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7 Questions with Duncan Lyon

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7 Questions with Duncan Lyon

Name: Duncan Lyon

Current title: Head of School

Current organisation: The Carey School

Duncan Lyon is in his tenth year as the Head of School at The Carey School in San Mateo, California. Duncan held administrative positions at Bentley School (Berkeley), and The Dalton School (NYC). Duncan taught at University High School in San Francisco, where he also attended as a student. Duncan holds an MA in history and an M.Ed in Education from The Klingenstein Center at Columbia University.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?

Balancing the operational and strategic needs of a school is a perennial challenge. Educational leaders have to look a few years ahead while simultaneously ensuring the daily and weekly needs are addressed. The pandemic has exacerbated this tension since near term needs are ever more pressing and having a sense of what post-pandemic education looks like is a strategic imperative.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I try to wake up at 6:30 without technology in order to pay attention to my waking thoughts which might be my subconscious telling me something. Soon, the practical need to scan overnight emails and texts takes over. I arrive at school in time for the carline. I try not to have early morning meetings in order to "make the rounds" and be predictably available for teachers and our admin team before 9:00. From there, my day is typically a mix of 1:1 admin meetings, trustee committee meetings, and the like. The volume of daily email requires dedicated time for those communications, which often is after the school day. I find great productivity after school hours and before leaving for the day, usually around 7:00. At home, I try to be present for my family needs and wrap up the day reading, usually between 9:00-9:30.

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

Pay attention to what has your attention. I think a school leader's job is to stay focused on the key near term and long term agendas. Organizing the desk, the desktop, and one's own consciousness to those ends are paramount for institutional well-being. It is easy to get distracted on temporary concerns, but leaders need to touch daily the work that will endure at the end of a school year and beyond.

4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

Joseph Badaracco's Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right looks at case studies where the path forward is full of nuance and complication. The book helped me develop a decision-making framework. Have I consulted wisely and widely? Will this decision endure? Is this decision my own or someone else's? I think this framework has helped me make better decisions and certainly made me rest more easily once having made them.

5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?

I look for four qualities: competence, collaboration, professionalism, and reflection. I have found that the best educators I know have all four of these qualities and want to work around other "four for fourers" at the same time and in the same place. Knowing your stuff, having the ability to add to and grow from a team, demonstrating professional behavior in all interactions, and being self-aware make for a great team. Once that team culture is built, there is a self-perpetuating nature to it. Building it is the hard part.

6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

Knowing the names and personal stories of everyone on your campus helps establish a connection and provides important context for helping ensure people are healthy mentally, physically, and otherwise. Importantly, I do not think the goal is to make people "happy" since that feeling can be fleeting, but students and staff know if you as the leader have their well-rounded interests in mind. Of course actions matter more than words, but I think it is crucial to let folks know that you believe in them and that you appreciate them AFTER you have taken action to support them. The words land more deeply that way.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?

I keep a file called the Funny Files which is the accumulation of humorous incidents that can only occur in a school. I pull out the file from time to time to give me perspective. One story in the file is about a high school student who left a small ziplock baggie full of water containing a goldfish taped to my office door handle with a note that read, "Mr. Lyon, please take care of this fish." The student found the fish in one of the school's toilets. It had survived a flushing and this student thought it should live and that I was the best caretaker of the fish. Well, the fish lived a long life and grew to a large size well after I left the school. The student and I stay in touch over this story, which is the essence of education-- enduring relationships