Positive Leadership

When I completed my coaching accreditation with Growth Coaching International, John Campbell gave me a copy of Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron. Now, a few years down the track, I have just completed an online course with Kim Cameron on Practicing Positive Leadership through Michigan Ross.

Producing extraordinarily high performance, generating positively deviant results, and creating remarkable vitality in the workplace are the primary objectives of positive leadership. Positive leadership involves the implementation of positive practices that help individuals and organisations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy, and reach levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise.

Positive leadership practices promote a heliotropic effect, helping people to move toward the positive. When positive practices are given greater emphasis than negative practices, individuals and organisations tend to flourish.

Three particularly important activities for promoting a positive climate include fostering compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude among employees in organisations.

At the heart of positive leadership lies the concept of positive energy. Leaders can, and should, be a source of this life-giving or positive energy. Positive energy is probably the single most important attribute of positive leaders.

One way to enhance personal positive energy is through contemplative practices such as meditation and purposeful self-reflection.

Building and nurturing strong interpersonal relationships is another key to fostering and maintaining positive energy. Strong interpersonal relationships are most easily built on a foundation of positive feedback rather than criticism.

Positive energy is a more significant factor in the performance of individuals and organisations than people’s titles, the information they possess, the influence they exert, or their personality attributes.

Remote Work Revolution – Notes

The Covid pandemic caused a worldwide migration to remote work. Suddenly, digital tools became the primary enablers for daily interactions. Remote work has benefits: costs and travel budgets get slashed, and lower gas emissions improve environmental sustainability. Remote work also has challenges: people feel isolated, out of sync, and out of sight, questions emerge about bonding, trusting and alignment, and videoconferences lead to tech exhaustion. A portion of the workforce will now permanently maintain some remote days in their routine long-term. Virtual, distributed, and global work will expand our repertoire, skills, and performance, and make us and our organisations better.


Teams that have previously established norms for communication or other ways of working together are well primed for remote work. Psychological safety is the key to productive teamwork. Leaders must actively foster an atmosphere that makes everyone feel safe speaking up and asking questions. When leaders share themselves; open up and share autobiographical insights, it helps to cultivate emotional trust.


The reality is that most managers have limited power over employee productivity, even when co-located. Remote work increases productivity. The hallmark of remote work is the ability to self-direct and capitalise on the gift of managing your own work processes. Flexibility of scheduling is particularly invaluable for remote workers who have to negotiate the demands of work and family at the same time. The answer to professional isolation is developing cognitive and emotional connection with one another. When those connections are strong, the team is cohesive. When the team is cohesive, it is productive. A cohesive remote team has the capacity to be even more productive than its bricks-and-mortar counterpart. Lean into the inherent flexibility. Encourage autonomy.

Digital Tools

In 2011, Thierry Breton, CEO of global information technology giant Atos, announced that he would ban email. The onslaught of email in people’s inboxes was causing them to work extra hours to respond. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives.” Internal emails are now replaced with social networks, instant messaging systems, and collaborative tools. It is the leader’s job to decide the desired communication culture and then choose the tools to achieve that for a remote workforce. Tech exhaustion happens when we treat work communication activities in the virtual world in the same way that we do in the physical world, yet don’t add the constraints that we do in the latter. Using a mix of available media – synchronous and asynchronous – to match our goals lessens tech exhaustion.

Remote Teams

Prepare for virtual meetings asynchronously by brainstorming in group documents prior to the meeting enabling spontaneous collaboration. Coming to a decision is often much easier than hashing everything out in a co-located office. Deliberately orchestrate daily or frequent meetings and give each person a dedicated time to speak without interruption before handing the virtual baton to the next person.

Leading Virtually

Virtual leadership requires frequent communication with team members. Hearing from the boss helps make the present and future more predictable. Such predictability gives shape to daily work. Remote workers crave predictability.



