What Does It Mean to Know Something?

Recently, I had an experience that surfaced an issue that troubles me. We were working with a group of principals as part of an effort to have them buy into technology, as well as play a more effective role in leading their schools through the cultural change necessary for its systemic use. Our focus was to help them be more effective in their roles as technology change leaders. As an incentive for volunteering for the program each individual received a laptop pc. They had several days of hands-on practice before entering our session.

About a third of the way through the morning a principal raised his hand. He was clearly frustrated and said, “I already know about leadership. I need more hands on training! No offense. I’m just being honest.”

Besides the fact that the program description clearly indicated that the session’s focus would be leadership, his statement surfaced an important attitude that many of administrators, and educators in general, display, “I know about leadership….”

What does it mean to “know about leadership?” Is it something that can be “known”? Is the knowledge of leadership like the knowledge of basketball, or acting, or being a doctor? Is “knowing” simply being able to talk about a subject? Can you know about basketball and not be able to play it? Can you know about leadership and not display it? Was he the best leader he was able to be? Did he embody what he knew?

It’s frustrating to encounter this attitude of “knowing”; as if having cognitive knowledge and insights is equivalent to actually being able to apply the knowledge. “Knowing” about leadership is no substitute for being a leader.

It’s a shame that our schools have made knowledge so abstract; and that so many of the people in authority, responsible for public education, themselves products of the system; want to keep it that way.

We can read books about it, listen to lectures, and talk to the wee hours of the morning about it; but none of those things alone will make us better leaders. Taking these insights and deliberately bringing them to action through the practice of leadership; is the step so many educators fail to take.

Leadership is not a destination; but a journey…it is not a tee-shirt that can be bought, “Leadership…been there, done that!”

…but then again, you already “knew” that, didn’t you.



11 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Know Something?

  1. Pete,
    Like all journeys we can get side tracked by the side show. It really helps if you are traveling with a group of like minded explores, they can keep each other focused on the goals. This applies to not only leaders at the school or district level, but at the classroom level. Teaches are faced with leadership challenges every day. I have grown to view what I do in the classroom as more of a guide, someone who can help children learn how to learn.

  2. Jim;
    Do you have a group of like-minded explorers that support you?

    I truly believe in that concept. Every teacher should have a teacher. To be a great teacher it helps to be a great learner.

    A group of us are planning a “Gathering of Eagles” for next summer. You are welcome to join us.

  3. leadership, the matrix, a sunrise, love, teaching 16-year-olds, coffee from handpicked & roasted beans- all things that provide only a fraction of the thrill, the experience when understood vicariously.

  4. WOW! A laptop as an incentive to show up?! Boy, why don’t they ever have workshops like that for teachers!

    You would have been more effective asking administrators to volunteer without mentioning the fantastic perk for showing up. Then, the “true” leaders would get the reward for being there.

    Whatever happened to learning for the sake of learning? Why do we have to bribe students (and administrators) to learn? Learning enhances the quality of life – plain and simple. It is ironic that we homo sapiens are considered superior to the rest of the animal kingdom; and yet we still employ stimulus and response in education to “force” learning. We have ‘bred out’ “motivation-from-within” from our own species!

  5. Michele,
    To be fair, the pc’s were not a bribe. The idea was to give building leaders a technology toolset so that they could experience things firsthand. They are modeling being learners and the lack of familiarity with technology definitely put some of them out of ther comfort zone.

    I think the folks that have taken part in the program would have come regardless of the incentive and I have found them to be open, and willing to learn. I believe they will be huge supporters of technology when they return to their schools.


  6. How can you possibly ‘Know’ about leadership? Leadership, I believe, is an ongoing learning process. Leaders deal with people – people are unique and have varying needs which change. Leaders stand at the helm of the organization and need to choose the best route to success, avoiding the pitfalls on the way. As change is the only constant in life, so leaders should be ever learning and adapting.

  7. Leadership qualities are critical for a principal. It sounds like your size alone will demand respect from students. But what is more important is earning their respect through your actions and it seems like you work hard and are able to achieve this.

  8. You must first know learn what is means to follow befre you can lead.
    You must lead only by example, from the front.

    Humans follow trust, not apponited title holding leaders.

  9. You can know about something, know the catch words, know the theories, know WHAT you are supposed to be doing – but not know HOW to do it.

    I find that people often have difficulty moving from having the knowledge to actually making it real and living it.

    Leadership is a great example of this; true integration of technology in a classroom is another one.

    When it happens, it absolutely takes my breath away! Too often, though, we’re saying the right things but then stumble when it comes time to take the first step.

    So helping people get across that divide is where we can focus in leadership development (at the District level or in a classroom).

    PS – Thank you, Pete, for putting your thoughts and observations out there for us to contemplate – what a gift!

  10. Heidi,
    Taking that step of going from “intellectual” knowledge to “embodying” what you know and applying it, takes a lot of courage. Many administrators have mastered the “old” way of knowing…the cognitive. They thrived in the old system to the point that now they are in charge of it; so they resist and avoid this new way of looking at leadership and learning.

    Taking the step from knowing about a leadership attribute, take courage for example, requires commitment, practice, and persistence.

    Through this blog I have connected with many educators, like yourself, who understand this approach to learning and live and teach accordingly. I believe that is folks like you, Heidi; that hold the key to a new future for the children in our care.


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