Leadership: The Sharing of Wisdom

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

Should you ever visit Australia, a trip to Australia’s island state of Tasmania is a must. On the Tasman Peninsula, near the township of Eaglehawk Nest, is a rare geological formation known as the ‘Tessellated Pavement’. This is a compressed rock formation that over millions of years has been eroded into what seems like tiles that have been laid by the sea. You can read more about this at Tasmania National Parks.

This, of course, begs the question, what does erosion of rock, even if into an unusual geological formation have to do with your career, especially in a Government agency? In its simplicity, it is a wonderful metaphor for a career and how it develops and unfolds.

Think of it this way. Every Government agency, indeed every organization you work for, builds on your experience and skills from the previous. Each organization, every position you hold, even within the same organization, etches itself into your professional and personal life. Like the ‘Tessellated Pavement’, these experiences create unique lines of wisdom and knowledge and hones your skill set into something that is finely tuned and gives you a distinct edge over others. In short, every human interaction impacts the people involved and ultimately shapes the person and of course the professional they become. It logically follows too, that if a person has the skills to work on their inner-self and discern when and where these impacts have occurred and identify those experiences that might be holding them back, then they are in a position to do something about that. In effect, they can turn the negative into a positive.

The Tessellated Pavement was formed over millions of years. At an interview, especially if it is for a leadership position, you may well be asked where you see your career in say 5 – 6 years’ time. One common response is that you might be looking for further experiences that would continue to challenge you as a professional.

In short, every human interaction impacts the people involved and ultimately shapes the person and of course the professional they become.


There is another perspective on this though. Research from John Gabarro, the UPS Foundation Professor of Human Resource Management, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, has a slightly different take on the value of time in shaping the leader. Gabarro studied leaders in a variety of different settings and discovered that in general, it took longer than expected for even experienced practitioners to get up to speed. His findings were reported in an article entitled ‘When a New Manager Takes Charge’ in the January 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review.

What Professor Gabarro (2007) found was that the “taking-charge process occurs in five predictable stages: taking hold, immersion, reshaping, consolidation, and refinement”. Each of these phases had a distinct characteristic and a sequential time frame to them.

In terms of time frames, Gabarro found that:

  1. Taking Hold – Initial 3 to 6 Months

“During this period, a manager is grappling with the nature of the new situation, trying to

understand the tasks and problems and assessing the organization and its requirements.

Managers orient themselves, evaluate the situation, and develop a cognitive map.”

  1. Immersion – Next 4 to 11 Months

“During immersion, new managers run the organization in a more informed fashion and steep themselves in a less hectic, finer-grained learning process than was possible when they were taking hold. Consequently, by the end of this stage, they have developed a new concept or at least have greatly revised their ideas of what they need to do.”

  1. Reshaping – Next 3 to 6 Months

“In the reshaping period, new managers direct their attention toward reconfiguring one or more aspects of the organization to implement the concept they developed or made final during the immersion stage.”

  1. Consolidation – Next 3 to 9 Months

“Throughout this period, much of new managers’ learning and action focuses on consolidating and following through on the changes they made during reshaping.”

  1. Refinement – Usually in the third year

“This stage marks the end of the taking-charge process. By this time managers can no longer be considered new. They no longer feel new, nor do their subordinates perceive or speak of them as new…By now, they have either established credibility and a power base, or they have not.”

(Also see: Gabarro. J. (1987). ‘The Dynamics of Taking Charge’. Boston: Harvard Business School Press).

What this means for a Government agency hiring leaders with a specified contract period is that anything less than a three-year period is likely to be incomplete or even ineffective. Even allowing for the minimum time frames, it would still take over one year for the new leader to be up to speed with what they are meant to be doing.

For the applicant, it means that suggesting at an interview that you will have met all of your challenges within three years is most likely over-ambitious. If the first contract period is for three-years then the second contract of three-years gives the leader the space to actually focus on the prime function of the role. A school principal for example in the second contract period, with a sure sense that the hard work has been done and good structures established within the first contract, may find in the second contract that they can have an increased focused on the improvement of teaching and learning in their school. This doesn’t mean that this wasn’t a focus in their first contract but rather, the first contract had the additional focus of ‘establishing yourself’. Always keep in mind that you would not be appointed to the position unless you met certain key criteria, that would allow you to meet the expectations of you within the initial period of appointment. For example, if applying for a school leadership position with Boston Public Schools, you would need to demonstrate the following:

“Boston Public Schools seeks visionary and dynamic individuals to serve as educational leaders in our schools. We seek highly effective principals with a track record of success. We seek instructional leaders who also possess an exemplary managerial, instructional, and operational skill-set. BPS leaders must be committed to the belief in the potential of all students. We seek leaders who are committed to the ideals of collaboration, innovation, and who will do whatever it takes to ensure all our learners attend a high-quality school.”

A cursory glance of the requirements would suggest that Professor Gabarro is onto something. For a new Principal, settling into their first principalship and probably a new school at that, would have a lot on their plate. Obviously, systems provide support to new appointments but the challenge remains, that it might take you from thirteen months to three years to finally not be just across the role but embedded into it as well. There is a world of difference between growing into the role as opposed to growing in the role. After all, in the workplace, we are not unlike the ‘Tessellated Pavement’ found in Tasmania. For leaders, your job is to etch your wisdom into the professional lives of your colleagues to build a better collective of professionals.

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