How Children Succeed | Book Review

In Jack Zenger's We Wait Too Long To Train Our Leaders Harvard Business Review article the average age professionals receive leadership training is 42, while the average age of first supervisory responsibilities is 33. Paul Tough's well researched, somewhat autobiographical book, focuses much earlier, with lessons not just for educators, but all leaders.

Introductory Findings

Just as contemporary findings about workplace performance are challenging traditional management practices, it should be no surprise many classical teaching and performance measurement methods are likewise in question.

According to Tough, you might call the cognitive hypothesis: the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills (p. xiii). Indeed, most employers screen for competence, and most adults focus on displaying these skills on resumes.

However, The General Educational Development's (GED) growth was founded on a version of the cognitive hypothesis (p. xviii). Yet when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes, annual income, unemployment rate, use of illegal drugs -- GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts... (p. xviii). What's going on?

James Heckman and his researchers were able to ascertain that those non-cognitive factors, such as curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity, were responsible for as much as two-thirds of the total benefit... (p. xx). These are breakthrough discoveries, similar to Dan Pink's motivational findings in Drive.

Novel approaches are now underway such as the Perry Preschool Project: Surprise number 1 - they created a program that didn't do much in the long term for IQ but did improve behavior and social skills and Surprise number 2 was that it helped anyway -- for the kids back in Ypsilanti, those skills and the underlying traits they reflected turned out to be very valuable indeed (p. xxi).

This review follows Tough's findings and selected references, and maps selected findings relevant to everyday leaders and managers.

How to Fail

A failure mindset starts early, very early. Tough introduces Elizabeth Dozier, who believed that the basic tool kit of the modern education reformer contained everything she needed to turn things around for the school's students (p. 4). No so. Midway through her second year as principal, she was beginning to feel that the most important tools at her disposal were ones that didn't have much to do with classroom instruction (p. 7). Wow, so what's happening?

Evans and Schamberg (Cornell researchers) first discovery was that the amount of time that children spent in poverty when they were growing up predicted how well they would do on the Simon test, on average (p. 19). Interestingly, it wasn't poverty itself that was compromising the executive-function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it (p. 20).

What kind of stress exists in your organization? What are you doing about it?

Consider the importance of sharing your Leadership Philosophy early, very early.

How to Build Character

Tough shares the story of David Levin's KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program); a high-intensity program of attitude adjustment and behavior modification (p. 49). He found that focusing on knowledge isn't enough. For many students in that first cohort, things didn't go as planned (p. 50). KIPP set him up for high school very well academically, but it didn't prepare him emotionally or psychologically (p. 51). The students who persisted in college seemed to be the ones who possessed skills like optimism and resilience and social agility (p. 52). The most critical missing piece, Dominic Randolph explained, is character (p. 56).

There are contemporary, professional examples. For instance, the Program Management Institute (PMI) has added a leadership triad to its continuing education triangle. Martin Seligman and Peterson defined character as a set of abilities or strengths you can learn, practice and teach (p. 59).

Going further, Professor Brent Roberts's research has found people who score high on conscientiousness tend to share characteristics: they are orderly, hard-working, reliable, and respectful of social norms (pp. 72-73). Duckworth took this further, defining a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, which she calls grit (p. 74).

After a lot of research, ultimately Peterson codified a final list of seven strengths that were especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement (p. 76):

• grit
• self-control
• zest
• social intelligence
• gratitude
• optimism
• curiosity

How to Think

Tough turned to study of chess tournament success: "They win tournaments because of what Elizabeth Spiegel was sitting in Union B doing that April afternoon: taking eleven-year old kids, like Sebastian Garcia, who know a little chess but not a lot, and turning them, move by painstaking move, into champions." (p. 111). Spiegel is a Superboss, who also understands deliberate practice (see Peak). It works. She is clearly not following the classical script.

Tough points out Spiegel's methodology was closely related to the metacognitive strategies that Martin Seligman and that Angela Duckworth taught (p. 114). "Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism." (p. 122)

It all comes down to leadership, or the leader's responsibility to create a motivational environment. Speigel (p. 136): "I think it's really liberating for kids to understand what it's like to be passionate about something."

How to Succeed

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz (p. 149) chronicled in The Race Between Education and Technology, the story of American higher education in the twentieth century was essentially a story of democratization. Or put another way, more and more of us went to college. But something happened. Not long ago, the United States led the world in producing college graduates; now it leads the world in producing college dropouts (p. 150).

Guess what? The far better predictor of college completion was a student's high-school GPA (p. 152), when compared to SAT or ACT scores. A longer-term view may be helpful, lest we focus too much on college entrance examinations. Jeff Nelson identified five skills, which he called leadership principles, that he wanted OneGoal teachers to emphasize: resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism, and integrity (p. 162). How many of our organizational or personal values correspond to these five? The answer may correlate to our success.

A Better Path | Conclusion

"The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure," Randolph told me. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything (p. 177). Do we embrace failure enough? Do we let our children (employees) know that we may learn from it? As Steve Jobs (p. 180) put it in his speech: "The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything."

How many of us have observed (or experienced) this in a failing student: The system steers them into special education, remedial classes, and then, for teenagers, there are GED programs and computer-assisted credit-recovery courses that too often allow them to graduate from high school without decent skills (p. 193).

Maybe the lesson for all of us is the need for a values-drive leadership philosophy focusing on character development, not so much performance outcomes. For our kids, for ourselves, and for our organizations.

Thank you Paul for the signed copy of your book

JE | January 2017