September 8, 2022
I recently came across this McKinsey & Company sponsored “Author Talk” in which Rich Diviney, a retired Navy SEAL, talks about his book: The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance (Random House, January 2021). In the talk, Diviney dives into the idea that as human beings, we each have certain attributes that, unlike skills, cannot be taught. Attributes, according to Diviney, are characteristics like patience, courage, or adaptability; further, he says that the degree to which we show these in any given environment informs us about who we are in our most raw state. Diviney suggests that we can be well served by becoming aware of what our key attributes are—of how we are strong and how we are weak. And finally how we can build upon our attributes to equip ourselves for optimal performance in our lives and throughout our careers.
It can be helpful to know our strengths and weaknesses because, as Diviney says, during stress, the real us shows up. For me, like probably most of you, the last few years have been particularly stressful. As a school director, I have felt the great weight of leading a community through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity; all the routines that sustain the process of schooling were disrupted and we had to build new ones on the fly. As I think about it now, the real me that showed up for these times was resilient, creative, calm, and adaptable, but also sometimes cautious and risk-averse.
Diviney believes that we can be well served by the vulnerability involved in sharing our awareness about our attributes—both the more typically positive and negative ones. By sharing our “raw” selves, we open ourselves to being able to build on our attributes. We are also well served because we are more effective when we are open to meshing or complementing our attributes with those of others; through this process, we can develop more powerful teams and communities. More on this later.
So if attributes cannot be taught, what is our role as parents, teachers, and school leaders with regard to what this Navy SEAL thinks is critical for success? Diviney has found human attributes to fall into five groups: grit, mental acuity, drive, leadership, and team ability— so you can see there are a variety of categories for possible strengths. He suggests that we can choose to build on strengths or on weaknesses but, either way, development comes from being in situations that ask us to use these attributes.
One of Diviney’s examples:
“If you want to develop your patience, you have to find environments in which you can deliberately test and tease and develop your patience, whatever those environments might be. It might be “I’m going to go deliberately drive in traffic,” or “I’m going to go wait in the longest line at the grocery store.”
I think this is super interesting and can easily translate into the practice of parents and teachers encouraging kids to choose challenges and to take risks, to put themselves in uncomfortable situations that are just hard enough to help them build upon an attribute but not so hard to be discouraging. I think the theme of challenge by choice also applies to how school communities and school leaders can encourage teachers to develop their craft. At AES, I think we are all served by this growth mindset that Diviney alludes to we all have opportunities to put ourselves in situations that are just hard enough to help us develop whatever attribute we may choose but not so hard to be discouraging.
Another important and relevant part of this “Author Talk” for me was the importance of teamwork. Putting ourselves out there in challenging situations can help us grow not only as individuals but also as teams—whether as students tackling a group project or a team of educators or administrators trying to navigate some new challenge. In a group setting, we have the opportunity to share our vulnerabilities and strengths in order to build a team that will work more efficiently and creatively. We get to decide who does what, how we mesh, and how we want to rely on each other. As Diviney says:
“In a team setting, the attributes show up and manifest in a very interesting, fun way because that is actually what makes a team powerful. A true high-performing team is a group of people whose skills and attributes mesh together, kind of like a zipper. On a high-performing team, you may have someone who’s a little bit lower on patience but higher on adaptability and another person who’s higher on patience but lower on adaptability. Those people come together, and suddenly you have a team that represents all of the attributes and skills.”
I know that in “zippering" my strengths together with those of the other members of our leadership team, we make better decisions for the school than any of us would be able to do individually. And I think this same dynamic is alive and well in many corners of our campus—in all kinds of collaborative work among students, teachers, and staff.
I think this article helps reinforce why it is so important to continue to nurture an AES culture of teaching and learning where it feels safe to share vulnerabilities and personal goals for individual growth but also for the richness and health of our school. Working collaboratively with people who have a diversity of attributes will always make us a stronger, more resilient, more creative community of teachers and learners.