How Might An Empathetic Peg Find Its Role in Educational Leadership?

How Might An Empathetic Peg Find Its Role in Educational Leadership? An ENFP Reflects

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny for Unsplash

A true free spirit? Hardly.


A brief history of my experience with the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and other personality profiles of this ilk. When I was an undergrad at the University of Maine at Farmington, I took several of these tests, surveys, and profiles across a number of courses. Every experience was the same: I received the results, the class talked about what they mean, and I would walk out the door grousing and complaining to my friends, random passerbys, and the dining hall staff about the injustice of putting people in a box, pigeonholing, labeling, categorizing and generally undermining everything we as Americans hold so dear. My friends would tolerate my ranting until I exhausted my breath and then plainly state, “You’re mad because it’s right. And we know it’s right because you’re mad.”

And they were right.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the Dan Ryder taking the Myers Briggs in 1998 and Dan Ryder taking the Myers Briggs today is my hairline. And if so, the second greatest difference would be my reaction to the results today: awe and appreciation. I no longer see the ENFP label as a source of frustration — instead I see it as an opportunity to grow my leadership capacity through my strengths and strategic recognition of my shortcomings.

The British firm, NERIS Analytics, offers a tremendous Myers Briggs resource in its 16 Personalities.com website, providing detailed explanations of each type alongside implications for work, family and relationships. As I think about taking on more formal roles of building, district, state, organizational or perhaps even entrepreneurial leadership, I find it valuable to weigh the NERIS insights against my past experiences and potential futures.

The ENFP personality is a true free spirit. They are often the life of the party, but unlike Explorers, they are less interested in the sheer excitement and pleasure of the moment than they are in enjoying the social and emotional connections they make with others. Charming, independent, energetic and compassionate, the 7% of the population that they comprise can certainly be felt in any crowd.

A true free spirit? Hardly. Over my career, my stress and anxiety have metastasized into serious bouts with depression, a need for regular therapy and, most recently, medication. I’m not one to liken freedom to constant struggle with inner demons. That last sentence though . . . seven percent.

In UMF’s Organizational Change Leadership course with Mary Callan andSally Beaulieu, we examined four leadership frameworks per Bolman and Deal’s research. Sitting in a room of 20+ educational leaders in training, I was the lone Symbolic. While it heartened me to know the rest of the room exceedingly Human Resource oriented alongside a handful of reluctant Politcals, it did put a rather fine point on why I struggle to empathize with so many education leaders and why I am still trying to figure out just where I fit in a school administration.

If there’s a challenge ENFPs face when selecting a career, it isn’t that they lack talent or options or drive, it’s that there are so many things out there that are just cool.

We vision keepers are a rare breed, but it is what gets us out of bed in the morning and wanting to do something bigger than the moment may allow. It is why I’m in constant contact with my colleagues in #Edchatme, a growing network of educators around the state with an eye toward innovating teaching and learning in Maine. It is why I’m a moderator of#dtk12chat, a Twitter-based international PLN working to bring design thinking — empathy fueled, human centered problem solving — into the foreground of pre-K through post-12 education. And it is why I’m spending more and more of my time consulting, presenting, keynoting and writing as I find outlets and audience for my ideas, strategies and philosophies.

Where ENFPs do not shine is in systems of strict regimentation and hierarchy, such as military service. ENFPs thrive on the ability to question the status quo and explore the alternatives, and if this is a quality that is not just unappreciated but actually frowned upon, this will not only make them unhappy, but it may even threaten their emotional stability. Repetition, predictability, boredom… while some Sentinel types may appreciate predictability and clear hierarchies, these are not selling points for ENFPs.People with the ENFP personality type need to feel like they’re pushing boundaries and exploring ideas, and should focus on interests and careers that encourage that.

Unfortunately, my ENFP-ness is also the source of frustration when I can see so many possibilities and find so many colleagues reluctant to embrace them. It is not that I want my ideas accepted and championed part and parcel — I am a flawed human being and a classroom educator who makes mistakes daily that he would never wish others to repeat — though I do crave environments with shared vision and a compelling drive for rapid prototypes, constant iteration, and steady, if messy, improvement.

