Principle of Legitimacy … Lessons from a Coach

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In my work life, I am fortunate enough to collaborate with an amazing literacy coach who is one of the best educational leaders I’ve encountered.  I am also lucky to be sharing my life with her because she’s my wife.

Last year Tracey transitioned from her role as an elementary teacher and informal educational leader to a more formal leadership role as our literacy coach.  Now I realize I may be a little biased, but she really has done an amazing job!  It’s almost like she was born to be an instructional coach. You would be hard pressed to find a member of our large faculty who wouldn’t agree with me.  She has been able to improve learning, develop professional practice, manage change, implement new initiatives, provide engaging professional development, and simply make our school and district better.  What makes her work so amazing is that she is the lone instructional coach in a K-5 elementary school that is home to 1,200+ learners, 70+ faculty, continues to grow in size, and strives for continuous improvement.

There is a lot to like and admire about Tracey, and as a colleague and partner, I love to see her evolve as a leader and succeed in her new role.  For Christmas, Tracey gave me Malcolm Galdwell’s David and Goliath.  While reading about how underdogs succeed, I realized that much of Tracey’s success is built upon the “principle of legitimacy”.  Although this idea is a legal concept for reviewing laws it aptly applies to education and leadership in general.

Instructional coaches, principals, classroom teachers, and really anyone with positional authority who want to influence others, needs to understand the three components of the “principle of legitimacy”.

  1. People need to feel like they have a voice.  They need to feel that if they speak up, they will be heard.
  2. People need to feel that things are predictable, that your expectations and how you work, will roughly be the same tomorrow as they are today.
  3. People need to feel that things are fair. No one likes to be treated differently.

Like most exceptional leaders,  Tracey has been able to succeed in her role because of her legitimacy.  Not only does she possess the depth of knowledge and breath of experiences to be successful, she is also legitimate in her thoughts, words, and actions. In this case, actions certainly speak louder than words.

Meetings … Too Many? Too Few? Just Right?

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Simply put, schools are busy places.  Busy in a good way.  There has always been a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement in the schools where I have worked.  There are team meetings, parent meetings, faculty meetings, district meetings, co-curricular, extra-curricular, and cross-curricular meetings.  Outstanding schools, like exceptional educators, are collaborative in nature.  They are places filled with people working together to foster student learning.  It is impossible to collaborate alone.  You need  to meet.  I like meetings; I always have.  Professionally, I  look forward to the opportunity to spend time with so many outstanding colleagues.

However, schools are busy places, filled with busy people.  Time is a precious commodity and a limited resource.  So meetings need to be purposeful and efficient.  It is crucial to make the most of the time you have.  My wife and a number of colleagues just returned from an Adaptive Schools training at NESA 2013. They are excited to apply the great things they learned from Bob Garmston and company.  I am excited because I find that structured collaboration, organized agendas, common agreements, and the use of protocols, to be essential elements of successful collaboration.  It’s also nice to see others sharing a common belief.  When meeting, my colleagues and I try not to waste meeting time by following through on nuts and bolts, sharing information, and managing the logistics of teaching, to a minimum. We prefer to get these tasks done by email so that our meeting times are focused on what we teach, how we teach, and how we meet the individual needs of our learners.

Is there a “right” amount of meetings?  I don’t believe there is a quantifiable response.  I see it as just the right mix of meetings that keeps a school moving forward in a culture of positivity.  Too few meetings can drain a school’s energy and enthusiasm for continual improvement  as quickly as too many meetings.  Whether it is a formal or informal meeting, I think people should leave with a sense of excitement or enthusiasm.  Finding the right mix of purposeful and efficient meetings is a great starting point.

It’s All About Trust

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Today I wanted to talk about why some schools are more effective than others.  I started to ponder this idea after reading about what the top 100 places to work have in common in Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?.  Trust, not compensation or benefits, is the crucial ingredient that the top 100 places to work had in common.  What I found to be most interesting was that the top 100 Places to Work not only shared the common ingredient of trust, but they also outperformed their peers.  The message was clear.  The businesses where people care about their product or service, care about their colleagues, care about their superiors, and care about the company itself are also the places where more work gets done.

