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Five Things I Learned in an Airport

Image result for airline ticket agent and customer


I need to be some place and I need to be there tonight and if I am not going to be there, YOU need to get me a room and a ticket first thing in the morning.”

It was a repeat of an exchange that had been going on for over an hour between the airline ticket agent and a long line of travelers--each traveler emphasizing THEIR needs and wants. Sentences filled with the pronoun “I.”

The representative repeated her litany: “There is a problem with the weather at the other airport and the airline is not responsible.” The exchange went back and forth, both parties repeating the same position, neither side seemingly listening to the other.

You could feel and see the frustration sweep through the line gaining momentum and force as time passed. The line inched forward as each person vented their feelings on the lone representative. Sometimes the interaction was loud and angry and sometimes it was passive and resigned—it was never positive. The trained smile of the representative started to wilt as traveler after traveler demanded that she do something and get them home.

Finally, I was standing in front of the rep, a forced and embattled smile pasted on her face. She looked at me approach the desk as she prepared herself for the next attack. We all have been in her position before and getting yelled at for something that was out of our control does nothing to make us feel any better or to prompt us to try and do anything about the situation.

I tried a different approach. I smiled at her—a real smile—and said, “This has to be a tough situation for you. We are all angry about not getting on our flight and even though you had nothing to do with creating this situation, people are yelling at you. You are doing such a great job of dealing with all of this anger and not losing your patience. I really admire you.”

Her eyes re-focused and a real smile began to sneak out: “Thank you. I really hate when this happens and I do feel personally responsible to try and fix things. I like my job and really enjoy making people happy by resolving problems, but tonight it just doesn’t look like it is going to happen.”

We spoke a little more, the conversation being drawn out a little as she savored this respite from anger. I never asked her for anything, but the discussion ended with Linda, that was her name, telling me quietly that she could not get me on a plane that night, but would arrange for a hotel room. I wasn’t going home, but I would be sleeping in a bed and not on an airport bench.

I quietly commented again on her display of patience, congratulated her on her professionalism and very quietly thanked her for the room. As I left, the next passenger was already kicking off a new tirade, but I like to think Linda faced it with a renewed sense of energy.


Five Lessons Learned

First: Keep the focus on the issue

When dealing with a problem, don’t make it about you or the other person— focus on the issue. When people only focus on what THEY want, the gap between problem and solution can grow. You tend to forget the problem you are trying to solve and concentrate on winning what you want.

Second: Build relationships

Empathy and just plain old fashion honest communication can be powerful tools to build a relationship. Related to the above point, don’t confuse the problem with the person. Even when there is disagreement, there is opportunity to build a relationship. The newly built relationship resulted in Linda doing her best to help me.

Third: Recognition

Linda received affirmation that her job was difficult; much of what she was dealing with was beyond her control, and she was doing as well as you could—she was trying. When her efforts were recognized, she felt valued. Regularly, recognizing people’s efforts and accomplishments builds a positive culture.

Four: Opportunity

Relationship building and recognition also provided Linda with opportunity--the opportunity to meet the expectations of a customer. Providing people with opportunities to excel sends a message of trust and confidence. It contributes to building a culture in which people try their best. They are willing to take calculated risks because they know mistakes are not punished, but examined for what can be learned.

Five: Gratitude

Linda was grateful someone had shown her some consideration and I was grateful for her hard work. The result was she felt a little better and I got a bed for the night. We both were winners. Gratitude creates winners. It is a powerful motivator—it generates satisfaction and loyalty.


Focus, relationship building, recognition, opportunity, and gratitude separately are effective tools for any leader. Used together on a consistent basis they contribute to a strong culture where people feel valued and respected. This breeds success!

What High School Physics Taught me about Leadership


Bro. Carl was my high school physics teacher and basketball coach.  For the record I was a much better physic student than basketball player (most of my career was on the bench). 

Leadership is often about moving people who may be stalled or stagnant toward one direction or to a certain goal, achieving something, making a change.  The challenge is finding what will move them.

Newton’s First Law of Motion reads: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force.” This law is often called "the law of inertia.”

Leaders as a force for change

Often people and organizations (organizations at the core are just groups of people) can suffer from a kind of group “inertia.”  They can be stuck in a mental rut with “that is the way we have always done things” thinking or “this is the way it is and it can’t be changed” thinking.  And just as Newton tells us, to get them energized or moving in the right direction we need an outside force to get them moving in that right direction. Real Leaders must be that outside force, at least in the beginning.