Sand Talk – Book Review

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

By Tyson Yunkaporta

Text Publishing


Sand Talk is a book about Indigenous thinking and looking at the world in different ways. Throughout the book, Yunkaporta shifts between his academic voice and being a campfire storyteller from moment to moment. He continually presents ways to consider the profound oral traditions and complex Aboriginal ways of thinking, noting that, “Explaining Aboriginal notions of time is an exercise in futility.” The book is full of deep insights and powerful lines. One of my favourites is, “Sometimes it is hard to write in English when you’ve been talking to your great-grandmother on the phone but she is also your niece, and in her language there are no separate words for time and space.” 

Other key ideas that jumped out at me were:

“It is difficult to name the ripples and patterns of global power systems when we are limited by nineteenth-century language around race and colonialism.” 

“Yarning is more than just a story or conversation in Aboriginal culture – it is a structured cultural activity that is recognised even in research circles as a valid and rigorous methodology for knowledge production, inquiry and transmission.” 

“The Aboriginal flag represents a social system in direct opposition to the global order that requires the existence of flags in the first place.”

“The only sustainable way to store data long-term is within relationships.” 

“In our culture not very much of your life is supposed to remain private.” 

Throughout the book, Yunkaporta records his yarns with Aboriginal elders, Indigenous academics and his friends from around the world. He is critical of the tokenistic inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in schools and at major events, dismissing bush tucker and performances as fragmented nostalgic remnants of the past. 

Sand Talk is paradigm-shifting, deeply moving, philosophical, and thought provoking. It contains a deep respect for Indigenous Knowledge and learning from patterns from the past. For History teachers interested in gaining an insight into the Indigenous worldview, this book is incredible. Prepare to come away with a far more nuanced view of Australia’s complex relationship with the past.

Tell Me Why? – Book Review

Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music

By Archie Roach

Simon & Schuster


 Tell Me Why is the powerful memoir of a stolen child and the story of musician Archie Roach’s extraordinary journey to become a legendary Australian singer-songwriter. The rather depressing journey through a lost identity ends up providing an identity with real strength.

The first half of the book is harrowing reading as it describes Archie’s street years of drinking in parks and pubs. Drinking consumed years of his life and took a huge  toll. Stints in hospital and prison were followed by a suicide attempt at the end of one bender. He survived a stroke and had half a lung removed due to cancer.

The second half of the book describes Archie’s emergence as the indigenous voice of the Stolen Generations. Shy Archie Roach was always uncomfortable being a spokesperson. “I was reluctant, I think, to put myself out there and have that sort of scrutiny,” he confessed. “It frightened me a bit.” His partner Ruby told him, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?” The book is also a love story for his Ruby, who died in 2010. 

Roach’s signature song, Took the Children Away, starts with the words, “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” When it was first played live, in Sydney at a Bicentennial protest in 1988, the crowd wept. It could be argued that it was this song that woke white Australia up to the injustices of the Stolen Generations. The mainstreaming of indigenous voices like Archie Roach in popular culture played a central role in the struggle for rights and freedoms. “My songs weren’t calling for revolution; they were calling for recognition and truth, and that itself was an act of defiance. We are here.”

Tell Me Why is an emotional read about family, community, and music, and Archie’s warm and powerful voice threads the story together. All Australian History teachers should read this memoir. It is hard to fully understand the impacts of the Stolen Generations and the indigenous struggle for rights and freedoms without understanding the music and story of Archie Roach. It is a great book written by a great Australian.

The Future of Teaching

What cognitive science is actually telling us is different from the simplistic focus on test scores being promoted by some in recent years.

What works, for what purpose? What is the purpose of school? Research can’t tell us what works until we specify what we are teaching for. Education has multiple objectives. We are not just focused on the near-horizon of grades, test scores, and access to university. We need to lift our eyes beyond that to 20-30 years down the track. What is it that people will need? Pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment should support this. Not just jumping the next hoop.

What effect does a pedagogy that is good at racking up test scores have on the development of curiosity and creativity? No school website boosts about squeezing test scores out of students. Unless we pay specific attention to the cultivation of learning dispositions, they don’t happen by themselves.