I started to reflect upon my own professional experiences, trust, and what that might look like in a school.  I found myself using a Frayer Model to help with my thinking and realized that time spent in a community being cynical about students, parents, teachers, principals, and headmasters greatly hinder learning.  I don’t know anyone who wants that, but I have certainly experienced cynicism is schools.

Effective educators create a climate amenable to learning.  Principals in particular accomplish this by ensuring that learning is at the heart of the daily activities of all community members.  They have established basic qualifiers like safety, orderliness, communication, and scheduling.  When all of the details that are taken for granted when they are in place, educational leaders can devote more of their time and energy into developing non-qualifiers.  They can spend more time building trust by developing a supportive, responsive relationship with children, parents, and teachers.  And like the business world, the Wallace Foundation found that schools with the highest rating of instructional climates out perform schools where principals are in the process of developing an atmosphere of caring and trust.   In schools with a positive climate, teachers and other stakeholders are more  likely to find that the motives and intentions of learning leaders are good. This has an enormous positive effect on learning.

So what can be done to help develop trust in a learning community? Here are a few easy ideas …

* Expect nothing less than unconditional respect for each and every member is an essential ingredient.

* Say YES, and say it often. Which would you rather hear?  “That’s an interesting idea.  Let’s explore it further.” or “That’s an interesting idea, but …”?  The first certainly feels more trusting than the latter.  Buts just get in the way.

* Remember your Ps and Qs.  Please and Thank You are extremely powerful words.  Your students and colleagues are more likely to be supportive of your ideas and requests when they are asked rather than ordered.

* Focusing on solutions rather than blame will help establish a positive, upbeat and accepting environment.  Your students and teachers will be more likely to experiment with change, adjust their practice, and try something new,  when they do not fear making a misstep.

I believe that it’s clear, the most effective schools, like the most effective businesses, are those where people care about their colleagues, their administrators, their school, and of course the learners.

Coaches Make a Huge Difference

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For the past two years, my family and I have returned to Canada to spend our Christmas holidays with our extended family.  What surprised me about returning home during the winter was not adjusting to the cold, but instead it was my learning curve.  Since being away from winter, a lot has changed. The internet exploded, fax machines disappeared, and cars now have anti-lock brakes.  This certainly made driving much easier.  Technology also made skiing easier.  When I left Canada to work in Mexico, snowboards were still not allowed on most hills.  No one wore a helmet and the skis themselves were very different. Even though I grew up skiing all of my life, I booked some time with a ski instructor for some lessons. I needed to relearn how to ski using the new fancy parabolic skis. Thanks to a great ski coach and some new technologies, I was back skiing … possibly even better skier than before. What enabled me to experience immediate success?  It was the coaching provided by my ski instructor — specific, timely feedback that provided very clear goals.

On the ski hill and in sports, coaching works.  More and more teachers are adopting a workshop model for literacy instruction that enable them to coach readers and writers.  Schools around the world are recruiting for a variety of instructional coaching positions — learning, literacy, math, science, cognitive, instructional, technology, etc.   There has certainly been a great interest in the professional learning model that might be described as coaching; and for good reason.  The coaching model is an incredibly powerful form of professional development.  Jim Knight, from the University of Kansas Coaching Institute, shared the following on the chances of teachers implementing new instructional practices.

  • Workshop on the new skill – 10%
  • Workshop with modeling – 12-13%
  • Workshop, modeling, and practice – 14-16%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, and feedback – 16-19%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, feedback, and coaching – 95%

It’s a no brainer.  Coaching and coaches have the potential to make a HUGE impact on learning, both for students and teachers.  So I find myself wondering, how can schools and educators take advantage of this great opportunity?  What role do coaches and coaching play in your learning and your school?

Change. Just Because …

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The dust has settled on the start of a new school year in Saudi Arabia.  And, so far, I am pleased by the wonderful beginning that we’ve had.  A new school year brought about a great deal of “change” for our community.  We opened a new building to welcome more members into the fold.  Our leadership profile changed, as two new principals joined our team.  My teaching team expanded from six to nine, as we welcomed four new colleagues into our group and many more throughout the school. We have a wonderful new learning coach, an additional counsellor, and are in our first year of implementing a newly adopted Social Studies curriculum.