In like manner, people and organizations can also suffer from a feeling of spinning out of control or experiencing a lot of movement, but going nowhere—or worse, moving in a direction of consistent failure.  Again, we turn to Newton—a body in motion remains in motion in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force.  Again, Real Leaders must be that outside force.

Real Leaders

Leaders can act as a catalyst for change.  Real Leaders:

  • Need to have a vision of what they want their organization to look like and do
  • Need to work with their people to develop a plan with concrete and measurable objectives
  • Need to build relationships so staff can and do trust them
  • Need to create environment where staff can share knowledge
  • Need to “connect the dots” for the different members of their organization so everyone can have an appreciation for the big picture

What did I learn?

The passion and actions of leaders can provide the outside force needed to make positive changes within an organization and create a movement toward excellence. 

Five Lessons Learned from Shirley

Image result for Heavy elderly woman in wheelchair


Several years ago I was visiting my mom at the nursing home.  It is great place to observe human behavior and interactions.  In many ways they are like children, free of inhibitions.  While waiting for my mom, I saw Shirley. A woman well into her 80’s Shirley sits slumped- her heavy frame in the wheelchair, looking very much like a mother hen on top of her nest. When she speaks her voices has a unique quiver that completes the image.  She spends most of her day traveling up and down the hallways stopping and interacting with residents and visitors alike with her daily greeting of “Heyyyyyy Misterrrr.” Everyone knows Shirley. 

The Revolt!

On this particular day, Shirley had stationed herself at the center of the day room.  Much like a mother hen trying to gather her chicks she spun herself in a small circle calling out to others in the room.

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

Her potential chicks blissfully went about what they were doing, ignoring Shirley and her call. The nurses and aides smiled and laughed, “It’s just Shirley.”   

Shirley continued her circling and calling, undaunted by the ignoring of her peers and the smiling dismissal of the staff: 

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

I watched from outside the room impressed by Shirley’s perseverance and disregard for the reaction of others. She was a lady with a mission and she was not going to give up.

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

And then it began, first one and then another and then another, looked up and began listening.  All of a sudden, Shirley went from mother hen to commanding general as she led her first few volunteer troops toward a door and freedom.  Her now strident battle cry was strong and clear supported by a chorus echoing her:  “Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

All of  sudden the staff wasn’t smiling anymore as this group of freedom fighters made their way to the closest exit.  Now they were scrambling and staff, too, began following Shirley out of necessity.

What had happened?

How did an elderly woman suffering from dementia transform into this active leader that was causing all of this commotion? Let’s take a look.

First: Shirley had a vision. She knew what she wanted. She wanted “to get of out of here.”  She wanted freedom. 

Second: Shirley had a vision or mission that tapped into the emotions of her target group—something with which they could identify: freedom. All of them wanted to get out of there and regain their freedom to varying degrees.

Third: There was a consistent message, something to which people could relate: "Follow me. Come on, follow me. Let's get out of here."

Fourth:Another important element was that Shirley had both a strong belief and the courage to stand by it.  She was not discouraged when people at first did not listen to her or take her seriously.  She persevered and continued in her attempts to engage people.

Fifth: And finally, at least for our purposes here, she had a plan of action for what to do once she did engage people. Have you ever gone to a meeting where someone is trying to get you involved, and once you agree and look for something to do, there is nothing for you to do?  It is one of the best ways to lose followers.  Shirley instinctively knew that and had a plan of action in place before she began her recruitment efforts.

The Revolution Fails, but Shirley does not give up

Shirley’s small revolution did not succeed.  There were challenges and obstacles she had not planned for—the power of the system that was in place, the need for preparing and supporting her following and what to do when these first efforts were not successful.  All of these elements underscore the importance of realizing, planning and accepting that the road to excellence is continuous and unending.  True to form, Shirley did not give up.  Subsequent visits saw a repeat performance.  She perseveres.  A great quality for a leader of change. 

#RealLeaders have Self Control

RL Self Control

I hear the words, but I don’t know what you are saying

Image result for Academic Vocabulary

Mr. Ronan is an elementary school principal.  When he first became principal two years ago, his school was in the bottom quartile.  He worked hard to engage his staff and gain their trust.  He asked them to identify their needs and together they designed professional development in response. Their scores had gone up, but over the last year they were stalled and couldn’t seem to get over the 50 percentile. 

He and his coach discussed the situation. Their first course of action was to gather some data and one way to do that was the classroom visit. During those visits a pattern developed—they were seeing students who were actively engage.  They were reading, comprehending, answering and asking questions, but they also saw a percentage of students struggling—they were listening, but were not asking or answering questions.  When they were called on, they could tell the teacher what the question was, but were not able to provide answers.  It wasn’t a behavior issue; you could see these students were trying. 

