The Fundamentals of Leadership Still Haven’t Changed

Recently the Chief HR Officer for a healthcare firm asked us to identify the best new framework for leadership that she could use to train and develop a cadre of high potentials. The challenge, she said, was that these managers were highly proficient in their own disciplines such as finance, marketing, research, clinical care, and insurance reimbursement — and had demonstrated that they could manage people in these areas — but she needed them to be “bigger” leaders. What, she asked us, did the newest thinking about leadership development say they needed to learn to lead multiple functions, or influence whole segments of the organization, particularly in the rapidly changing world of healthcare?

Explicit in our HR officer’s question was her assumption that the newest thinking on leadership development must contain something essential. After all, there are hundreds of books written about leadership every year, adding to the thousands of titles already available on Amazon.  There also are new assessment tools based on advancements in brain science, emotional intelligence, and relational modeling; new computer aided algorithms for decision-making; virtual reality simulations; and a host of new experiential programs, online courses, and university certifications. With such a flurry of developments, there must be some useful new ways to think about leadership.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Yes, the leadership development industry is thriving, and yes there are a lot of new and interesting ideas, some of which may prove to be helpful. But despite many changes in our context — as organizations have become more democratic and networked, for example — in its fundamentals leadership has not changed over the years. It is still about mobilizing people in an organization around common goals to achieve impact, at scale.

This tried and true perspective on leadership was reinforced for us during the past year as we researched and wrote the HBR Leader’s Handbook. We interviewed over forty successful leaders from a variety of organizations (corporate, non-profit, startup), across different industries. We then reviewed several decades worth of articles from the Harvard Business Review to understand the recurring messages from academics and practitioners about what leaders should do. Our conclusion from this research, and from our own years of experience as leadership and organizational advisors, was that the best leaders with the most outsize impact almost always deploy these six classic, fundamental practices:

  1. uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;
  2. building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;
  3. attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;
  4. relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;
  5. creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and
  6. “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.

Sure, sometimes the starting point is different, or one of the six areas requires more heavy lifting than another, or the sequence of activities varies. And yes, leaders go about these practices in different ways depending on their personalities and their situations. But the same handful of practices are always present.

For example, when Seraina Macia (one of the leaders we interviewed) joined XL Insurance in 2010 to head their North American Property and Casualty unit, it was a stable, but slow-growth business.  As she learned about the numbers, the organization, and the markets, Macia envisioned that the unit could be transformed into a much faster-growing and more profitable company with a wider range of product offerings. Bringing her team together around this vision, and sharpening it with their help, which is the first fundamental practice, became the focus of her early days with XL.

To translate that vision into action, Macia then challenged her team to triple the level of premiums, without sacrificing underwriting quality, in three years — and asked each of them to quickly develop a strategy for how to make that happen in their product areas, and how to best use underwriting and the other support functions to do it. She then worked with each manager to help them craft these strategies, making choices about how to deploy resources, where to focus, and how fast to proceed.  This is the essence of the second core practice that we heard about in our research.

When some of Macia’s team members struggled to come up with thoughtful strategies, or couldn’t move quickly into action, she gave them tough feedback, pushed them beyond their comfort zones, gave them developmental help as needed, and in some cases replaced them or moved them to other positions. These actions were all in the service of building the best team to implement the strategy, which is practice number three.

This stronger team was then able to respond to Macia’s unrelenting drive for results by quickly testing new ideas, engaging local brokers, expanding target markets, and a host of other specific action-steps, all of which were aimed at focusing on results, which is the fourth practice. As results came in, Macia encouraged the team, to reassess their plans, learn from their experiences, innovate, and continually improve, which exemplifies the fifth practice, innovation. For instance, some of the teams experimented with sending underwriters out to the field to work with brokers so that they would send them business that was more likely to be underwritten by XL, a complete departure from past practices, and one that turned out to be key to the unit’s success.

While taking these actions, Macia also was learning about her own leadership, what worked and what she needed to do differently. Gradually she learned how best to allocate her time, how to build support from other parts of the company, what metrics were most useful, and how to make faster decisions about people, all of which is part of the leading yourself practice.

Most importantly, by putting all six of these practices together, Macia succeeded in doubling the level of profitable premiums in two years and (after she left for another job) seeing her successor reach the original goal of tripling the business the year after.

To move their organizations to the next level, all of the leaders we talked with deployed these practices — practices that are supported by numerous studies and articles, many of them far from new. And even though these leaders were operating in different industries, geographies, and with new technologies and structures, they were still dealing with people who needed to work together to achieve a common goal, which is what leadership has always been about. So when it’s time to think about developing bigger leaders—as our HR executive wanted to do—we believe the secret is not to look for a new framework, but rather to help leaders master the tried and true practices that already exist.