There has been a lot of change, and for that I am thankful.  Not because what previously existed was broken, dysfunctional, or lacking.  As a matter of fact, I am thankful for quite the opposite of reasons.  I am proud to work at my school and know that my children are receiving a top notch education.  However, I believe that change, simply for the sake of change, is a GOOD thing.  I know that the most successful schools need to change things up in order to be at their best.

But why fix what isn’t broken? Well, even the most high performing, healthy schools, can be vulnerable to a buildup of professional cholesterol.  Overtime, personal dynamics begin to take over, and informal networks start to take on a formal structure. Practices become entrenched, territories emerge and people become protective of their sphere of influence.  Unfortunately, these “islands” or “silos” limit collaboration, communication, creativity, and efficiency. Simply, they hinder rather than help learning.  Rather than wait for a professional heart attack, learning leaders can begin to manage change while things are still at their best and avoid the need for a complete overhaul.

Here are some questions that you might ask yourself, your colleagues, your leadership team, or your faculty, in helping you monitor your own professional health or the health of your school.   A colleague I met this summer at the University of Bath shared some research around change from Harvard that I found fascinating and I thought I would share some key ideas.  Try answering YES or NO to the following statements.

Communication & Collaboration

    • Do teachers interact only with teachers from their own grade level, team, subject area or group?
    • Do strong subcultures and norms exist between grade levels, teams, subject areas or groups?
    • Do “silos” or “islands” interfere with communication or efficiency?
    • Has collaboration between grade levels, teams, subject areas or groups decreased over the past few years?

Influence & Power

    • Do influential teams, groups, or individuals have access to disproportionate time/resources?
    • Do influential teams, groups, or individuals interfere with how decisions are made?
    • Have teams, groups, or individuals extended their influence over the past few years?


    • Are people uncomfortable with change, both big and small?
    • Has it been a long time since individuals or teaching teams have had significant change — i.e. influx of new colleagues, change of grade levels, adopting new professional practices, etc.?
    • Have the levels of student learning and/or performance decreased over the past few years?

If you answered YES to 0-2 of these statements, things are looking good.  There is no need to change.  If you answered YES to  3-7 of these statements, it is a great time to consider change!  Finally, if you answered YES to 8-10 of these statements, you may be behind the curve, and facing a need for significant change.

As someone who started running a few years ago, I know the importance of changing my workouts so that they do not become routine.  I know that once they do, they hinder my growth as a runner.  Change for the sake of change, is essential to success.

Although a new school year has just started, for many of my international school friends and colleagues, it also happens to be the time of year for some professional reflection. At this time of year, I always find myself thinking of  The Clash, and the question of should I stay or should I go?  Is it time for a change?  Am I suffering from a build up of professional cholesterol?  I know, that is certainly not what I want, and I do know that I want to manage change on my own terms.

Put Down Your Old Tools & Pick Up New Ones

Spring time.  It is such a great time of the year.  It’s a time for tulips, pussy willows, and getting the garden ready for summer.   Excitement abounds as plans to end the school year are set and summer vacations are scheduled.  What I like most is that a feeling of rebirth, reinvention, and re-invigoration are in the air.  At home and work, it is time to do a thorough spring cleaning.  Around now, most of my favourite magazines inevitably find their way to friends, the faculty room for some gentle re-use, or my blue box for the requisite recycling.  But I also find time to enjoy parts of them one last time before sending them off to a new home.

In DWELL, I recently re-read an interesting article about William McDonough‘s work as an architect, designer, sustainability guru, and founder of Cradle to Cradle design.  Reflecting on his work, McDonough spoke of an important lesson that he learned from one of his mentors, Walker Evans.  Evans was a noted large format photographer, who at seventy, took to using a simple Polaroid camera for much of his work.  Why did he do this?  Simply, he recognized that …

“…you need to learn that every ten years, you put down your tools and pick up new ones; otherwise, you only have one life.”

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So, I have found myself thinking about Walker Evans’ words of wisdom and William McDonough’s example.  I have always enjoyed and valued the change that teaching internationally has afforded me.  Over the years, I have gained valuable experiences in a diverse range of international schools in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.  I have worked as an elementary classroom and middle school subject area teacher. I am certainly richer for the experiences that the constant change has provided.