There is a polarisation of inquiry, discovery as the opposite of direct instruction and a knowledge-rich curriculum; the image of a battle or a tug-of-war. False oppositions are presented as if they are inevitable. It is not either/or. The way the debate is set up misrepresents the potential of the classroom. We need to take a broader view. The middle ground of teaching is where all of the interesting things are happening. We don’t want to live at the extremes. Polarisations exist more as rhetoric than reality. Most teachers just get on with small-scale innovations that suit the young people in front of them.

The word ‘science’ has been appropriated and it affects policy. The language – ‘evidence-based’, ‘data-driven’, ‘best practice’ – impacts on teachers’ sense of confidence when they are told by authoritative voices that direct instruction is all that works.

Can we trust educational research? It is hard to do; there are nuances and subtleties. What works may hurt and side effects may be toxic. Teachers work with diverse learners every day and they are aware of complexity and multiple goals of education; it is difficult to have hard and fast rules. Teachers are looking for reassurance. They are vulnerable to loud science-backed voices who argue that X works and Y doesn’t.

Our pedagogy has to create a culture where we can play with ideas within a zone of psychological safety. Teachers are mind coaches, like sports coaches. The job of a teacher is to make people want to put in the effort to stretch their brains.

Exploration before explanation. Weave the two together. Think beyond black and white.

Cultures of Thinking in Action

Culture is about the messages and values we internalise. Ron Ritchhart talks about mindsets, principles, and values.

  • Mindsets are a way of seeing something, internalised beliefs.
  • Our principles are our articulated mindsets.
  • Values are evident in the messages we send about what is important in teaching, learning, and what we think is smart.

If we want a culture of thinking for students, then we have to have a culture of thinking for teachers. The way teachers are treated in a school gets mirrored in a classroom. If it is about accountability, strict supervision, and rigid curriculum, then this pressure shifts to the students. As Deb Meier says, “If we don’t fee the teachers, they will eat the children.” When teachers are involved in active discussion, problem-solving, learning from colleagues, questioning practices, trying things and reflecting, then learning goes up for students. Teachers need regular times to meet together to actively engage in conversations, and these should be beyond subject teams. This requires embedded time, driven by teachers, where teachers are active agents in driving the learning. It is about exploring and building on each other’s ideas, meaning-making, asking authentic questions, and wondering. Inquiry should be ongoing and span meetings. It involves dialogue, hypothesising, and living with ambiguity. It is both personal and collective. How do we want to ‘be’ together? Sometimes we gather and prove what we already know. It makes us feel safe and leaves limited room for new insights. Think about really concrete actions. Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

Data is more than test scores and numbers. It can come directly from teacher observation, real student work, and real student interactions.

There is the myth of multi-tasking. The pull of technology is really seductive. 80% of students study with social media on in the background and their performance drops dramatically.

We can’t directly teach dispositions. We need a long-term view. Teaching is often a short-term view. The two master dispositions are curiosity and metacognition.

Learning is a consequence of thinking. The most effective teachers of thinking can answer the question, ‘what kind of thinking?’ They use the language of thinking, they highlight it, and lead with it.

Relationships and interactions are central. We should rethink the grammar of schooling. This is a personal business, kids have stories. We must value and respect people. Do our students feel like we know them? Teaching is made up of moments. How are we building connection with our students? There is the danger of a single story, and we want more rounded, complete students. We all having unwitting biases.

We must change the role of a teacher and students. When teachers hold all the power, student engagement decreases. We need more student talk and teacher listen, and co-construction of curriculum and assessment. “The way a child learns to make decisions is by making decisions, not following directions.” (Alfie Kohn)

Vale Professor Richard Elmore

Very sadly, Professor Richard Elmore from the Harvard Graduate School of Education passed away earlier this year. His research focused on building capacity for instructional improvement and, more recently, on the relationship between the neuroscience of learning and the design of new learning environments. His innovative HarvardX online course, Leaders of Learning, was taken by over 100,000 people.

A decade ago I found myself in Elmore’s class on ‘Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement’. In that class, he encouraged us to think about teaching as a “practice,” a body of knowledge in need of regular collaborative review, in the same way that medical doctors and lawyers see their work. After lamenting that educators fail to achieve collective learning (“watching teams operate in schools is like watching Astroturf grow”), he pioneered instructional rounds, modeled on medical rounds, for educators to identify a problem or practice and gather data from a range of classrooms to draw conclusions.

