I had the distinct honor to lead our Convocation with our Gunter ISD staff this past week. Each year at this special event we reflect on successes from the previous year, celebrate the incredible people who help make our district amazing every day, and I spend a few moments talking about our vision for the upcoming year.
One of the greatest joys of being a leader is seeing others bring the shared vision of an organization to life. I love visiting campuses and seeing small parts of what we are talking about come to life through their own creative and unique ways of leading. This year, we’ve been bringing our strategic initiatives around innovative learning, preparing future-ready students and ensuring social and emotional wellness to life on our campuses and in our classrooms. Our middle school principal shared a bingo board that she adapted from a neighboring district made up of tangible strategies that reflect what we want for our students and staff. My elementary principal took our work around having #2020vision and being clear about what we want to do and who we want to be through using Jon Gordon’s one word and had teachers stamp out their intentional commitment for this year. My high school principal took our draft of our Learner Profile and empowered his teachers to brainstorm what that would look like in their classrooms, and more importantly, how we could make it better. The past two weeks have been an important reminder of the importance of vision.
Vision is also the one thing that almost kept me from the superintendency – both personally and professionally. There was a point in my journey where I thought I was open to my next best step but I really wasn’t. One of my favorite authors/speakers, Jen Hatmaker, came to speak at our church in the early days of her ministry. She was sharing about being open to God’s calling but realized that sometimes her “yes” wasn’t even “on the table.” I too, felt like I was open to “anything,” but when I really started to reflect on what I was open to, I realized that it was a certain kind of job, with a certain kind of title, in a certain kind of district, connected to a certain kind of salary, in a certain kind of geographic location… It was as if I had taken the huge expanse of what could be (because each of us has a HUGE expanse of what “could be” in our lives) and drew a small box around what I was putting on the table – and the superintendency wasn’t in it; it wasn’t even on the table. My personal vision was small.
It wasn’t just my limiting personal vision that was holding me back, it was the idea of professional vision and whether or not I felt that I had it. I was happily serving in a central office position when my superintendent suddenly stepped down. I hadn’t really seen myself becoming superintendent up until that point. Even on the first day of my superintendency-based doctoral program, as we sat in a large circle and had to introduce ourselves and why we wanted to become a superintendent I remember thinking “I’m going to have to lie…” I chose the program because it was an incredible school and the program was truly grounded in theory and practice, but I had little intention of actually becoming a superintendent. But in that year when our superintendent departed, I had multiple people ask me if I was considering applying and things began to shift in my thinking. It wasn’t that I could even be a candidate – that job was not a feasible starting point for me. But it was the first time that I really started to think about the possibility of becoming a superintendent, much due to the encouragement of others.
I was still struggling though, envisioning myself in that role. I remember sharing some of these thoughts and fears with my Assistant Superintendent and she was so affirming of me. But I persisted, saying “yeah, but superintendents need to have qualities like… ‘vision’.” She quickly responded with words that changed my life. She said, “Jill – you are one of the most visionary leaders I have ever known.”
My response was silence. Not because I was flattered; not even because I was humbled. I was dumbfounded. You see, I did not see that in myself.
And by the way, what a powerful picture of mentoring, that not only do people choose to pour into one another, but that they have the ability to see further in you than you can see yourself. She saw that in me. She spoke truth into me. And gave me the gift to see that and speak that into others.
She continued, “you are able to clearly see where we are, and where we could be… and you bring people together to help the entire organization get from one place to another.” Wow…
This was a turning point for me, and vision was at the crux of it all. Once I expanded my personal vision of “what could be” my mindset shifted and all of a sudden what I thought wasn’t even on the table suddenly was. And as I realized what professional vision really was, and that I had it, I knew that I could approach what once seemed unapproachable.
I had misconceptions about vision, and recognizing that and reframing my thoughts around that changed my trajectory personally and professionally. So I thought I would share some of those misconceptions with you.
Vision is not just some foggy, hard to define, mystic kind of concept. Vision is simply being able to see what “could be” – or being the conduit of bringing people together to share their greatest hopes and dreams to together find their vision. In fact, the clearer the vision, the more powerful it will become. Each year we spend time during our New-to-District Orientation introducing our new staff and I ask each of them the same question: Why Gunter? When they get done, they have more clearly articulated the culture, values and beliefs of our district than I ever could. People know what Gunter is about; they believe in our shared beliefs and they feel our culture. Vision has to be so clear that it doesn’t need a slogan for people to memorize; they just know what you’re about.