Maybe it is because it is spring.  Maybe it is because I am approaching the end of my eighteenth year as an educator.  Or maybe it is because I feel the need to make room for something new by getting rid of the old; but I keep asking myself …

What can I do to live more than one life?

What tools will I put down next year?

What new ones will I pick up?

As a life long learner, I need to practice what I am not good at.  What do I need to practice?

As I confirm my summer plans, I am also considering what old tools will I put down and what new ones will I pick up?  What disruptive technology can I adopt next year to help me live more than one life?  I have started my list and am excited by the possibilities.  I do believe that some of the characteristics of great educators is that they continuously reflect on their work.  They seek to stretch themselves, and are comfortable being out of their element.

But I also find myself considering how can I encourage my colleagues to live more than one life?  As a learning leader, principal, or headmaster, what are you doing to help your colleagues put down their old tools and pick up some new ones?  Are you embarking on a 1:1 iPad pilot program?  Implementing a new standardized assessment like the ISA?  Beginning to explore different forms of running records? Reconsidering the idea of literacy in today’s ever changing world?  Offering alternative sources of professional development like a COETAIL course, instructional coaches, or the use of agendas and protocols to enhance collaboration?  What part does identifying disruptive technologies play in your end of year reviews or goals meetings?

What are the old tools that you might put down?  What new ones might you pick up?

“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

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Sydney Crosby, Rory McIlroy, Rafeal Nadal, Lindsey Vonn, Dr. Atul Gawande, Itzhak Perlman, and Usain Bolt share a number of commonalities. Each has reached the upper echelon of their chosen profession — be it sports, music, or medicine.  Yet, despite being at the pinnacle of their individual professions, recognized as true models of excellence, they each also have a coach.

As an educator, my professional practice has been shifting away from the traditional paradigm of a teacher, to become more of an instructional coach for the students who bound into school each day.  As an educator, much of my day is spent offering and developing specific, targeted, and deliberate practice / feedback so that students can develop the depth and breadth of abilities they will require for future success.  Simply, learners improve by working on what they are not good at.

I would like to see more of an instructional coaching model help improve my professional practice, shape the growth and development of my profession, and ultimately strengthen student learning.  Teaching and learning is simply too complex to be able to be successful in isolation.  Without another set of eyes, offering a different perspective, people are unable to achieve and maintain their personal best.  The idea that once you graduate, from something like middle school, high school, university, driver’s ed, or cooking school, that you no longer require instruction, is simply outdated.

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As an educator, I know that I will always have something to work on.  As a professional, I recognize that each of my colleagues will always have something to work on.  As an educational leader, I will always value the role coaching contributes to the journey of continuous improvement.  As the husband of a learning coach, I see the importance of letting teacher’s, like students, take ownership for learning and choose their individualized path; be it keeping a mini-lesson truly mini, developing improved questioning, making better use of assessment data, organizing better collaborative meetings, or adopting new classroom management strategies.  The list is and should be, truly endless.

I see coaching being an essential role of every school administrator.  The most effective learning leaders are those who observe, judge, and help facilitate professional learning.  They enable their colleagues to become more competent; to move through the four stages of competence.

It’s certainly true that some background knowledge and expertise is important to be an effective coach, but the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches.  The great violinist, Itzhak Perlman is a case in point.  His wife is his coach.  Coaches don’t need to know it all.

“She is an extra ear.” She’d tell him if a passage was too fast or too tight or too mechanical—if there was something that needed fixing. Sometimes she has had to puzzle out what might be wrong, asking another expert to describe what she heard as he played”.

Gehry Excellence

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It is in this context that I find myself wondering, how do principals and headmasters stay at their best?  I think looking to the world of sports, medicine and the model that already exists in education, offers great opportunity. Instructional coaches are becoming increasingly common in our schools.  Perhaps it is time that formal educational leaders tap into the potential that coaching offers to further support their work.

To close, I wanted to leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s one of the values that my family emphasized while I was growing up and is one that I hope to impart in my three sons, and the kids who I work with every day.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

I’ve never really known who originated the quote, but according to a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s attributed to one of the great Greek philosophers.  Thanks to coaches like Maggie Moon, Pam Harper, Justin Medved, and Tom Baker, I know that coaching helps ensure that the work you do is your personal best, helps a school strive towards excellence,  and helps improve student learning.