Ron Ashkenas is a coauthor of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and a Partner Emeritus at Schaffer Consulting. His previous books include The Boundaryless OrganizationThe GE Work-Out, and Simply Effective.

Brook Manville is a coauthor of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and Principal of Brook Manville LLC, a consultancy in strategy, organization and leadership development. His previous Harvard Business Review Press books are Judgment Calls and A Company of Citizens. He also blogs about leadership at


To Give a Great Presentation, Distill Your Message to Just 15 Words

Fearless public speaking is about more than combating nerves. It’s about knowing the technique, the art, and the business of public speaking.

In my two years working as a TEDx producer, and my 27 years working in film, television, theater, and events production, I have worked with hundreds of speakers, and with actors including Kate Winslet, Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, and the late James Gandolfini. All of the speakers and actors I’ve worked with rely on technique when they walk on to a stage or a set. They don’t simply hope they will connect with the scene or with their scene partner. The same applies to anyone who’s public speaking. While you may not deliver a captivating talk every time, you can learn to apply technique, and in turn, become a fearless speaker every time. But your nerves are not the only thing you have to master. You must also:

Know how to pitch. When you understand and master the pitch, you’ll get onto more stages, which in turn will give you the confidence to become fearless each time you pitch. Start with the idea and why you are the right person to take the stage and deliver this big idea. While it must be a big idea, you need to be able to communicate it in 15 words or less. Organizers are busy, and they don’t have time to read through lengthy pitches. Share what the audience will take away, as well as the global impact of the talk. Don’t save the most important part of your pitch for the end; people may stop reading before they ever get to it, landing you in the “no” pile. And don’t try to sell your book or business in a pitch for a speaking gig. If you want to sell from the stage, that conversation happens after you book the gig. Seventy-five percent of the potential speakers who apply to my events, including TEDxLincolnSquareThe Speaker Salon, and currently Speakers Who Dare, end up pitching their business. That’s a lot of people who do not understand the art of a pitch, and who subsequently end up in the no pile.

Know your audience. When you do research on your audience ahead of time, it gives you the opportunity to craft your talk with the language that your audience speaks. For example, if you’re speaking on a panel, you can speak more intimately to the audience. If you’re at an event that’s more high energy, your language can reflect that — you can entertain the audience a bit more. If you’re at a conference that’s for professionals, you can speak in more technical terms. Speaking the same language as the audience increases the odds that they will hear you, understand you, and be inspired by you. You’re more likely to connect with them emotionally. If you’re walking into a speaking gig without knowing your audience, you’re bound to fall flat and end up looking at the tops of their heads as they check their cell phones. You have to know who you’re talking to.

Know your objective. In order to have an authentic scene, actors have to know what they want from their scene partner, and want to be believable when they are going about getting it. It’s the same for public speaking. It’s about being authentic. Even though the audience is probably not going to audibly respond to you when you’re speaking on a stage, you are in a scene with them, and when you have a clear objective in terms of what you want, and how to get it, you will be more believable and captivating from the stage, therefore building your confidence as a speaker. Think about the objective you have going into your speech. Maybe your goal is to get the audience to donate to a worthy cause, or spread the word about your ideas. If you want your audience to accept your ideas, or change their opinion about something, how are you going to get them to do it? You can inspire, motivate, or even scare them into changing their minds. But you can’t do any of those things until you know what you want the ultimate outcome to be.

Know the difference between a good talk and a bad talk. A good talk has content that is fresh and well-edited, with a clear arc that takes us on a journey. A good talk is one that is so well rehearsed that you are able to let go of the script and freely share the content in the moment. A good talk is one where your audience wants to adopt your idea at the end of the talk. A bad talk, on the other hand, is one that meanders, does not have a clear through-line, ends more than once, and is apologetic. A bad talk is so well rehearsed that you sound robotic and scripted, or so unrehearsed that you stumble too often and lose your audience’s attention.

Know yourself. Public speaking is hard work. It’s time-consuming, and it’s emotionally and physically draining — especially if you are an introvert. But introverts can become engaging public speakers by flexing the muscle of being in public. Practice by going to events and coming out of the corner. If you have a speaking engagement, take extra time that day to sit quietly, meditate, and refuel. If you are an extrovert, be sure to save your voice before you take the stage — you can always socialize after your talk.

Fearless speaking is the sum of many parts; it’s not just about wrangling the butterflies in your stomach. When you approach public speaking as the sharing of ideas as well as a business, understanding what makes this a successful exchange, your confidence will improve in direct proportion to the number of times you nail it, on and off the stage.

