Creating the Conditions for Success


A moment of clarity during spin class at the gym.

Words by Beth R. Holland

I will never forget the first sentence of the social psychology textbook that we used my freshman year in college: you can control your own thoughts, feelings, and actions better than you can control those of others1. “No kidding!” I yelled at the book. More years later than I care to admit, I realize that the book was right…

With the school year now in full swing, a slew of articles for teachers and administrators have surfaced ranging from student grit and fostering growth mindset to managing student distractions and increasing motivation. However, you can control your own thoughts, feelings, and actions better than you can control those of others. In the most unlikely of places, spin class at the gym, I had a moment of clarity and remembered those words.

As educators, administrators, and even parents, the only thing that we can truly control is our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. That said, rather than focusing on student grit, mindset, distraction, or motivation, how might we instead examine the leadership qualities that we should all exhibit if we hope to foster the requisite conditions to inspire our students as learners?

This question brings me back to spin class. If you have never seen or attended a spin class, imagine a group of people on stationary bicycles pedaling at various speeds, levels of resistance, and positions (sitting, standing, hovering over the seat) based on the direction of the instructor. The goal of the class is to push yourself as hard as you can since you personally control the amount of resistance on the bike and the speed at which you pedal. Sure, you can make it really easy on yourself and just cruise through class; or, you can discover how far you can physically push yourself. The instructor tells you what to do, but you decide whether or not to accept the challenge. You control your thoughts, feelings, and actions. The leadership traits exhibited by the instructor creates the condition in which you decide what to do.

According to the leadership literature, transformational leaders2 can be characterized by their charisma, inspirational motivation, and intellectual stimulation. They build relationships, motivate followers to achieve group goals, encourage ongoing learning and growth, as well as create a vision for what could be achieved. In spin class, Gina – one of our instructors – routinely sets the group goals for the ride, encourages us to then make personal goals, and then reminds us of those objectives throughout the hour. At moments when it feels as though our lungs might explode, she prompts us to remember what we each hope to achieve. Though this should not be misconstrued as advocating for biometric feedback on students, I can attest to seeing my own heart rate monitor jump when she offers these words of encouragement and refocuses us on our objectives at critical junctures in our workout.

But what if I did not push harder because I resisted the discomfort associated with the stress of physical exertion? The relatively new field of neuroleadership3 examines the impact of stress – which results in the neurological production of cortisol in the brain – on leadership. Stress, both from leaders and followers, causes reflexive reaction instead of reflective insight. A stressed educator, administrator, or parent may not reflect on the broader situation or recognize the role of stress on their student or child. Through awareness and emotion regulation, neuroleaders can better connect with their followers (or teachers with their students). Because the brain considers change to be a stressor, and then produces cortisol as a defensive reaction, it can inhibit reasoning and learning. A neuroleader recognizes these physiological reactions and then creates new conditions to mitigate them.

In a recent class, Gina subbed for a different instructor at the last minute requiring her to adjust to a change in schedule as well as a different group of students. At the same time, her presence signaled a change in routine to the rest of us. Throughout the hour, I observed as Gina altered her instruction to reduce the unconscious stress in the class. As an example, the regularly scheduled instructor writes out the instructions in advance and then references them throughout the hour. Gina typically gives instructions orally at the precise moment when they are needed. And yet, in response to a participant asking “what’s next?” she adjusted her style to provide more advanced directions. With this simple change, I noticed a shift in the class, a reduction in tension, and an increase in effort. Gina’s awareness allowed her to recognize the situation, modify her instruction, and ultimately better connect with the individuals in the room.

When leaders inspire their followers to go above and beyond what may be expected, they foster Organizational Citizenship Behavior4 – an intrinsic desire to continuously improve for the benefit of positive performance. This is often a response to the altruism of the leader. Though transformational leaders motivate followers through their charisma and vision, authentic leaders exhibit sincerity, transparency, self-awareness, and ethics to inspire their followers.

In a spin class, the instructor also rides a bike. They demonstrate the desired movements while still articulating the instructions and offering encouragement.  When they tell you to increase the amount of resistance on your bike or to pedal faster, you can look up and watch them do the same actions themselves. So when they tell you, “I know this is difficult.” You believe their authenticity and try to match their efforts.

As educators, administrators, and parents, how might we show our students the ways in which we push ourselves through challenges? How might we make it clear that we are also increasing resistance, pedaling faster, and pushing harder to achieve a greater goal? How might we ensure that our students and children notice our efforts, our struggles, and our own motivation such that it inspires them to work equally hard?

We can control our own thoughts, feelings, and actions better than we can control those of others. This school year, instead of putting our entire focus on what our students need to think, feel, and do, let’s consider how we can exhibit the traits of transformational, neuro, and authentic leaders to create the conditions for their success.

1 Please excuse the questionably accurate quotation without citation. I have no recollection of the name of the textbook or its authors.

2 Onorato (2013) refers to this as the 4Is of individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence as based on the seminal work from RJ House (1971) and Burns (1978)

3 Rock (2008) describes the four domains of neuroleadership as Decision Making, Emotion Regulation, Collaboration & Influence, and Facilitating Change.

4 Tonkin (2013) describes Organizational Citizenship Behavior as an output of authentic leadership. Luthan and Avolio (2009) then define authentic leaders as those possessing self awareness, transparency, ethics, and balanced processing.

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