LEARNING … It’s What We Do

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For the past few months, work has been a little busier than usual.  We have been busy wrapping things up at the end of one accreditation cycle and launching into a new accreditation process — Excellence by Design.  Although things have been busy, I find the accreditation work very engaging and worthwhile.  I think it is because I always enjoy the collaboration and thinking about the potential that our learning community holds.  I believe it is important to recognize where we are, celebrate our wonderful accomplishments, and start to envision where we want to be.  The accreditation process has certainly provided me with a tremendous amount of food for thought.

Recently, friends who work in other professions were sharing what was happening in their work and personal lives. Both also happened to be in the midst of some sort of accreditation / self-evaluation process similar to ISO 20000 certification.  I was struck by the similarities of purpose, process, and importance of  accreditation in their work.  I was also surprised by the ease and simplicity with which they could clearly communicate the work that they do, be it producing a good or providing a service.  Both shared the great lengths that are taken in their professions to establish a simple, common understanding of what they do. It was central to their growth, development, and how they monitored the quality of their work.

So, I found myself wondering, what is it that we do in schools?  Do we have a common understanding of what we offer our children, their families, and the greater community?  My guess is that if I asked this question to my colleagues, LEARNING would likely be a top response.  But do we have a common understanding of what it means to learn? Could every member of my school community share the simple, common understanding with a parent or colleague?  Would we be able to consistently identify learning throughout the grade levels and across the curriculum? I must admit I am not so sure.

I believe that International School Bangkok offers some great ideas for helping develop a simple, common understanding of what they offer the members of their community.  A simple, clear and concise Mission and Vision Statement is a great place to start.

To be a model of excellence for educating students for success in the world community.
Through outstanding teaching in a nurturing environment,  ISB inspires students to:
  • achieve their academic and personal potential
  • be passionate, reflective learners,
  • becoming caring, global citizens

There is tremendous power in being able to simplify a complex idea and I believe that International School Bangkok does a particularly good job at it.  However, what I find most impressive is that as a community, they have established a common understanding of “learning” and what it looks like.

Learning is the primary focus of our school and we recognize learning as a life-long adventure.  We value meaningful learning where students construct enduring understanding by developing and applying knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  Increased understanding is evidenced by students who:
  • Explain its relevance
  • Describe how it connects to or conflicts with prior learning
  • Communicate it effectively to others
  • Generalize and apply it effectively to new situations
  • Reflect critically on their own and other’s learning
  • Ask questions to extend learning
  • Create meaningful solutions

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If learning is an essential component of any school, why do more schools not have a definition of learning at the heart of their Mission and Vision statements?  It is  these documents that help shape and provide direction for a school and its improvement plan.  In the world of education, just like the world of business, having a shared, common understanding is essential for establishing a cycle of continuous growth.  ISB’s definition of learning provides an essential framework for collaboration, a tool for monitoring the quality of student learning, and a means of adjusting professional practice because stakeholders are looking at things through a shared, critical lens.

Dating, Buying, Recruiting

Originally Posted December 2012

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Since I last wrote, the Bronfman’s ideas presented in SWAY, continue to bubble away in my thinking.   First impressions are not always what they seem.

As a home owner and former first time home buyer, first impressions can be misleading.  Sure the kitchen needs to be updated. Avocado green and Harvest gold are so 1977.  Yes the closets are a little small and the roof is less than exemplary; but the floors are beautiful, there’s a jacuzzi tub on the deck, and it has great gardens!  Is this really the house for me or am I caught up in the moment? Am I looking at the right things or am I looking at only what I want to see?  Is my first impression correct?

Going on a first date is another experience where people can find themselves getting caught up in the moment.  It’s been a while since I’ve been on a first date, but I can remember finding myself having coffee, sharing a meal, taking a stroll and later wondering — Was there chemistry?  What kind of connection did we make?  I wonder if they like me?  Will I hear from them again?   Buying house and going on a first date are emotionally charged situations. People aren’t always at their best under these circumstances.

Dating and buying a home are a lot like recruiting. It’s easy to understand why home owners and people in search of a connection get caught up in the moment, but what is really interesting is why hiring managers, across all professions, including education, make the same mistakes.  According to the Bronfman’s, it is because recruiters simply don’t ask very good questions.