Tricia Brouk is an award-winning director, writer, and TEDx producer, and Executive Producer of Speakers Who Dare. She has directed speakers on to 11 TEDx stages, and countless other mainstages. Her production company, The Big Talk, produces documentary films about people making a difference in the world.

New Study Finds Positive Correlation Between Team Sports and Mental Health

Women’s Sports Foundation

Researchers, including the team at the Women’s Sports Foundation, have long underscored the positive physical benefits that come with playing sports. A recent study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal advanced the conversation by further analyzing the effects of sports on mental health.

Reviewing data from more than 1.2 million responses to a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, the researchers concluded that “physical exercise was significantly and meaningfully associated with self-reported mental health burden.” The report asserts that exercise can ease the burden of a variety of mental health issues, including mild depression, anxiety, panic attacks and stress.

To conduct the research, the authors of the cross-sectional study looked at data from CDC surveys given to adults 18 or over in 2011, 2013 and 2015. The study, which concerns survey responses derived from a one-month period, compares the number of self-reported bad mental health days between individuals who exercised and those who didn’t.

The conclusion? All exercise is good for mental health, but some forms are more beneficial than others.

The report indicates that “individuals who exercised had 1.49 (43.2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise but were otherwise matched for several physical and sociodemographic characteristics.”

“Even just walking just three times a week seems to give people better mental health than not exercising at all,” Adam Shekroud, an author of the study and Yale University psychiatry professor, told CNN. “I think from a public health perspective, it’s pretty important because it shows that we can have the potential for having a pretty big impact on mental health for a lot of people.”

Not all exercise is created equal when it comes to mental health though, the study found. Team sports had the largest association with a lower mental health burden, with a 22.3% reduction. Cycling and aerobic and gym exercises were next, at 21.6% and 20.1%, respectively. The best amount of time to exercise in terms of mental health is approximately 45 minutes three to four times per week, according to the report.

The study was published in August 2018, but has seen the most traction in the media in the last two weeks. In a climate where mental health is becoming increasingly destigmatized — particularly in athletics, where athletes have begun speaking out about their battles with mental health issues — the research is more relevant than ever.

How Puberty Kills Girls’ Confidence

The Atlantic
In their tween and teenage years, girls become dramatically less self-assured—a feeling that often lasts through adulthood.

SEP 20, 2018

The change can be baffling to many parents: Their young girls are masters of the universe, full of gutsy fire. But as puberty sets in, their confidence nose-dives, and those same daughters can transform into unrecognizably timid, cautious, risk-averse versions of their former self.

Over the course of writing our latest book, we spoke with hundreds of tween and teen girls who detailed a striking number of things they don’t feel confident about: “making new friends,” “the way I dress,” “speaking in a group.” In our research, we worked with Ypulse, a polling firm that focuses on tweens and teens, to survey more than 1,300 girls from the ages of 8 to 18 and their parents. (The sample was broadly representative of the country’s teen population in terms of race and geographic distribution.) The data is more dramatic than we’d imagined: The girls surveyed were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of 0 to 10, and from the ages of 8 to 14, the average of girls’ responses fell from approximately 8.5 to 6—a drop-off of 30 percent.

Until the age of 12, there was virtually no difference in confidence between boys and girls. But, because of the drop-off girls experienced during puberty, by the age of 14 the average girl was far less confident than the average boy. Many boys, the survey suggested, do experience some hits to their confidence entering their teens, but nothing like what girls experience. (The Ypulse survey did not break down its findings at a granular enough level to discern if there was any correlation between kids’ race or income level and their self-described confidence.)

The female tween and early-teen confidence plunge is especially striking because multiple measures suggest that girls in middle and high school are, generally speaking, outperforming boys academically, and many people mistake their success for confidence. But the girls we talked with and polled detailed, instead, a worrisome shift. From girls 12 and under, we heard things such as “I make friends really easily—I can go up to anyone and start a conversation” and “I love writing poetry and I don’t care if anyone else thinks it’s good or bad.” A year or more into their teens, it was “I feel like everybody is so smart and pretty and I’m just this ugly girl without friends,” and “I feel that if I acted like my true self that no one would like me.”

Confidence is an essential ingredient for turning thoughts into action, wishes into reality. Moreover, when deployed, confidence can perpetuate and multiply itself. As boys and girls (and men and women) take risks and see the payoffs, they gain the courage to take more risks in the future. Conversely, confidence’s absence can inhibit the very sorts of behaviors—risk taking, failure, and perseverance—that build it back up. So the cratering of confidence in girls is especially troubling because of long-term implications. It can mean that risks are avoided again and again, and confidence isn’t being stockpiled for the future. And indeed, the confidence gender gap that opens at puberty often remains throughout adulthood.