In class, Elmore argued that most school structures are based on adults’ fear of children running out of control and adults always underestimate the capabilities of children. He taught us that the best indicators of student learning are the tasks that they undertake – task predicts performance. Yet the task that students most frequently undertake in schools is listening to a teacher talk.

 He finished the course arguing that schools are operating on a 19th century bureaucratic model, a compliance-oriented structure, based on:

  • Deficit-based versus asset-based models of student learning.
  • Teacher to student versus student to teacher models of authority.
  • Extrinsic versus intrinsic models of motivation.
  • Fixed versus incremental models of intelligence.
  • Cognitive versus social-emotional models of knowledge.
  • Status versus developmental models of performance.

While Elmore believed that there will always be a place like school for students to interact with teachers, he warned that the school education sector as we know it will soon be obsolete. We are increasingly organizing ourselves around social networks and there is more learning going on in social networks than in formal organisations. Chillingly, he concluded, “There is no future in the organizations you used to work in. Our future is not a future of fixed practices. Our future is a future of dramatic transformations. The more I know about learning, the more problematic I find this institution called school.”

In the last decade, Elmore argued that we needed to rethink the concepts of scale and policy in education. He believed that scaling in education focuses on procedural change and never really gets to the deep change in teachers’ beliefs required for effective school improvement. He saw policy as too focused on standardization without taking into account the wide variety of factors that influence learning. Most recently, Elmore had turned his focus to using the emerging “neuroscience of learning” to transform the design of learning environments. 

In 2012 he declared, “I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling any more”, and he described his work as “palliative care for a dying institution.” He was inspired by Sugata Mitra’s student-driven learning in Indian slums and he explored outlier organizations that are unleashing powerful learning, like NuVu, Beijing Academy in China, and Redes de Tutoría in Mexico. “A major lesson we have learned from attainment-driven models of schooling is that it is possible to disable human beings as learners by convincing them that they do not have the capability to manage their own learning.” 

In his last podcast, he argued that there is a growing gap between schooling and learning. Learning is central to our survival as a species, but there is not a powerful connection between learning in schools and learning in our lives. Learning is a biological, evolutionary necessity for survival, as opposed to an institutionalized practice. He described schools as toxic physical environments which run counter to learning. Elmore saw the central function of schooling as custody, the second function of schooling is control, the third is to decide privilege through money, rewards, and merit (he found it bizarre that people committed to equity run the machine whose purpose is to create privilege). Learning is merely what we do when time is left over. He felt that learning is migrating away from schooling as a matter of human survival and he encouraged educators to get involved in non-school learning environments.

Elmore likened current schooling practices to the practice of medicine before germ theory. We are learning an enormous amount about learning from neuroscience but it is having virtually no effect on education. Elmore argued that each individual has a unique developmental path, yet we have created institutions that have purposes that are becoming obsolete. He thinks people are just going to walk away. They have chosen to be in institutions that do not support their aspirations. He concluded the podcast by describing the power of learning through a beginner’s mindset and encouraging educators to always have something in their lives that they are a novice at. He touted the work of Alison Gopnick and Sarah Blakemore and encouraged us to read their work with a beginner’s mind. He also recommended Tom Vanderbilt’s book Beginners as a great read for lifelong learning.

Vale Richard Elmore. You were an intellectual giant and you will be missed.

Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate

Innovation and entrepreneurship are terms that are easily bandied about nowadays. Schools are no exception. I have just completed a Stanford Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. While the course was pitched at Silicon Valley start-ups and businesses, it was a fantastic learning experience from the perspective of leading innovation in schools. Here are my key takeaways

How to Find Inspiration

To get a good idea you need lots of ideas. It is the job of an innovator to fill the funnel. Useful techniques include:

Leading Innovation

Creativity is doing new things with old things. Creative people live and thrive at the intersection. Creativity plus implementation = innovation. There is a difference between managing routine work (where you can’t allow failure) versus innovative/creative work (where it has to be safe to fail for rapid learning).