Here are a few of the most common interview questions.  Do any of them seem familiar?

Why are you interested in the position?
What do you offer this position?
What do you see yourself doing five years now?
What do you consider to be your greatest strength / weakness?
Tell me about a recent success / failure?
What subject did you like the best / least?
What do you know about our company / school?
Why did you decide to seek a job with our company / school?“

adapted from Sway

As someone who has experienced both sides of the table, I have asked and endured similar questions.  Semi-insightful and self-evaluative questions don’t really let anyone get or give a sense of the real candidate.  “They are taken from the Barbara Walters school of interviewing.” ( p. 81).  Likewise, “Why should I hire you?”, is too predictable.  Prepackaged questions elicit prepackaged responses.  They do not provide an accurate reflection of the true candidate.  Other questions turn candidates into historians or require them to gaze into the glass ball of the future.  Are these questions going to provide you with the best insight into an individual?

When hiring, principal’s can make the same mistakes as a home buyer and first dater … they focus on the wrong things — chemistry, connection, likability.  When recruiting, “we often base the image of the ideal candidate on ourselves.  Somebody comes in who’s similar to us, and we’re going to click; we’re probably going to want to hire them”. (p.86).

How do you ask the “right questions”?  Is staffing a collaborative decision making process?  Is the interview format structured, relaxed, or some sort of combination?  What types of questions do you pose?  Are candidates asked to demonstrate anything, like complete an IN BOX activity?  Skype is now an important tool for recruiting.  How often do you ask to watch a candidate’s lesson?  Or talk with their students about learning?

I find myself fascinated by the recruiting process.  What questions do you ask? How do you manage first impressions?

First Impressions

Originally Posted November 2011

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I just finished reading SWAY: The Irresitable Pull of Irrational Behaviour.  A friend and colleague who recommended the book described it as the opposite of Gladwell’s BLINK.  It is a fascinating book that examines the pull of irrational behaviour.

The authors of SWAY, Ori and Rom Bronfman, share an interesting study about the draft rankings of NBA players and their resulting professional careers.  It turns out that scoring points, rebounding, blocking or stealing shots does not impact the playing time or even the career lengths of NBA players as much as draft order does.  In essence, “once a player is tagged as a ‘low pick’, most coaches let that diagnosis cloud their entire perception of him.” (p.71-72).  We all have a tendency to label ideas, things, or people on the basis of our first impressions, and find it difficult to change our perceptions once they have been established.  In essence, we are inclined to see what we want to see, expect to see, and what seems to reinforce our opinion.

As an educator, this is a big concern.  I don’t want to have any pre-conceptions concerning my students.  I know that it will interfere with my work in support of their learning.  I make conscious efforts to avoid having a fixed opinion of my students.  Perfect, I am not.  But I know that I am doing well simply because I continue to challenge myself, ask questions, look at things from multiple perspectives, use multiple sources of evidence, and remain flexible.
As a colleague, I know I can do better.  I need to do a better job of managing my diagnosis bias.  Like most professionals, I have an opinion of my colleagues, mainly based on first impressions, limited evidence or perspectives.  Regretfully, I have certainly not been as flexible with my colleagues as I have with my students.  I am striving to challenge myself to re-think my first impressions, to ask questions that will challenge or highlight my own personal bias.

As an inspiring administrator, monitoring diagnosis bias, is of keen personal and professional interest.  I am equally confident in saying that I have benefitted from, and been restricted by, the bias of administrators that I have worked with.  I have witnessed colleagues who struggled to overcome this bias. As an educational leader, your bias has an enormous impact on the culture of your community, and ultimately on the quality of the teaching and learning in your school.  Do the first impressions you make of people help or hinder your efforts as a learning leader?  Are they empowering or limiting?

As educators, we need to avoid the pitfalls of the NBA coaches. But how can we do it?  I think the best place is to simply try.  Be meta-cognitive.  Be flexible.  Be reflective.  How often do you change your first impressions?  Challenge yourself to look at things with different lenses.  I think if you do, like the Houston Rockets, you will be able to recognize the talents of individuals that may have gone unrecognized or under appreciated.  And like the Houston Rockets, you are likely to find your own Shane Battier, your own superstar.