What makes confidence building so much more elusive for so many tween and teen girls? A few things stand out. The habit of what psychologists call rumination—essentially, dwelling extensively on negative feelings—is more prevalent in women than in men, and often starts at puberty. This can make girls more cautious, and less inclined toward risk taking. Additionally, at an early age, parents and teachers frequently encourage and reward girls’ people-pleasing, perfectionistic behavior, without understanding the consequences. Often, this is because it just makes parents’ and teachers’ lives easier: In a busy household or noisy classroom, who doesn’t want kids who color within the lines, follow directions, and don’t cause problems? But perfectionism, of course, inhibits risk taking, a willingness to fail, and valuable psychological growth. “If life were one long grade school,” Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist who wrote The Growth Mindset, explained to us in an interview for our first book, women “would be the undisputed rulers of the world. But life isn’t one long grade school.”

In fact, later in life, the goalposts shift considerably. “It rewards people who take risks and rebound,” Dweck added. And the boys in our survey seemed to have a greater appetite for risk taking: Our poll shows that from ages 8 to 14 boys are more likely than girls to describe themselves as confident, strong, adventurous, and fearless.

Teen and tween girls are focused instead, according to our polling data, on setting impossibly high standards for themselves: Our polling data shows that the proportion of girls who say they are not allowed to fail rises from 18 to 45 percent from the ages of 12 to 13. In their efforts to please everyone, achieve more, and follow rules, many girls are actually nurturing traits in themselves that set them up to struggle in the long run. Adding to this, many girls are also wise enough by the age of 12 to see that the world still treats men and women differently—that dings their confidence, too.

Social media doesn’t help either, and its ill effects might hit girls harder than boys. The internet can multiply social stresses astronomically. In the past, girls could have an overwhelming day at school, fight with a friend, and get a “bad” grade, but go home and get some distance. There’s no distance anymore—only constant, instant, and public condemnation or praise.

There’s evidence that tweaking the status quo, and acclimating girls at this critical age to more risk taking and failure, makes a difference. Some of the most compelling data links participation in sports to professional success. A study from the accounting firm EY and espnW, ESPN’s women’s site, found that 94 percent of the women currently with C-suite jobs in the U.S. played competitive sports. It’s not only through athletics that young girls can gain confidence; sport is simply an organized and easily available opportunity to experience loss, failure, and resilience. But the same skills can be acquired by participating on a debate team, learning to cook, or speaking up on behalf of a cause like animal welfare—as long as there is a move outside of her comfort zone, and a process of struggle and mastery, confidence will usually be the result.

It’s essential to close the gap, and to do so early, because the long-term effects of these dynamics hurt not only girls, but the women they become, many of whom, within a few years of entering the workforce, experience another confidence drop, and a drop in aspirations. Their rule-following, good-girl methods have been celebrated, rewarded by a structured educational and societal system. It’s a shock to arrive in the adult world and discover a dramatically new playing field: Failure is okay. Risk is worth it. No wonder they struggle: Their whole life, to date, they’ve internalized just the opposite, a societal bait and switch that should be recognized. Girls are adept at learning—they just need the right study guide.

How can we help students make sense of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and a week of violence in the United States?

Teaching Tolerance

On Saturday, eleven people were murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue by a gunman who shouted “All Jews must die” as he opened fire. Clearly antisemitic, the gunman was also motivated by anti-immigrant animus, according to reports of his internet postings. The suspected gunman is in custody and the FBI is investigating the killings as a hate crime.


The tragedy came at the end of an anxious, tumultuous week in the United States. Beginning Monday, October 22, pipe bombs were sent to over a dozen prominent Democratic figures, including former President Barack Obama, and to the CNN newsroom in New York City. The suspect, a right-wing extremist, is now in custody. On Wednesday in Louisville, Kentucky, two elderly African Americans were killed at a grocery store by a white shooter who had first attempted to enter a black church. This week felt extraordinary, yet Americans have been living through a time of increasingly visible, public bigotry and violence, including the 2015 killing of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist; the 2017 bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Indiana; and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that same year, when marchers chanted neo-Nazi slogans and a counter-protester was murdered. The rise in hate, in these incidents and others, has been well-documented.

Americans must consider what these troubling events suggest about the current state of the country and the future of this diverse democracy. Such incidents are also on the rise around the world, including growing antisemitism in Europe, making hate an issue of global concern. Educators have an additional role to play. Even as we mourn, we also have to help our students process the week’s events within a safe and supportive learning community. Students need to share their reactions and hear those of their classmates, and with our guidance explore difficult questions about the past, present, and future. If we don’t make time to talk about these events, we risk normalizing them.