Vision is not just future-focused. Part of vision is absolutely the ability to see into the future, to help the organization or yourself see what “could be.” This past spring our Leadership Team read Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last and he wrote about former CEOs now having a “sober clarity” that we wish they would have had while they were leading. He said, “I understand we all have 20/20 hindsight, but don’t we pay these leaders for their vision and foresight?” A key aspect of vision is being able to see into the future, and as Dr. John Horn with the Schlechty Center would add,”the higher up in the organization you go, the further out your vision needs to be.” But sometimes we look at vision as being solely future-focused, and I think a big part of vision is being able to see it all. It is having a clear understanding and perspective of the past; about where you’ve come from, the successes and failures within that, and the legacy that needs to be cherished from that. It’s about clearly seeing where you are in your present and even understanding where you are in the context of others around you. I chuckled the first time my pastor joked about “the great theologian,” Johnny Nash, and the truth in his words: “I can see clearly now the rain is gone; I can see all the obstacles in my way.” Having vision does not mean the path will be clear; it just means you will be able to see the path including every obstacle in sight. Vision is the ability to see – the big picture from 30,000 feet and the details right in front of you; the past, the present and the future; and most importantly, the path from where you are to where you want to be.
Vision is not a solitary creation. Leaders don’t own the market when it comes to vision; everyone has great hopes and dreams. Vision truly comes to life when people share those hopes and dreams and together forge aspirations of where the organization can and should go. Our job as leaders is to bring diverse voices into the process, to push people to broaden their mindsets about what could be, and to open our minds and hearts to hear the desires of the group.
I shared in an earlier post that the strategic planning process for my district was incredible. And that was not only because we brought in two incredible facilitators who truly had mastered the craft of bringing a group of people together to share a collective voice about their aspirations, but because of the collective group itself. David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know, shared that “the smartest person in the room is the room.” And when it comes to vision you need to make sure that your room is large enough to collect the unique thoughts and perspectives of your entire school community. The magic is not in a pretty piece of paper or a well-worded statement, or whatever result or product that comes out of it; the magic happens through the rich conversations generated in the process itself.
Vision is not reserved for adults. Sometimes the vision of your school organization comes directly from the voice of its students. We have had students involved in our strategic planning process from the beginning – as part of our initial strategic planning teams, community forums, action teams and through surveys and committees like our High School Principal’s Student Advisory Team. As our board was reading through the whole collection of data we had received from our school community, one of the questions we had asked was around their greatest hopes and dreams for Gunter ISD. One of our graduates responded that his greatest hope was that it would continue to be an exceptional school that developed great people who better the world. The vision statement of Gunter ISD is to be an exceptional school system that develops great people who better the world. Student voice matters.
Vision is not just about work. While vision is important for organizations, having a personal vision is equally important. We need to continually envision what our life could be and analyze whether we are taking steps towards those aspirations. I have had the great pleasure of working with Natalie Glover, who is brilliant in leadership and branding from the inside out and she has recently ventured to share her passion about mindfulness with others. Her company, LumenKind is about helping people live intentionally through beautiful Mindful Marks.
She notes that “the key to a powerful life is staying present in this moment, but life is a balancing act and sometimes we all need a little reminder.” As I looked through her Mindful Marks (love, transform, breathe, communicate, to name a few) the one I chose to wear was visualize.
Marianne Williamson shared that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” Personal vision is important because when we are not mindful of “what could be,” we will bury our greatest hopes and dreams under the guise of busyness or even impossibility – when sometimes, it’s not about ability; it’s about our fear of the possibility. The power of personal vision is in pushing your own self to think about what your strengths are, where your joy is, what the ideal life would look like, and what changes need to be made in order to pursue that path – and then going after that!
Vision alone is not enough. Having vision is only helpful when there is capacity to bring the vision to life. Jack Welch, the long-time CEO of GE noted that “good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” One of the most frustrating aspects of being part of an organization is to have a leader that has a vision but there is no capacity within the organization to achieve it. As leaders, vision is important, but we must ensure that we are capable or able to bring people around us who can bring the vision to life. Vision must be created, communicated, cared for by its people, and brought to completion.
Vision is never-ending. There is no moment of arrival. I love the video by Jon Spencer that talks about empowerment. We have come so far in the realm of teaching and learning, shifting from a system of compliance to one of engagement. But when he talks about the power in shifting from mere engagement to empowerment, it makes me realize that as we continue to refine the craft of teaching and learning, there will always be a better way. We will never arrive. The same is true for our vision; we will never fully arrive. As leaders our vision is continually being refined and refocused just as the world around us and the students in front of us continue to change and exhibit different needs.
There is great vision within all of us – around what we want to do and who we want to be. But it takes us being mindful about and intentional in thinking about our vision, bringing people together to create our vision and then living it out – in big ways and small ways… every. single. day.
Is your vision big enough or have you drawn a small box within the huge expanse of what could be? Are you living within your vision and taking steps to bring it to fruition? I was reminded this morning that Benjamin Franklin used to ask this powerful question, “what has become clear to you since we last met?” If we are going to be the best versions of ourselves and serve our families and organizations well, we need to have clarity around what we want to do and who we want to be. Be bold and envision what could be!