When it comes to conceiving ideas and starting projects, especially involving other people, ENFPs have exceptional talent. Unfortunately their skill with upkeep, administration, and follow-through on those projects struggles. Without more hands-on people to help push day-to-day things along, ENFPs’ ideas are likely to remain just that — ideas.

I am reminded of a recent blog post I co-authored with personalized learning guru, Allison Zmuda. We present my “Fable of the Table,” a story to illustrate challenges educational innovators face empathizing with worried administrators. Where I define achievement as improving the table in any number of ways, most administrators see success as keeping the table steady and upright, a difficulty in its own right considering the current social and economic landscapes. It is not that the worried administrators do not want improvements — it is that what matters most is stability and safety and finding the pathways of least resistance to those ends. I see safety emerging as the result of some minor and rather dramatic shifts and establishing new definitions of stability: stability is not an unchanging status quo; stability is the capacity to transform the status quo for maximum effect at minimal upheaval.

ENFPs are not great fans of heavy hierarchy and bureaucracy, and this is most evident when they take on the role of manager. As managers, ENFP personalities behave much like they do as colleagues — they establish real friendships, and use their broad popularity to inspire and motivate, taking on the role of leader, working alongside their subordinates, rather than shouting from behind their desks. ENFPs will tend to believe in the concept of intrinsic motivation, the idea that things are worth doing for their own sake, not because of some convoluted system of punishments and rewards.

Aye, there’s the rub. I am ready to transition. I am just not sure where my strengths can serve the most good or where I can feel my skill sets put to the most use — particularly in public education in Maine. Building administration seems to consist only of assistant principals who must serve as disciplinarians and ad hoc social workers for the school. While I’m well suited to the latter, I am often reminded my softer approach to discipline would not serve the former well. Building principals seem to be relegated to financial matters, putting out physical plant brushfires, and being everything for everyone. While I got my father’s midwestern accent and his penchant for distant-stares when problem solving in his own head, I did not manage to receive his gift for numbers, nor the dot the Ts and cross the Is gene. This leaves me with curriculum coordinating, a position for which I think I am well suited and have a passion, yet finds itself in short supply in Maine as school administrations are regularly vilified by State and local community leadership for being bloated, self-serving and top heavy. Technology director is another position where I can see myself making serious gains for a school district because of my background in educational technology. Unfortunately, those same forces marshaled against school administrators have made it difficult for tech directors to focus on big picture and transformative learning rather than network maintenance and budget lines.

Known for their idealism and enthusiasm, ENFPs are good at dealing with unexpected challenges and brightening the lives of those around them. ENFPs’ imagination is invaluable in many areas, including their own personal growth.

I want my title to read, “Dan Ryder, RSU 9 Director of Innovations and Initiatives.” I would love to wrangle with whatever new mandates or mission directives land on our doorstep from Augusta and Washington. I would love to help classroom educators across the district to network with colleagues around the world, to benefit from the resource pools into which I’ve been able to tap and to learn to populate their own. I would love to help teachers with vision to connect the dots between what they want to accomplish and what it will take to make it a reality for their students. And I would love to help turn our school district into an economic engine for western Maine, to prove that an investment in fostering students with 21st century skill sets can vitalize entrepreneurship here, grow small businesses and small-shop manufacturing, stabilize the dwindling industries of the region, and establish new traditions of prosperity.

I am fortunate to work in a district that has a recent track record of excellent administrators from whom I can draw inspiration. And while I may not always agree with some of them and levy my criticism at the photocopier or at the sports bar, I appreciate their authenticity and inherent decency, not only as educators but as people.

And I know that’s my ENFP talking. And I am quite okay with that.

Note: These lines were composed for a Supervision & Evaluation course at the University of Maine at Farmington. Thanks to Sandy MacArthur for the challenge of such a reflection. To read more of my thoughts on education, visit www.wickeddecentlearning.com and www.danryder207.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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