These conversations might begin on Monday morning, but they should continue long after, not just as a time-out from regular curriculum, but as a commitment to fighting hate and nurturing democracy that informs everything we teach. As Fernando Reimers, international education leader and Facing History board member, reminds us, “Addressing the most visible attacks, once they happen, requires the specialized knowledge and organization of law enforcement. Preventing them requires the concerted effort of each and every one of us… Preventing such hatred at the roots…requires deeper and earlier action in communities and schools.”

In this Teaching Idea, we offer some suggestions for opening a conversation about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and other recent events with your students, as well as selected resources to examine antisemitism and religious bigotry and to explore the role we all can play in standing up to hate.

In addition to the suggestions here, you might connect last week’s incidents to your ongoing discussions with students around the fractious and intense mid-term election campaign. It is worth considering the relationship between the two. To what extent does political rhetoric, whether by our leaders or in the debates we have individually with others, fuel hatred?  What responsibility do leaders and citizens have to appeal to each other’s “better angels” rather than stoking our basest inclinations through stereotypes and resentment?

Prepare for Class

Before leading a conversation with students, check in with yourself. How have you been affected by the events of the past week? What is on your mind? Being conscious of your own responses and concerns can help you foster a more safe and open conversation in your classroom.

Consider, too, the ways that your own students may have been impacted by recent news. You may have survivors of violence in your class, or students feeling newly vulnerable because of their identity and connection to groups who have been targeted. What support might those students need, and what resources in your school, including counselors and social workers, could help to provide it?

Finally, keep in mind that each of the news stories from the past week alone is complex and the shape of what is known and unknown changes quickly. Frequently-updated “What We Know” features on sites like the New York Times and Vox can help you stay abreast of the news, and can also be used as a reference point to ground discussion with students.

Create a Reflective Environment for Discussion

Let your students know that your classroom is a safe space. Begin with a brief contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space. Then allow time for students to name what stands out to them in the news of the past week and then to process and reflect, perhaps writing in journals and then sharing some thoughts with a partner. You might use the following writing prompts:

  • The synagogue attack in Pittsburgh is disturbing and painful to learn about. It prompts us to ask many questions, some of which may not have an answer. What questions does this event raise for you? What feelings does it provoke?
  • How do you see the events in Pittsburgh, in Louisville, and around the country affecting people in your home, in your school, and in your community? Who in your community, including you yourself, might be feeling particularly vulnerable right now?

Graffiti boards and S-I-T are two other teaching strategies that can help students reflect on difficult topics.

Put Last Week’s Events in Context

The major events of last week made the front pages of newspapers across the country and around the world. They are part of a growing pattern of expressions of hate and antisemitism in schools and communities, including many events that don’t get national attention. In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, 19 swastikas were spray painted on a Jewish community center in early October – the second time the building was defaced in just over a year. Pro Publica’s Documenting Hate project and the Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatchare two programs that track and document hate crimes and bias incidents in the United States.

You might choose to share information from these sites, or simply the selected October news headlines listed below, with your students.

After reviewing some of the events of the last month together, discuss:

  • What patterns or connections do you see among these events? What are some differences between them?
  • Does your local and personal context connect to this larger climate of hatred and violence in any way? Do you see examples of hate, exclusion, racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism in your community?
  • How do small acts of hateslurs, name-calling, graffitifracture communities? Do they make it it more likely that more violent acts will occur?
  • What other factors contribute to a climate in which perpetrators of hate crimes feel emboldened? How do we understand the connection between ideas, rhetoric, and actions?

Consider a Range of Meaningful Responses

As students reflect on the impact of this week’s events in Pittsburgh and beyond, they should also consider positive ways that individuals and communities can respond – by denouncing hate, offering support to those who have been targeted, and asserting inclusive norms and values. You might share some examples of how people have responded to support the Tree of Life synagogue community in Pittsburgh: there have been vigils around the country, interfaith statements of support, and fundraising efforts to help the congregation and victims.

Discuss with students:

  • What can we do if we ourselves are feeling vulnerable?
  • How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?
  • What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?


Learn about the history and present reality of antisemitism: The lesson “The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism”, from Facing History’s Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior unit, focuses on the question “What is antisemitism, and how has it impacted Jews in the past and today?”

Choosing to Participate: At Facing History, we conclude our case studies in history and literature with conversations about how each of us can help to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a build a more inclusive democracy. The readings below have particular resonance right now. Used singly or together, they can help students consider the values, tools, and actions that protect human rights, establish a sense of safety and dignity, and strengthen communities.

