Leading Online – An Interview with Reshan Richards and Stephen Valentine

One of my guilty pleasures is to read books about leadership.


So when I first became aware of Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning I knew I had to read it. Not only was this book about leadership but it also discussed learning in an online environment – another topic which interests me greatly.


Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning is written by Dr. Reshan Richards and Mr. Stephen Valentine. Dr. Richards is the Director of Educational Technology and a Middle School Math Teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy. He blogs at www.constructivisttoolkit.com and is one of the creators of the Explain Everything App. He has an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, an Ed.M from Harvard University, and a B.A. from Columbia University. Mr. Valentine is the Assistant Head of Upper School and Director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy. He blogs at www.refreshingwednesday.com and is the coordinating editor of the Klingenstein Center’s Klingbrief. He is the author of Everything but Teaching (Corwin, 2009).


We are thrilled that Reshan and Stephen were able to take time out to answer these questions for edSocialMedia.


Who is this book for?

We wrote this book for current and aspiring school leaders. A more subtle hope is that the book will help technologists to see themselves as all-school leaders, and vice versa, all-school leaders to see themselves as technologists.


What motivated you to write the book and then update the book?

The book started as an hour-long conference presentation. After giving the presentation, we found that we continued to talk about the ideas in the presentation, and we knew we could and should flesh them out even more than we had. We are big believers in capturing what’s special, valuable or surprising in “one-off” situations. The conference presentation, the quick exchange of ideas via email or text messages, doodles during lectures, marginalia, the note passed during the meeting, the serendipitous meeting in the hallway: these encounters, when supported by the right collaborative systems, can grow into new offerings, new products, things that take on a life of their own.


As for updating the book…we knew that our views on leadership and the online world would change or grow over time. One of the premises of the book is that we lead by learning, which implies the need to evolve; we wanted to create a book that could reflect that process, that evolution.


Why did you select iBooks to publish your book?

We were both keenly aware of the limits of print and epub formats. We knew, for example, that in the time between final edits and print publication, the technologies we detailed could change. And, in the print world, there’s no guarantee that your publishing company will want a second edition of your book or be interested in how your views have evolved, unless you sell a lot of books the first time around. So we went looking for a publication platform that would allow us to create something that would be both solid and adaptable. iBooks Author and the multi-touch iBooks format answered that call.


We knew there was some risk involved in our plan — the audience for iBooks is not what it is for certain epub formats, and certainly not what it is for paper books. But we wanted to test new boundaries. And we also wanted to write and publish a book that performed the very ideas it sought to articulate. What does leadership look like in the online world? We not only offer many answers to this question in the book, but also present the book itself as an answer. How can a person derive benefit from an online network? They can either apply the ideas shared in our book to their own contexts or use the book itself as a starting point in networking by using the built-in widgets to connect with the authors, following the live tweet streams that populate the book, or connecting directly with our drop-in contributors.


What is the one question you want people to think about after reading the book?

Am I the kind of leader by whom I would want to be led?


You offer a new definition of a “meeting” in the book. Why do you think rethinking meetings is so important?

We want to encourage leaders to remember that meetings are made of people, of individuals. A good meeting can probably be considered moral in that it is deeply respectful of people’s time, energy, and talents. Done well, meetings actually make available in organizations more unstructured time for creative thinking and serendipity. Done poorly, they drain the energy of the people in the room and dull their senses. When you walk out of a great meeting, the non-meeting world (i.e., everywhere else) is more exciting and sticky — it connects to your work or to the work of others, and you want to make connections. When you walk out of a poor meeting, you don’t want to interact or connect — you want to take a nap!


Can you explain the importance of .0 leadership?

Think in terms of versions. When you launch something, there are always going to be bugs that you can’t see. Lead anyway. Lead with the understanding that you will discover the bugs and fix them along the way. You don’t have to be perfect to lead, and you don’t have to lead perfectly. You have to be willing to shed your skin, shed platforms, shed ideas… Versioning leadership, to coin a potentially obnoxious phrase, has implications for followership as well. Followers of .0 leaders have to be willing to give feedback continuously, to take responsibility, and perhaps most important, to view uncertainty as opportunity rather than a stressor.


Who do you personally look to for online leadership?

It’s always exciting when first time tweeters or bloggers start sharing their voice and work. Those initial moments of engagement, which are often unguarded and enthusiastic, are great leadership experiences from which to learn. They remind us about the possibilities in certain mediums — possibilities that, through habitual use or a sheen of cynicism, we may have forgotten.


We’ve been hearing from people who have written to us from within the book — when they use the widget that lets them write directly to us. The extra step of reaching out is something that we want to honor and encourage. We have learned a lot by reaching out to others to see if they want to learn together or collaborate or simply talk.