Managers overestimate their value. The best managers manage by getting out of the way. Innovative managers devote less attention, don’t require people to ask for permission, and don’t enforce rules consistently. “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing” (3M’s William Coyne). The best bosses protect their people from harm, intrusions, distractions, indignities, idiots, and idiocy.

Use ignorance to spark innovation. Blend experts and novices. Don’t hire in your own image. (Abraham Lincoln placed three of his harshest critics in his cabinet after winning the 1860 election).

Fight as if you are right, listen as if you are wrong. Strong opinions, weakly held. Leaders should model arguing in public.

The best diagnostic question = What happens when people fail? There is no innovation or learning without failure. Do you forgive and remember? Failure sucks but instructs.

Being a boss is like being a high-status primate: the animals under you in the pecking order observe everything you do and they know much more about you than you know about them. Studies of baboons show that a member looks at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds. What effect do you have on the people around you? After they interact with you, do they have more or less energy?

Leading Collaborative Teams

Diversity is a key driver for innovation. You will only get breakthrough innovations if you are crossing boundaries. However, conflict is almost inevitable. Personality conflict is almost always bad, while task conflict can help explore differences. Keep task conflict separate from affective conflict. Ensure conflict is about ideas, not people. The optimum conflict management style is collaboration; deeply understanding other people’s interests and integrating them. This takes active leadership and patience. Leaders can help subgroups come together by pulling out common identities. The leader’s behaviour is the key to psychological safety. Seek and support boundary spanners – people who have a broader worldview, sensitivity, empathy, multiple perspectives, and are attuned to difference. Trust is built through site visits and getting people together.

Strategy Driven Innovation

When we are confronted with pervasive change, extreme uncertainty about the future, and blurred timing and paths, it is difficult to plan, but reacting is insufficient. The two key strategic questions are: Where do you want to go? How do you want to get there? It is useful to think of strategy in terms of time frames. In the short-term it needs to be simple. Figure out what will move the needles, choose a bottleneck, and craft simple rules. This provides some structure but not so much structure that you can’t move. It is like jazz music, structured chaos. Having a small number of rules works because it lets you capture opportunities flexibly, make better and faster decisions, and they are easy to remember and communicate. In the short-term, strategy = simple rules. Mid-term strategy is about genetic evolution. Blend the old and the new for faster, cheaper, less risky innovation. Leverage the past. Biology is the science of growth and change. Long-term strategy is about probing the future. Use a wide variety of low-cost probes. It is about experimenting and searching. Pivot from failure to failure. Lose small, cheap, early. It is about your identity not your vision. For example, Dropbox’s identity was around the slogan “It just works”. Everything they did fit this identity. It’s about learning. When there is more uncertainty, use more probes.

Building Culture

Culture is about mindset. It is about Caring (colleagues and customers), Sharing (ideas, resources, credit), and Daring (taking risks). People operations are the foundation. People are the heart and soul of the organisation. Build processes that create and foster culture to stay true to your organisation’s vision. Ideas are killed by community, not the boss. Being indifferent to your colleagues is taboo. Spend time defining the sacred and the taboo.

The most important thing is finding people. They are the source of new ideas, new DNA, new variations. Hire for intellectual ability and firepower. Fluid intelligence (adaptability) vs crystalline intelligence (subject matter expertise). Hire for conscientiousness (people who do the right thing, go above and beyond), curiosity, and being helpful.

Simplify as much as you can. Get rid of meetings, posers thrive in meetings.

Provide real-time feedback – check-ins, feed-forward, radical candour (Radical Candor shows that bosses must ask for and embrace criticism), continuous feedback, project-based feedback. Use the help muscle, it is not about judging.

Scaling Excellence Through Innovation

Excellence is building an organisation where people do the right thing even when nobody is looking. It requires patience and grit. It is about tools, not incentives. Use the brake, not just the accelerator. When CEO Paul Anderson took over BHP in 1998 he asked the top 80 people to each write him a two page memo: Who are you? What are you responsible for? What issues do you believe are most pressing? What would you do if you were me? He completely turned the company around and later said, “Mostly, I just did what they told me to do.”