  • “Not in Our Town”: Residents of Billings, Montana banded together to stand up to racist and antisemitic violence in their town: “Intolerance, hatred, and violence test the strength of a community. How the members of a community respond is one measure of its citizens’ commitment to democracy.” This reading includes a companion video and lesson plan.
  • “Talking About Religion”: Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, talks about his failure to respond to antisemitism in high school and how this experience of being a bystander informed his commitment to pluralism.
  • “Give Bigotry No Sanction”: Correspondence between members of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI and President George Washington in 1790 can inspire thoughtful conversation about the role of religious freedom in American democracy.
  • “Walking with the Wind”: Congressman and activist John Lewis tells a story from his childhood to explore how we can work together to create a better world:

    America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

What’s All This About Journaling?

One of the more effective acts of self-care is also, happily, one of the cheapest.


It was my ex-husband who got me journaling again. Our marriage was falling apart, and, on the advice of his friend, he had started to do “morning pages,” a daily journaling practice from the seminal self-help book “The Artist’s Way.”

Though I had kept a diary throughout my teen years and early 20s, somewhere along the way I’d fallen out of the habit. At 29, though, I was deeply unhappy and looking for answers wherever — anywhere — I could find them.

It helped.

Once the domain of teenage girls and the literati, journaling has become a hallmark of the so-called self-care movement, right up there with meditation. And for good reason: Scientific studies have shown it to be essentially a panacea for modern life. There are the obviousbenefits, like a boost in mindfulness, memory and communication skills. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q.

Research out of New Zealand suggests that the practice may even help wounds heal faster. How is this possible? James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who is considered the pioneer of writing therapy, said there isn’t one answer. “It’s a whole cascade of things that occur,” he said.


Labeling emotions and acknowledging traumatic events — both natural outcomes of journaling — have a known positive effect on people, Dr. Pennebaker said, and are often incorporated into traditional talk therapy.

At the same time, writing is fundamentally an organizational system. Keeping a journal, according to Dr. Pennebaker, helps to organize an event in our mind, and make sense of trauma. When we do that, our working memory improves, since our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience, and we sleep better.

This in turn improves our immune system and our moods; we go to work feeling refreshed, perform better and socialize more. “There’s no single magic moment,” Dr. Pennebaker said. “But we know it works.”

I didn’t know any of this when I started journaling again two years ago. I was in a place where I would have tried anything to feel better; if someone had told me that a daily practice of morning somersaults helped her get through a difficult time, you better believe I would have started rolling.


But, as it was, I dug up an old notebook, flipped to the third page (the first felt too exposed) and started writing. That entry begins as follows: “First ‘morning pages.’ It’s not that I can’t think of anything to write. The question is, where to begin?”


This is often the first question a budding journal writer might ask him or herself. In some ways, though, it’s the most misguided — one thing journaling has taught me is that the mind is a surprising place, and you often don’t know what it may be hiding until you start knocking around in there.

In other words: Writing in your journal is the only way to find out what you should be writing about.

But when I was just getting started, the first place I went looking for guidance was the book that had inspired my ex-husband: “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. Ms. Cameron describes the morning pages as “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-conscious,” done as soon as one wakes. They are “not meant to be art. Or even writing.” They need not be smart, or funny, or particularly deep — in fact, it’s better if they’re not.

Ms. Cameron encourages practitioners to think of them as “brain drain,” a way to expel “all that angry, petty, whiny stuff” that “eddies through our subconscious and muddies our days.” After years working as a writer and journalist, making my living trying to sound smart on the page, this was a huge relief.

“I’d like to say here that morning pages differ from conventional journaling, in which we set a topic and pursue it,” Ms. Cameron said when I spoke with her recently for this article. “In morning pages, we do not set a topic. It is as though we have A.D.D.: jumping from topic to topic, gathering insights and directions from many quarters.”

On the other hand, Dr. Pennebaker’s research has found that journaling about traumatic or disturbing experiences specifically has the most measurable impact on our overall well-being.

In his landmark 1988 study, outlined in his book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion,” students were randomly assigned to write about either traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four days in a row. Six weeks after the writing sessions, those that had delved into traumatic experiences reported more positive moods and fewer illnesses than those writing about everyday experiences.


Dr. Pennebaker’s research has found that even a one-time 15-to-30-minute session of focused journal writing can be beneficial. In fact, he said he is not “a big fan of journaling every day.”

“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need,” he said. “My recommendation is to think of expressive writing as a life course correction. As opposed to something you have commit to doing every day for the rest of your life.”

If you’re distressed about something, Dr. Pennebaker advises, set aside three to four days to write for 15 to 20 minutes a day about it. If you don’t find a benefit from it, he says, “stop doing it. Go jogging. See a therapist. Go to a bar. Go to church.”