Mr. Ronan and his coach returned to his office and together they used a problem solving rubric to identify the problem.  First, they had to identify the problem.  They knew the initial problem was student scores on tests were not increasing.  The coach suggested drilling down a little deeper and eventually they agreed on student engagement was low for a good portion of the students. 

At this point they solicited input from the teachers and with the additional information provided, academic vocabulary was identified. Students were not participating because they didn’t know the meaning of the words. Complicating the issue was that teachers used different language and/or taught different definitions of the same word.  Although in some cases this had limited success in an individual classroom, overall it made instruction throughout the school weaker.  It also was wreaking havoc with vertical alignment of content.

Think of the school as a country and each classroom as a region with its own language.  You can see the confusion would bring and so did Mr. Ronan and his staff. Together they worked to learn more about academic vocabulary.

So what do we know about academic vocabulary?

Simply defined, it is the vocabulary critical to understanding the concepts of the content being taught.

Let’s examine the following Theoretical Foundations:

  • Research shows a student in the 50th percentile in terms of ability to comprehend the subject matter taught in school, with no direct vocabulary instruction, scores in the 50th percentile ranking.
  • The same student, after specific content-area terms have been taught in a specific way, raises his/her comprehension ability to the 83rd percentile.
  • Though the absolute benchmarks have been set for grade-level performance, only about 50% of today’s population is reading at the basic level identified by these benchmarks.

Compelling Facts

Prior to entering school, a child acquires academic background knowledge through rich educational experiences.  Hart and Risley provide great insights in their paper, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.”

Mr. Ronan and his teachers learned that what students already know about the content when they come to school is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.

Louisa Moats (2001) states that the word gap in word knowledge between advantaged and disadvantaged children is word poverty.

Simply knowing words is not an all-or-nothing proposition: It is a complex concept. It is not the case that one either knows or does not know a word. Rather, “knowledge of a word should be viewed in terms of the extent or degree of knowledge that people can possess.”   Students’ acquisition of broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge, and making meaning of text, yield to more substantial and longer-term benefits-the product of years of systematic instruction.   (Beck & McKeown, 1991)


Let’s recap, Mr. Ronan and his teachers identified the problem drilling down from the larger issues of student engagement to academic vocabulary. They researched academic vocabulary gaining a deeper understanding not only of its meaning, but its impact on student performance.  The next step was designing a solution. Based on their study of the issues they knew:

  • When all teachers in a school focus on the same vocabulary and teach in the same way, that school has a powerful comprehensive approach.
  • When all teachers in a district embrace and use the same comprehensive approach, IT becomes even more powerful.
  • The structured teaching of specific vocabulary is “probably the strongest action a teacher can take to ensure that students have the academic background knowledge they need to understand the content they will encounter in school.” Marzano (2005) “Direct Instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning.” (Robert Marzano, “Classroom Instruction That Works”)

They agreed that this powerful statement should drive their instruction strategies.  They agreed to adopt Direct Vocabulary Instruction. Research shows that a combination of indirect and direct vocabulary learning is most effective for broadening vocabulary knowledge. Wide reading provides the best opportunity for indirect vocabulary learning. Explicit instruction in individual word meanings and word-learning strategies aid reading comprehension.

Direct Vocabulary Instruction

  • …provides instruction in learning the meaning of words independently
  • …promotes activities leading to word consciousness
  • …includes instruction on individual words

Progress Monitoring

Mr. Ronan and his team had done great work, however they made a common error.  They forgot to create a monitoring system in place to see if their strategy worked or not.  It is not a hard step, just a step often left off.  Working again with his coach and the teachers formative assessments were created and administered often on a daily basis.  Teachers and Mr. Ronan had almost immediate access to the data and they used it proactively to guide instruction. Grade levels teachers shared information as well as information being shared across the grades. This information provided even more insights, just as importantly reinforced a culture of collaboration.


When students have an understanding of terms in any content area, comprehension of the content area increases.

Context can be a powerful influence on students’ vocabulary growth. Therefore, one of the most powerful things we can do to increase vocabulary-as teachers, parents, caregivers, etc., is to encourage them to read as widely as possible.

 “Every study of reading achievement points to the importance of vocabulary knowledge-both word recognition and decoding, and word meaning. Word recognition appears to be the major hurdle during the first three grades; word meaning becomes the major hurdle in Grade 4 and above.” (Jeanne S. Chall, Harvard University)

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