Spread a mindset. Create a picture. People have to know what to do without checking with the boss. The principles of scaling are to: name the problem, name the enemy, create a story. Focus on the urgent and make it Sesame Street simple to defeat cognitive load. Excessive cognitive load undermines the ability of people to do what they know and believe they should.

Build felt accountability. Tug of obligation and commitment. Help employees see their impact on the organisation’s purpose. A fantastic example of felt accountability is the Ordinary Heroes of the Taj who saw the guest as God.

Connect and cascade excellence. Repeated exposure to different people is the key. To spread excellence, you have to have excellence to spread. Be patient, create excellence first. Spread slowly. Where are you really getting things humming? Conduct pre-mortems. This plan failed. Why?

The Power of Stories to Fuel Innovation.

Stories create community. Stories help people acculturate. Stories help people care. Stories hold attention. Stories beat data. Stories drive culture. Stories live in small moments and can be told briefly. We should seek to provoke, not preach. We should invest in signature stories that can scale. And we should create and curate stories worth sharing. Signature stories help people make the jump to where you are going. Stories are a mindset. We should develop a rich bank of stories.


Takeaway Questions

How do you seek different perspectives and actively work to build diverse teams?

What happens when people fail in your school?

Do you have more energy after interacting with your manager/leader?

Does your boss take the time to deeply understand everyone’s interests and ensure that they are integrated?

What are your school’s simple rules?

How is your school blending the old and the new?

How is your school probing the future?

What is sacred and what is taboo at your school?

How many meetings do you have to attend?

What sort of real-time feedback do you provide/receive?

Does your boss ask for and embrace criticism?

Do people know what to do at your school without checking with the boss?

Do you feel felt accountability to your school?

What stories do you use to fuel innovation?

Simple Rules

What is strategy?

Pervasive change. Where do you want to go? How do you want to get there?  Extreme uncertainty about the future. Blurred timing and paths. It is difficult to plan but reacting is insufficient.

Strategy as structured chaos. Make it simple. Tim is central for longer horizons. Leverage the past. Orgniastion drives strategy. Rhythm, not speed. Improvisational.

Short-term –

Three steps – Figure out what will move the needles, choose a bottleneck, craft the rules. This provides some structure but not so much structure that you can’t move. It is like jazz music, on the edge of chaos. Having a small number of rules works because it lets you capture opportunities flexibly, make better and faster decisions, they are easy to remember and communicate. Strategy = simple rules. Get real time information and adjust.

Mid-term –

Best practice is genetic evolution. Blend the old and the new for faster, cheaper, less riskly innovation. Biology is the science of growth and change.

Long-term –

Probe the future. Use a wide variety of low cost probes. Strategic planning is not a waste of time. It is about experimenting and searching. Pivot from failure to failure. Lose small, cheap, early. It is about your identity not your vision. (Drop box “It just works”). It’s about learning. When there is more uncertainty, use more probes.



Scaling Excellence Through Innovation

Excellence is building an organisation where people do the right thing even when nobody is looking.

Spread from few to many. Soul of a start-up.

Requires patience and grit. It is about tools, not incentives.

Use the brake, not just the gas pedal.

Spread a mindset. Create a picture. People have to know what to do without checking with the boss.

Be careful of: illusion – mistaken assumptions, impatience – too quick and fast, incompetence – wrong people.

Scaling Principles

Name the problem, name the enemy, create a story.

Focus on the urgent and make it Sesame Street simple to defeat cognitive load. Excessive cognitive load undermines the ability of people to do what they know and believe they should.

Build felt accountability. Tug of obligation and commitment. Help employees see their impact on the organisation’s purpose. The Taj Hotel – Guest as God – https://hbr.org/2011/12/the-ordinary-heroes-of-the-taj

Hire employees who are pre-wired for felt accountability.

Connect and cascade excellence. Repeated exposure to different people is the key.

To spread excellence, you have to have excellence to spread. Patience, create excellence first. Spread slowly. Where are you really getting things humming?

Be transparent with bad behaviour and reward good behaviour.

Conduct pre-mortems. This plan failed. Why?