1,000 Days of Learning Leadership Lessons

Sep 24th, 2016 | By | Category: Messages, TESOL
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new official author pic of Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis


—In the Fall 2015 issue of the CATESOL News, I wrote a piece titled “Learning Leadership Lessons Along the Way: Part 1,” which followed up on a piece titled “Learning to Lead in Language Education,” which appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the CATESOL News. A number of CATESOL members emailed me about some of the points I made in that piece, and to ask when Part 2 would be appearing. So, here it is.

By the time of CATESOL 2016, in San Diego in November, I will have been president-elect, president, and past president of the TESOL International Association (TIA) for a total of around 1,000 days. Reflecting on that time, I wanted to share with CATESOL members some of the lessons about leadership that I have learned along the way.

One of the most meaningful lessons for me has been the importance of making time for our own leadership development. That may sound obvious, but most of the leaders in language education I meet tell me that they have little or no time for such development. Although my three years back on the TIA Board of Directors, this time as a member of the Executive Committee, have been a reminder of the time pressures of leadership, they have also been a reminder of the critical importance of making time for our leadership development.

During the October Board meeting of the TIA, we set a day aside for Board development. In recent years, those days have focused on developing knowledge, skills, and understanding that would help us create a new governance structure, a new three-year strategic plan, or some other pressing organizational aspect of the work of the association. However, last year, for the October 2015 Board Development Day, I suggested that we give a whole day to leadership development. That was the first time we had set aside a day for our own leadership development, and it was well worth the time, the money, and the effort.

During the opening of that Board Development Day I made the point that, in an average week, we have at least around 100 waking hours per week. So, I asked the Board members to give no more than 1 percent of that time to their own leadership development, that is, one hour a week. Some Board members asked what to do if they could not spend an hour each week on that, to which my rather harsh-sounding reply was that if they could not find that hour per week, then perhaps they should not be in a leadership role.

I realize how unsympathetic that sounds, but if we decide voluntarily to take on leadership roles in our professional associations, one of the main reasons for doing that should be because we want to develop our leadership competencies. So, if we do not have the time to do that, then it may not be the right time to take on such leadership roles. Maybe later, when we are not working full time, or when our career-building and/or our child-rearing days are wrapping up, when we are freer to choose how we spend our waking hours—those may be better times to take on such roles.

One of the ways I have found most useful and most doable, in terms of setting aside one hour per week for my own leadership development, has been to watch short talks on leadership. For example, the TED Talks site has many talks on this topic, of which one of my favorites was given by Itay Talgam, an Israeli conductor who was taught by Leonard Bernstein and who has conducted world-famous orchestras, including the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Talgam’s TED Talk, titled “Lead Like the Great Conductors,” was filmed in July 2009, and since then it has been viewed more than 2.6 million times. Like most TED Talks, the presentation is only about 20 minutes, which means I have time to watch it twice and still take notes within my weekly hour. In the last seven years, I have seen this Talgam’s TED Talk maybe a dozen times, and every time I see it, I learn something about leadership—or at the very least, I am reminded of some important points that I may have forgotten or lost sight of.

Growing out of his TED Talk, and his leadership-development work with Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and universities, came his recent book, The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance (2015) [Link 7]. So, when I watch and rewatch Talgam’s TED Talk, I now have a kind of companion “textbook.” These are a couple of ways of spending no more than an hour a week on developing our own competencies in this area, so that our associations and their members can benefit from a more knowledgeable, more effective, and more reflective leadership.

I look forward to hearing from you, and to talking with you, at CATESOL 2016 in San Diego in November, when you can tell me how you spend your weekly hour becoming a better leader.

From 2015 to 2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of the TESOL International Association. He is now serving as the association’s immediate past president (2016-2017).



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