The difference between coaches who have a positive impact and those who do not comes down to leadership. In Chapter 3, I describe what leadership looks like for successful coaches and what coaches can do to become powerful forces for good in their schools. Leadership is more complex than we might think, especially for coaches who engage in equal-status, peer-to- peer conversations with others. Leadership among peers in complex organizations involves much more than a persuasively delivered call to action. 

I divide leadership into two parts: leading ourselves and leading others. To lead ourselves, we need to know our purpose and principles, how to use our time effectively, how to take care of ourselves, and how to develop habits that enable us to do these things. To lead others, we need to make good decisions, interact with others in ways that expand our capacities, foster deep knowledge and deep implementation, and create alignment with others. 

Often we think of leaders as almost superhuman. These heroes—Dr. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and so on—seem like saints who have accomplished so much that we could never approach achieving similar results. And yet, their fights—for freedom, health, equality, respect, goodness—are fights all of us can join. When a coach’s kind- ness and empathy help a teacher find self-efficacy, when a teacher’s high expectations compel a student to believe she can be more than she realizes, when a coach’s commitment to self-improvement helps him better coach teachers so that students improve—in all these cases, coaches and teachers are engaged in the same struggle as our saintly heroes: the fight to make the world a better place. To lead with the Partnership Principles in mind is to hold up hope that the world can and will be better. 

Make Good Habits

Turning ideas into action is a messy and complex affair that often leads to failure. Too often, there is a huge gap between what we know and what we do. As Maya Angelou (2018) once beautifully wrote, you should “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The trouble is that, too often, we don’t do better even though we know we should.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”  — Maya Angelou

One reason we fail to turn ideas into action is that we assume willpower is all we need to change. We buy the gym membership and count on willpower to get us to the gym; then, when our enthusiasm for exercise fizzles out, we blame ourselves for not having the grit to actually do what we know we need do to. But willpower usually isn’t enough. If we really want to turn ideas into actions, we need a structure that will ensure that we do what we know we need to do, and that structure is what we call a habit. In The Power of Habit (2012), Charles Duhigg writes that “a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows . . . a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day” (pp. 284–285). If we keep dropping the ball when it comes to change, the problem is not that we lack grit, but that we lack a structure—a habit. 

Contemporary researchers and journalists such as Duhigg, James Clear (2018), Wendy Wood (2019), and B. J. Fogg (2020) have clarified what habits are and why they are so important for leading ourselves. These authors’ research will help any coach who wants to adopt new behaviors or support others who choose to change. 

Although the researchers use different words to describe how habits work, the descriptions themselves are fairly consistent. A habit begins with a cue—some prompt that triggers an action, like a green light in traffic. Next there is a routine—a response to the cue or prompt. Finally, there is a reward for the action. 

Here’s an example. I have a habit of drinking coffee each the morning. Walking into the kitchen is my cue. The routine is the complicated way I pre- pare my coffee. The reward is the scent of fresh-ground coffee, the taste of a just-brewed cup, and the pleasant sensation of becoming more awake and alert as I drink. 

If a coach wants to develop a habit, a good place to start is to identify the cue. For example, a coach who wants to implement the time management strategies in this chapter might consider the bell at end of the school day as a cue to sit down and plan the next day. After identifying the cue, the coach needs to develop a routine—a simple action or set of actions to do the same way each day. Research (Wood, 2019) suggests that we increase our chances of successfully adopting habits by thinking about how our context enhances or inhibits our ability to form a habit. For example, if you want to engage in time management at the end of the day but find that many teachers want to have a coaching conversation at that time, it’s probably best to set aside a different time to implement that habit. 

B. J. Fogg (2020) of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University suggests keeping things simple when it comes to change. We may be tempted to mix planning our day with many other actions, but the more complex those actions are, the less likely it is that planning will stick as a habit. 

For many years, people cited Maxwell Maltz’s suggestion in Psycho-Cy- bernetics (1989), first published in 1960, that it takes 21 days to make a habit. Unfortunately, more recent research suggests that it actually takes much longer. Wendy Woods (2019) and her colleagues at the University of Southern California have conducted several studies that suggest the time span is closer to two to three months. If we want to turn an action into a habit, we need to “keep doing it . . . until [we] aren’t doing it anymore” (p. 102), Woods writes. 

For repetition to work, it’s important to do the same action the same way each time. If I want to start the habit of planning my days, it is a good idea to plan at the same time every day. If I sometimes plan in the mornings and other times just before bed, and if I skip some days on top of that, I’m not really repeating the same action, which means I’m not really forming a habit. 

Finally, if am going to stick with a habit, it’s a lot easier when the new habit is more rewarding than my old way of acting. To develop the habit of reflect- ing and planning my day, for example, doing those things needs to feel better than not planning. The best rewards are intrinsic. If the act of reflecting and planning is intellectually pleasing, or if at least seeing my plan for each day makes me feel more in control, then I’m more likely to form the habit. 

This is part of a 7-part series featuring The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching. Click here to read part 1 and part 2.

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