Dr. Pennebaker is also not a purist when it comes to tools. Techies can take heart in knowing that, contrary to the romantic ideal, typing out journal entries on a laptop or even on a phone can yield effects that are just as positive, particularly if it’s more comfortable and convenient for you. The point is simply to get started.

“Try doing it different ways,” Dr. Pennebaker said. “Some people like writing with their nondominant hand. Others find talking to a tape recorder works too. Experiment.”

Over the years, I have switched up my process here and there, even embarking on an overly ambitious plan involving color-coded pens. The one I’ve come back to again and again, however, is closest to what Ms. Cameron advocates: I write three to five pages every morning by hand.

For her, the timing and frequency is essential to a beneficial practice. “Jungians tell us we have about a 45-minute window before our ego’s defenses are in place in the morning,” she said. “Writing promptly upon awakening, we utilize the authenticity available to us in that time frame.


Journaling may sound hokey to some. But it can be one of the most useful and cost-effective tools we have to forge a better, more emotionally and mentally healthy life. As Dr. Pennebaker said of his research: “I’m not a granola-crunching kind of guy. I got into journaling because I’m interested in what makes people tick.”

Ms. Cameron’s book, on the other hand, is steeped in the kind of earnest spirituality that New Age skeptics will no doubt bristle at. Yet one of the quotations that has stuck with me the most is straightforward and practical: “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action.”

When I started journaling, I felt stuck. I was nearing 30, facing the personal reckoning that always comes with such milestones. I was unhappily married and dissatisfied with my career. Worst of all, I had no idea what would, theoretically, make me happy. I didn’t know what I wanted.

Then journaling provided me with an important outlet for the debilitating anxiety that had come to paralyze me at odd hours each day. And besides, I enjoyed it. It was fun to wake up every morning and spew a hurried black scrawl all over those straight blue lines.

Still, I remained unconvinced by Ms. Cameron’s grander claims about how journaling could change one’s life. And yet, today, as I write this, just two years later, my life has completely changed: I split from my partner of 10 years; began a new, fulfilling relationship; enrolled in an M.F.A. program; rekindled my freelance writing career; and am planning a move to Los Angeles.

I don’t how journaling helped me make these changes. Perhaps, as Dr. Pennebaker may suggest, it simply allowed me to purge some of my anxiety, leading to a better night’s sleep and more energy to accomplish the task. Or maybe, as Ms. Cameron would say, it put me in contact with my very own spiritual guide. Certainly, I got to know the dusty corners of my brain better, and, when I did, my true desires became harder to ignore.

In the end, though, I’m not sure I care how it worked. The point is, for me, it did. And, if nothing else, I now have a written record of the more notable — and, in retrospect, often hilarious — ups and downs along the way.

Tear Down Your Behavior Chart!

Lee Ann Jung and Dominique Smith

Behavior charts and similar public shaming methods don’t teach self-regulation. They mainly harm vulnerable learners.


Mr. Hill stops reading aloud to his 4th grade students and turns to Anisa. “Anisa, you’re off task. Change your clip. I asked you once and you are still digging in your desk. Walk over and change it now.”

Anisa stands and walks across the classroom. Several of her peers make condescending comments under their breath. Anisa moves her clip from green to yellow and returns to her desk and puts her head down. Her nonverbal behaviors indicate that she’s angry, hurt, and frustrated.

A few minutes later, Josh raises his hand. Mr. Hill calls on him and Josh responds, “Anisa is off task again.”

Mr. Hill looks at Anisa and says, “Again? Please change your clip to red. One more problem and it will be another call home. You have to learn to pay attention.”

A Practice That Harms

Scenes like this are common in schools today. Pass through the halls of almost any elementary school and you are likely to at some point hear “pull a red ticket” or “you’re on yellow now.” Behavior charts—and their variants—are standard in elementary schools throughout the world. They represent a practice long overdue for retirement.

In thinking about this strategy for managing student behavior, we challenge you to ask yourself a question: Why are you are an educator and why do you continue to be an educator? Did you respond with, “to show students who’s boss?” or “to help the students who are already doing well to succeed?” Of course not. Your response was probably some version of, “I want to make a difference” or “I want to be the teacher students need in their lives.” We posed this question because we can’t move forward in the argument we’re about to make until we share a strong understanding of our ultimate goal as educators. Most of us are in education to make a difference in our students’ lives and help them become their best selves—aspirations that, in our view, aren’t compatible with behavior charts.