Beyond that, once you start to look for examples of online leadership, you see them everywhere. You see it when Google publishes a new doodle to celebrate an under-acknowledged scientist. You see it when a magazine tells a story online, in a way that feels really new, by perfectly merging text, image, and other media with HTML5. You see it when someone writes a really great email to a team. You see it when you buy a new phone and subtle things have changed.


But honestly, it’s not about where or to whom we look. Growth in this area is about the act of looking, the discipline to learn by keeping your eyes wide open. Take a look at the website you are reading right now — you can learn something about what works for you or what doesn’t work for you just by studying the layout, the number of clicks it takes to find things, the color scheme, the ease with which you can save or share something you like, etc.


Is this a leadership book, a technology book, a book about teaching?

This is a story about organizational leadership whose main characters are pulled from the school and technology sectors.


Can you explain the importance of having garbage cans in the classroom?

The garbage can incident — wherein Steve was assigned the “leadership” task of ensuring that all classrooms at a summer program had proper waste receptacles — described in the book throws off all kinds of light.


First, it’s a reminder that leaders need to check their egos at the door. Sometimes you set the big, important vision and sometimes you count lowly — though still important — garbage cans.


Second, it’s a reminder of the little things that help people feel as if their leaders care about them. If people don’t feel cared for, you can’t expect them to want to do the hard work necessary to accomplish anything in the complicated, many layered world in which we live.


The moral of the story: give people what they need to work and then get out of the way. If something is missing, you’re in the way in the same way that a hole is in the way.


You suggest that leaders should ask for help. Can you unpack the significance and implication of that act?

As Pearl Rock Kane once wrote, the “John Wayne” school of leadership is no longer an option in most organizations. All leaders have blind spots, different cognitive biases. Asking for help is one way to ensure that the natural way your mind works doesn’t actually cause problems for you as you progress as a leader.


Modeling asking for and accepting help is something people need to see. Leading does not mean knowing all the answers, but instead creating a space for the leader and those being led to uncover or discover them. Two brains are better than one if those two brains can learn how to function well together.


Can you explain the significance of having “one foot out the door?”

If you rely on a particular technology or platform too much, you put too much weight on it. When it changes, you’re shocked. You fall over because you were leaning on it too heavily. As a leader, you are responsible for the direction — i.e., the leanings — of your team. Lightness is best. You should adapt tools to solve problems or to extend capability. If you forget the solving or the capability because you’re thinking so much about the tool, then you almost deserve to fall on your butt when the tool breaks. We’re not talking about being disloyal to providers or companies. But companies come and go. Technologies come and go. Solutions sometimes wear out. Having one foot out the door just means that your enterprise won’t be compromised as products cycle. People will quickly grasp the need for a transition and be ready and willing to do what is needed to adapt.


What’s your next book?

A little background first. We prefer to work on more than one side project at a time because, by definition, side projects are supposed to be energizing and joyful — like tinkering with a toy train or playing music in the garage. When we feel like going “into the garage,” we grab for a project to which we are drawn at the moment. Sometimes we both focus on the same project, and sometimes we don’t. The beauty of collaborative side projects is that you double your energy and attention span. If Reshan wants to work on one project, he might carry the ball on that project for a few weeks and then turn to something else. Steve, meanwhile, might be interested in a third project, work on it a few weekends in a row, and then lose interest for a while. Our Evernote and email settings automatically update us about the work that the other is doing, and this is how we keep so many projects slowly simmering. Little by little, things add up until they turn into something we can ship.


So here’s what might ship over the next year or two:


1) A mirror text of Leading Online, wherein we have been stitching together texts produced by 100+ authors who have joined us in conference rooms and classrooms during various presentations. This will be called Leading Online 1.5.


2) A second edition of Leading Online that is more than just an update or new version. We have brand new chapters that we have been writing using our jury-rigged collaborative system. We have also learned a lot from “touring” the book. People have argued with us or confirmed our ideas. Others have offered new examples of online leadership.


3) We’re also working on ideas that go way beyond the book. Earlier we mentioned that we wanted to “perform” the ideas we were trying to articulate. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we will flip that script a little bit, helping our readers better perform the ideas in the book. To that end, we are in the early stages of developing a collaborative software product (based on our collaborative system) and perhaps forming a company to be an umbrella, and systematic launchpad, for our ideas.


Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning really should be read by anyone involved in school leadership. Learn more on the book’s website and purchase the book on iTunes.


Thanks again to Stephen and Reshan and if you have a question please ask it in the comments section below.

Brendan Schneider

Director of Advancement at Sewickley Academy

Brendan Schneider is the CEO and Founder of SchneiderB Media, a blog dedicated to helping schools use the power of the interest to achieve their enrollment and communication goals. He is also the founder of The MarCom Society, and SEO Coach, his DIY SEO software for schools. He is also the Director of Advancement at Sewickley Academy.