying to get your staff to change. First, you need to be looking at yourself.

You need to be looking at your admin team. 

You need to be looking at what are you doing that is sending the signal that that behavior, whatever it is, is okay and every single time I do this with anybody I'm coaching, we always have this amazing realization. Some little thing that you don't think is a big deal is a very big deal to your staff because it's changing and very subtle but very powerful ways. How your staff shows up each day for work, how your staff approaches their job. You see as the builder, everybody is looking to you to see how we are supposed to be doing our work. They are taking their cues from you, which means that if you aren't behaving in a way that is moving the work forward, it's hard for you to expect them to. Let me give you some concrete examples.

Let's say you want your staff to differentiate instruction. You spent all year doing all this PD on instruction, but you give your staff members the same feedback, no matter who they are. You don't differentiate your feedback and support. You send everybody to the same workshop delivered the exact same way. Even though you have teachers who are clueless in the workshop and you have teachers who could probably teach the workshop. How on earth do you expect your staff to differentiate instruction in the classroom when you're not modeling that in the way you're training them to differentiate the fish rots from the head.

Here's another one I say all the time. Rigor requires rigor. 

If you want rigorous instruction in the classroom, then you have to engage your staff in rigorous conversations about how they plan instruction. So if you send your staff to a stupid training and yes, I that's stupid, something in something that's insulting to their intelligence, something that makes them get up and do these silly exercises but doesn't actually transform their practice. But then you expect those same people to go into the classroom and teach in a highly rigorous way.

The fish rots from the head.

Let's say that you want your staff to use their PLC time in a meaningful way, but every single time that you have a staff meeting, you waste their time and give them a meeting. That could have been an email.

The fish rots from the head.

Let's say that you have staff members who are blaming kids. They're talking about their families, they're making excuses. I can't get this done because of these kids, and yet you go on behind closed doors and you complain about your staff. I can't get this done because of these staff members.

The fish rots from the head.

So if you have something that's happening in your culture or that's happening with your staff right now, that is some sort of habit that is slowing down your progress towards your goals. The answer is not to go to the staff and ask them to change.

The answer is to self examine.

Look at yourself first and figure out what are you doing that's signaling to your staff that that behavior is okay. It's not about what you say. You could sit up all day long and preach to your staff about how they should be treating your students. It doesn't matter because they can't hear what you say because they're too busy looking at what you do and if there's a habit that's happening in your school that is bothering you, typically you will find that that behavior that bothers you is behavior that you yourself are doing.

That's the bad news, but here's the good news. The good news is that you have an extraordinary influence on the behavior of your staff members, which means that in the same way that your negative behaviors may be producing negative behaviors in your staff members, your positive behaviors can also produce positive results in your staff members. Let me give you a couple of examples. Let's say that you want your to differentiate instruction in the classroom. Well, if you provide teachers with differentiated support and feedback around differentiated instruction, you will see more teachers implementing it and implementing it with fidelity. Implementing it with commitment because you're giving every teacher what they need at the point when they need it so that they can go in the classroom and be successful. If you want rigorous instruction happening in the classroom and you get engage your teachers in rigorous training and conversations around what do the standards mean. So none of this business of, you know like taking the standards and circling announced and underlying the verbs, which is not a very rigorous way to understand the standards. Instead you engage them in understanding what is the thinking demanded by the standard. 

If you do that, you will increase rigor and instruction because you will have to help teachers develop a rigorous understanding of the standards. 

Again, the fish rots from the head, but the power that you have is that in the same way the fish rots from the head, you can also change behavior. It's not just a negative influence. You also have a powerful positive influence. So think about a behavior that you want to see in your staff and before you go ask them for that behavior. You should try to find a way to figure out how are you yourself going to exhibit that behavior.

What is something that you can do that will model that behavior for your staff so that before you ask them, you've already demonstrated what it looks like because again, your staff is looking to you for cues about how they behave. Now I hear the yes buts already, so let me address some of them. Some people are going to say yes, but I am doing it, but I have a few toxic people. Well, if you've been listening to this podcast for awhile, you already know what to do about toxic people. There are tools for dealing with one or two people who are toxic or or pockets of toxicity. I'm not talking about that. What I'm talking about, it's setting the tone for your entire staff. In fact, a lot of toxicity is given air to flourish because of our own behaviors. You change your behavior and you change the tone of your school and your staff.

I'll give you a couple of examples. 

Some real examples from some of our clients where we're seeing this happen all the time. Let me give you the example of an administrator who's coming in and they're really stressed. One of the things that she did was she began to start every meeting, not by talking about what was wrong, but by going around the table and having everybody state a win for the week, and she always started and what that did is it changed the tone of the meetings. That simple step of just kind of going around and saying wins before you jumped into the business of the meeting helped everybody kind of get a different perspective to see that that wasn't just all bad. The sky wasn't constantly falling. There were some good things happening and she also started it in the staff meeting. She started out by saying, here are some wins that we've had as a school for the month and then here's some challenges, but here's how we're going to deal with it.

