“How to Carve a Duck” is a strange title, but the concept is powerful. You might ask, “What does carving a duck have to do with anything?”

My father in law took up carving in his retirement and one of his favorite jokes was to ask “How do you carve a duck?” The answer is simple. Take a block of wood and carve away everything that doesn’t look like a duck. Again you might query, “What does that have to do with being a school administrator?” It’s all about developing and honing your leadership skills and achieving self-mastery.

So many times when something isn’t working in our lives, we want to throw everything away and start over, when in reality all we have to do is to tweak just a couple of attitudes and/or behaviors and we’re right back on track.

For example, if you would like to be more patient, every time you find yourself thinking or acting impatiently, carve it away. If you eliminate impatience in your leadership style, you are left with a patient and calm demeanor. If you would like to develop a kinder tone of voice, when you catch yourself using a harsh tone, carve it away and you are left with soft-spoken and approachable tone of voice.

If you want to eliminate bullying in your schools, carve it away. Train your teachers, students, cooks, custodians and everyone in the building to intervene when they see bullying and soon you are left with a safe and welcoming environment for all students and staff.

This sounds so simple, and it is. But it is not easy. It’s just like the game of golf. Take a little stick and hit a little ball into a little cup and if you do that in four shots, you are a par golfer. For those of you who golf, you know that it is not easy, which is why you often hear a lot of biblical terms not used in a biblical sense on the fairways. Mastering golf skills takes hours and hours of practice, and the same goes for leadership skills.

Let’s start with a specific – dealing with upset people. As a group of bank supervisors were discussing working with upset employees, one of the participants said, “I kill ’em with kindness.” When asked what he meant by that he outlined three simple steps. The first is to “get in step.” Say something like “I am really glad you came to see me about this. Let’s see what we can do.” That’s a little different from the old authoritarian response of the past. “Hey, I have 14 people that would take your job in a minute, so if you’re not happy here don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Getting in step diffuses tension and creates a climate that fosters open and honest discussion.

The second step is to listen, and that’s hard to do. We’ve all been vaccinated with phonograph needles – we like to talk, talk, talk. But the bank supervisor didn’t do that, he just listened. And good listening doesn’t mean thinking about what you are going to say next, it means making a concerted effort to hear what the other person has to say.

The third step is to solve the problem, which doesn’t mean you have to tell the other person what he or she wants to hear. You have policies to follow and standards to uphold, but if you have successfully applied steps one and two, you increase your chances of the person’s willingness to abide with your decision.

Let’s list the three steps and then put this in perspective.

  1. Get in step
  2. Listen
  3. Solve the problem

This is nothing more than a model — a track to run on. You can go to the internet and easily find 50 or more similar suggestions. So the key isn’t which model you use, but the fact that you actually use it. More important than the model is exercising the emotional intelligence to carry it out. There are a lot of definitions of emotional intelligence, but I would simply define it as the ability to keep yourself under control, even when you don’t want to.

That’s where the concept of carving a duck comes into play. When you feel yourself getting defensive and combative, be aware of it and carve it away. Replace it with self-control and a calm and confident demeanor. You can still be tough and stick to your principles, but the difference is in your ability to lead a civil discussion in a controlled manner.

One key to all of this happening is heightened awareness, which is the subject of our next discussion. In the meantime, list just one or two personal skills that you would like to improve upon and work on them. Picture yourself executing that skill and every time you are not on track, carve the unwanted behavior away and you are left with the leadership style you aspire to.

Here are four ingredients necessary for success in your endeavor. Number one is desire. Your desire to be patient has to be stronger than your willingness to fly off the handle. The second is “no excuses.” Accept total responsibility for your behavior in any give situation. The third is to be aware of what you are thinking and doing in the moment, then monitor and adjust as necessary. The fourth is illustrated by the old joke about the violin player who jumped into a taxi cab in New York and asked the driver how to get to Carnegie Hall. The driver responded, “Practice, practice, practice.” These are skills, and like any skills, they take practice to master.

Make ongoing personal and professional development a quest. Set aside time every day to read and study leadership principles. Strive to make personal positivity a way of life for you and your staff. Take advantage of the opportunities your MASA membership offers to learn and grow personally and professionally. And always remember the advice of author Hiam Ginnot. As the leader, YOU are the decisive element.

Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. More information is available at www.dennysmith.com or email denny@denny@dennysmith.com.

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