Me, #nwpleads, and 2 Metaphors for NWP Leadership

The Greatest American Hero (13948198067)
I’m working this week from Austin, Texas, where I’m at the Building New Pathways event with the National Writing Project. One of my more interesting consulting projects right now is working on this project, a deep dive into how we build and sustain new pathways for leadership development in the local sites, and the national network, of the National Writing Project. I’m co-facilitating a piece of this work, with my emphasis on helping to think through how we can identify and help others to identify and build the attributes that are essential for NWP leaders.

We’re defining “NWP leaders” broadly. Earlier today, Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl asked us to think of NWP leaders as those who are entitled to do work in the name of the Writing Project.

We’ve talked about many things, and you should follow along if you’re able and interested. There’s a Yammer group where much of the conversation and work so far is being collected and discussed, and the conversation is on Twitter as well under the hashtag #nwpleads.

I’ve thought a lot these last few weeks of what we hold to be the essential characteristics of “National Writing Project people.” For some, this means people who have been through the traditional entry point for NWP Teacher Consultants – the Invitational Summer Institute. For others, it means people who have glommed onto, into, or through projects sponsored or inspired by NWP principles, people and ideas.

I’m struggling with how to think about what an “NWP leader” is, how we know, and how one can enter into thinking of themselves or others in such terms. Jim Gray is heavily on my mind. So is the notion of what’s the “minimum viable NWP leader.” And metaphors abound as I try to think about these things. Is NWP leadership, NWP-ness, something that is learned? Lived? Experienced? Grown? Developed? Inoculated?1

Plenty of questions, and as this is a project I’m committed to for the next couple of years, I’m certain the blog will become a scratchpad for many of them. But right now, I want to get down some thinking about two metaphors in particular that are helping me think through leadership pathways and how we might recognize – or help others to recognize – what an “NWP leader” is.

The Greatest American Hero

I loved the TV show The Greatest American Hero when I was a little kid. I remember tying a blanket around my neck and “flying” around the living room while Joey Scarbury’s theme played from the 45 my parents bought me spinning on my record player. If you don’t know the premise of the show, it’s about a guy who is given a costume by some aliens. The costume gives him access to a wide collection of abilities and powers – super strength, flight, invisibility, telekinesis, etc. The only problem is, that the guy, who happens to be a special education teacher (at least when the show begins), doesn’t know how to make the suit work. And the manual, which the aliens gave him, is lost. So the normal guy is able to adopt a mantle, a superhero identity, but he’s never quite sure which powers he has, and which ones he will be able to draw upon, until he finds himself in a moment of need. Frequently, he’s able to call up the powers and abilities he needs. But not always. And sometimes, the abilities he expects to use to get him through a moment of crisis aren’t the ones that ultimately help him solve the problem.

Other times, the suit itself isn’t the thing that helps the teacher to be the hero.

Why in the world does this story work as a metaphor for me for leadership in the NWP? Here’re a few reasons:2

  1. The hero is the hero because he decides to be. No one forces Mr. H. to put on the costume. He chooses to, because he feels an obligation to adopt the identity of the hero, to help when he can, because that’s his theory of action in the world. Teachers and NWP leaders do similar things. They see a need and adopt a stance that says, yeah, I can do this.
  2. The costume is part of the identity – but it’s up to the wearer to choose the abilities that emerge from the chosen identity.
  3. There’s nothing “special” about Mr. H., except that he chooses to be the hero, or the leader. Others can wear the costume, can assume the identity of “super” or “hero” or “leader.” The power is partly in the costume, but it’s also in choosing to put it on. We can all choose to wear the costume, or to pick up tools. It’s what we do after we’ve chosen to do something that things get interesting.
  4. Even with the suit, things can get messy. The powers don’t always work, or work in the way we intend them to.
  5. You’re not a hero, or a leader, even with great power or amazing tools, unless you choose to be. And you can still choose to lead without access to the costume or the tools.

D&D Character Sheet (for an NWP-er)

Another way to think about the capacities and attributes of leaders in the NWP is to think about a character sheet for a role-playing game. What is “NWP leader,” but a role one has chosen to adopt? And when it comes to characters in role-playing games, it’s helpful to think about attributes that are necessary for all, but can exist in differing levels or degrees. All D&D characters have strength and agility – but each character starts with a different number for these abilities. Wizards are often smarter than warriors. But warriors are stronger than wizards. And even once we’ve chosen a class or character type, we can choose to specialize. Maybe we adopt the identity of a rogue. And we want to be good at lockpicking or stealth. So we choose to adopt those abilities through training and/or experience. And those abilities grow over time. But we can’t choose all of the abilities. In D&D, choosing one character type may open or close doors on the types of experiences that we adopt and/or can grow.

And in a good D&D adventure, it’s not one character facing the adventure – it’s a party. A group of players has to have several different character types to be successful. You need a tank who can take lots of damage, and a healer or two to help recover. Maybe that thief to pick some locks. And a ranger who can see in the dark. It’s not that you need all the types in all the situations. You pick your party sometimes through chance, and other times through intentional selection of roles and attributes that you believe will be helpful in the adventure you’re about to face.

But you’ve got to have a party. You’ve got to have a network.3

In both metaphors, there’s lots to consider to help me think through both what it takes to be an “NWP leader,” as well as lots of problems. Metaphors will only take you so far. But they can be helpful lenses for thinking through what’s bedrock, as Nicole Mirra has been calling core NWP leader attributes. What are the core attributes that every NWP leader has to have to be a member of the NWP “tribe?”
And what are the ones that you want distributed throughout the network, but not necessarily embedded deeply in every member? What are the skills and attributes and pathways that folks might want to dig into as they grow as characters in the network? What pathways do you want to emphasize? What skills and attributes do you want to nurture and develop in the network, but allow individuals to choose to develop for themselves or their parties?

What do you believe makes an “NWP leader” or a “teacher leader” either of those things? How do you know, how can you “prove” it, and how might we share that knowledge with others?

  1. All of these seem viable metaphors in some way. []
  2. And for my purpose here, let’s use “hero” and “leader” synonymously, even though I prefer models of servant leadership to ego-driven, “hero” leaders who save the day. But leadership and saving the day, moving the ball, etc., are often the same thing. []
  3. And, in the case of D&D, someone else builds the character sheet template that the gamers use as a tool. And then the DM and the players create the game together – so things get complicated quickly, and the rules on paper are only useful until they aren’t. That’s when good players improvise. []