That change demeanor, those, those tangible shifts in her behavior instead of always talking about the sky is falling. She began to talk about lens did two things. First of all, it changed her attitude. It reduced her stress. But the second thing it did was it conveyed to the staff that, you know what, there are some things that are working. She was so worried that if she started talking about wins, she would reduce the sense of urgency. But there's a difference between urgency and pressure. Urgency is about saying we've got important work to do. Pressure is about saying, Oh, we don't get it done right now. You know, things are gonna just blow up. You want urgency, you don't want pressure. And what she was doing that she thought was conveying or dizzy was just creating a lot of pressure and stress. Let me give you another example.

We had a client who felt like everybody was phoning in the lessons. 

But then when we started looking at his behavior, he realized that there was some things that he was phoning into. He was phoning in his PD plan every single year. He was looking and saying, Oh, Darren, we have a district PD day maybe I'll have them work in PLCs. There was no plan. There was no lesson plan for how he was doing PD for teachers. When he shifted to creating a lesson plan for how he did PD, now he can call the teachers and start asking them to plan. He started conveying the importance of having that plan in place. When teachers started seeing that their lesson plans started to change is he, even though the fish rots from the head, you can do something about it. You can change the feeling in your school.

You can change the climate, you can change the culture just by shifting your behavior. And the reason that that is so powerful is that you don't have to wait for anybody else to change before. You can see a change in your culture. You don't have to convince somebody that this is the right thing to do or you don't have to, you know, chase check and correct to make sure that people are doing it. All you have to do is change your behavior. And when you start to shift your behavior, you start to see the culture shift. Here's what I can tell you. If you don't shift your behavior first, if you try to get everybody else to change and your behavior continually undermines a change that you're trying to get in your school, you will never see results. The fish rots from the head folks, which means that if you are seeing something in nearest culture that you don't like, you need to look at yourself first.

By the way, that kind of self reflection is really important. 

You know, we sit down all the time and evaluation conferences and feedback conversations and we're always talking about we want our teachers to be more reflective. Let me ask you something. How reflective are you and how publicly reflective are you? If the answer is not much, then I'm going to tell you right now, you're never going to get genuine reflection during those feedback conversations because the fish rots from the head. If you are not willing to take a look at yourself first to figure out what you need to be doing, how you might be contributing to the problem, then forget about that reflection in those feedback conversations. Forget about teachers really taking ownership of their role in what's happening in your school. The fish rots from the head. So here's what you need to do.

Start out by thinking about something that really bothers you in your culture or in your climate right now. And then rather than blaming a teacher or a parent or students, start to think about how might you be contributing to that? What are you doing that's signaling to your staff members that that behavior or that habit or that attitude is okay. The fish rots from the head. So start with you. Think about what you might be doing and then shift your behavior. Because I'm telling you, if you shift your behavior, you will start to shift your culture. It's gotta be you first. That's what builders do. Remember, bosses say go. So bosses say, it's not me. It's you. You change. Leaders say, let's go. So leaders say, let's come together and try to figure out what we need to do as a culture to change. You know that's not really going to work because what people hear is let's come together and figure out what you need to change and I'll just facilitate your own reflection. 

Builders say builders go first. They say, urban reflective. I realize we have this thing happening in the culture. Here's how I'm changing. 

Now. I invite you to join me. Notice the power and the difference between that. Bosses say it's your fault. Leaders say it's our fault, but we're really what leaders are meaning is is your fault. Builders say, I'm going to take ownership. I'm going to go first. I'm going to show you what that looks like and I'm going to make it safe for you to now do the same thing.

When you do that, when you take that ownership yourself and you model that for your staff, you will find more and more of your staff members doing the same thing, making shifts on their own. Not because you made them or you convince them, but because they've chosen to do so based on your example. Yes, the fish rots from the head, but that's an amazing power that you have to shift your culture like a builder.

So that's it for this week's mind step.

I just want to remind you one more time to get your ticket for builders lab over that three days, we spend time working intimately together. We keep builder's lab intentionally small so that you have time to actually get my support. I have time to learn about who you are in your school and together we get to the root cause of your challenges and we give you a plan for solving it. So instead of chasing your tail, trying to set goals and never reaching them, instead of you know, developing plans and achieving those plans and still not seeing change in your school. We show you how to get dramatic results that school year with the teachers and the resources you already have.

Again, to get your tickets to builders lab come to Mindsteps inc com slash builders dash lab. That's Mindsteps inc com slash builders dash lab. Now let's talk about next week. Next week we have another mindset CISM and I've been saying this a lot lately. If you have ever had an issue with, you know, getting people on board to something or if you have people who are fighting, you are disagreeing with the direction that you're trying to take your school. Then I have a mind step system that's going to help you with that and so join me next time so that you can figure out how do you overcome some of the resistance that you're, you're you're experiencing in your school. How do you get everybody onboard and everybody working on the right work the right way. I hope you'll join me next time when we're going to talk about the next Mindsteps-ism anchor and the outcome. 

I'll talk to you then.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build master teachers.