George Couros on the Innovator’s Mindset: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

CourosGeorge Couros is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching, and learning. He has worked with all levels of school, from K-12 as a teacher and technology facilitator and as a school and district administrator. He is a sought after speaker on the topic of innovative student learning and engagement and has worked with schools and organizations around the globe. George is also the creator of, an initiative that brings educators and leaders together from around the world to create powerful learning opportunities for students.

Although George is a leader in the area of innovation, his focus is always the development of leadership and people and what is best for learners. His belief that meaningful change happens when you first connect to people’s hearts is modeled in his writing and speaking.

His book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, was published by Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. (October 2015).

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Morris: Before discussing The Innovator’s Mindset, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Couros: Definitely my parents. Both of them were immigrants that came to Canada and build a life from nothing. When I think of “learners”, they embody that no more than anyone else I know. Constantly adapting and adjusting or creating their environment was crucial to them being successful, and for my family to have the opportunities that we have today.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Couros: Probably the biggest impact on my own professional learning has been connecting to others on Twitter. It is 24/7 learning and has really shaped a lot of my thoughts. It is amazing how you can learn from people in totally different positions with different experience, all over the world. The book would have not been possible without connecting to so many forward thinking educators around the world.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Couros: One night, my brother, also an educator, came to my area and we went out for dinner with Will Richardson. As a principal, Will questioned I was sharing my own learning with my staff, and I realized that I wasn’t at all. I was a little bothered by it, but I started to understand that I couldn’t ask my staff to try things differently until I started to change my own practice. It really shifted my focus from teaching to learning, and my path and thinking have been changed forever.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Couros: That’s a really tough question because it might not have had the impact that many would like to hear. I can’t remember much in what I learned from school, and really, it was a checklist on getting to the next level. School was never horrible for me, but it wasn’t something that I loved going to. As an athlete, doing well in school was more about being allowed to play sports than anything. That being said, the relationships that I have developed through school were and are still invaluable to me. I just want to create a place where we can have both. Powerful relationships AND opportunities to really be excited about what and how we are learning. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Couros: My oldest brother is an extremely business savvy leader, and he has taught me a lot about this world outside of education. What I have learned is that how you connect with people is more important than anything else. Those connections will lead to further connections, which ultimately lead to more opportunities. You can be the most intelligent person in the room in your field, but if you aren’t able to connect with people, the opportunities lessen. Unless the rumours about Steve Jobs are true, but he is more of the exception than the norm. I always err on the side of being firm but kind.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Couros: This is a great quotation and reminds me of the focus from my own book on developing strengths as opposed to constantly working from a deficit mindset. When people know that you value them, they often will go further than what even they perceived.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.”

Couros: This quote is crucial to the work in schools. We often try to do everything, as opposed to a few things amazingly well. Steve Jobs was known to be as proud of what they didn’t do in his company, as what they did. That is why Apple has been the success it has been for years. They make a few products amazingly well.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Couros: This where leadership meets management. Great leaders also are great managers, it is not one or another. I can have the vision for whatever I want in my organization, but if I do not have the ability to bring these things to life, I am simply speaking as opposed to doing.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Couros: In education, we might be too focused and efficient on the wrong things. We talk about creativity, but too often focus on how well we do on the tests. The better we become at getting kids to take the “test”, the better they lead to become compliant, as opposed to being creative. Doing the wrong things right can lead to more damage, quicker.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Couros: If we are dependent upon one person to make decisions and push people forward, we will take forever to move forward in education. Atul Gawande talks about the idea of “200% accountability,” where peers not only take responsibility for their work, but the work of others on the same level. Without this, we become more dependent upon a leader than we do a system.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Couros: I think this is a crucial component. Stories resonate with people because they start to create their own connections. They also create an emotional connection, and without tapping into the emotion of people, they are less likely to change. People don’t usually change from reading numbers off of a spreadsheet, but when they feel something, and they start to see themselves in that story, that is where things start to happen. It is one of the most important leadership skills that we pay such little attention to.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Couros: We often spend 90% of our time with 10% of the resistors trying to convince them. Your top 10% do not need “leadership” and just need to be let go to do what they do. We need to spend more time on that “middle” group that could be swayed either way. We also have to ask a lot of questions. I often challenge people to walk into their organization and look at everything as if it is their first day on their jobs and starting asking why they do what they do. The longer we spend in any one place, the more we become comfortable with the notion of “that’s the way we always have done it.” Constantly looking at things with fresh eyes, no matter how long you have been there, can we really help move a culture forward.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Course: That the way we want to work is changing. We are so often trying to put people into a box that doesn’t work for them. Would you rather have someone work from 8-430 and do mediocre work, or give them flexibility in the way they choose to work that gets the best out of them? In an “on demand” society where I can just turn on Netflix and watch shows when I watch, people are more comfortable doing their best work on their schedule, not necessarily “your” schedule. Obviously this is not as cut and dry as letting people work when they want to work, but we really need to think about how most kids that are coming up through a school system never have to watch commercials or wait for a specific time to watch their favourite show. This will change the way we do our work.

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George cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Link to George’s blog, “The Principal of Change”

His Twitter link

SlideShare link

Link to “George Couros at TEDxBurnsvilleED”


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