In working with students, we’ve often seen adolescents display challenging behaviors that have evolved over years. We’ve wondered to what extent their behavioral paths could have been corrected in early-childhood classrooms rather than exacerbated by stigmatizing practices like behavior charts. Braithwaite’s shaming theory (1989) highlights the connections between stigmatizing shame and later delinquency. According to Braithwaite, “shaming means all societal processes of expressing disapproval which have the intention or effect of invoking remorse in the person being shamed and/or condemnation by others who become aware of the shaming” (p. 100). Although the relationship between shame and later behavior is complex, empirical studies provide enough evidence to compel us to stop shaming young children and instead build strong relationships and seek alternative methods to promote prosocial behaviors.

We present here three reasons to abandon behavior charts. If such charts are used in your school, we encourage you to have an open mind as you consider our reasoning. And we hope you take down those charts tomorrow and consider trying the alternatives we propose to foster positive behavior.

1. Compliance Isn’t Our Long-term Goal

Behavior charts do an excellent job of teaching children that they will be punished if they don’t comply with directions or rules. Although this may work in the short-term to make some students compliant, compliance shouldn’t be our end game. We can shoot so much higher than that! We want students to be engaged and excited about learning, to persist when their work is hard, and to interact with others in ways that will lead to positive social and academic outcomes in the future.

Art Costa and Bena Kallick (2000) have done beautiful work organizing and describing the skills and behaviors educators should cultivate in all our students, what they term habits of mind. These lifelong skills—like persisting, managing impulsivity, and listening to others with empathy—improve students’ competence, confidence, and ultimate success across the curriculum and in life. Such skills are arguably more important than the content we teach; the content is merely a vehicle for teaching them. Solidifying these habits is what teachers should aim toward. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating what William Deresiewicz (2015) called “excellent sheep”—students who play the game of school but lack true engagement and critical thinking.

2. Behavior Charts Can’t Teach Self-Regulation

Teaching the whole child is our responsibility. If we are to be effective in our work, faculty at all levels must be able to teach habits of mind such as self-regulation, a key skill for shifting toward more positive behavior. Simply rewarding and punishing behaviors is not what helps students learn such habits and skills. It’s particularly ineffective with self-regulation.

Punishments work to reduce behaviors by immediately following a behavior we don’t want to see with a consequence that the child doesn’t like (Alberto & Troutman, 2002). Thus, behavior charts can reduce a student’s problematic behavior if the student dislikes negative public attention—or public shaming. This is a questionable strategy to begin with since it’s based on stressing out the student rather than cultivating new aptitudes. But for many students, negative attention is something they’ve gotten used to, or worse, something over which they feel they have no control. Their identity has become “the kid who is bad.” Have you noticed that most of the time the student who is “on red” today is the same one who was “on red” yesterday and the day before? And is likely to be “on red” all year long? What does it tell us if the intervention being put in place doesn’t lead to a change in students’ behavior? Clearly, the strategy isn’t working. Why would we continue to use any strategy that isn’t working?

Decades of research have led to a body of evidence on how educators can effectively support and teach key skills like self-regulation (Heckhausen & Dweck, 2009). Nowhere in the literature do researchers recommend that we shame children into being compliant.

3. Charts Hurt Students!

The most compelling reason to abandon behavior charts is this: They risk harming our students. Lee Ann still remembers the painful effect of the color behavior chart a teacher used when her son, Spencer, was in 1st grade. Spencer was a sensitive “people pleaser” as a young child. He preferred to do what he needed to do with little public attention, but he valued personal relationships. He was kind to everyone around him and worked hard in school. One afternoon, Spencer came home from school distraught because he’d had to “move his stick.” He’d gone to school without a paper signed by Lee Ann and, in front of the class, his teacher reprimanded him and asked him to move his stick from green to yellow. Spencer felt as though he had failed and let his teacher down. He was embarrassed and affected by the event for days.

Fortunately, Spencer’s experience was a one-time event. But consider the inner voice of the student who is “on red” nearly every day. When we reprimand a student in front of their peers, we risk changing that student’s inner voice, shifting their identity to the “bad kid,” isolating the student from peers, and disrupting their relationship with their teachers. At worst, we risk making a student feel unloved. Imagine the devastating effects for a child who gets most of her or his love at school.

Instead of using charts, we could just as effectively reduce undesirable behaviors by dumping ice water on a student or inflicting corporal punishment. Did you furrow your brow at that thought? We would never do that! We would never use physical punishment on a student in an effort to shape behavior—or even wanta student to learn to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of physical harm. So why don’t we have the same visceral reaction to emotional punishment?

Consider who this practice harms the most. Not the student who has a handle on self-regulation and performs well in school. It’s the students who need us the most who we are hurting. Behavior charts are a way to excuse ourselves from the hard work of meeting a student’s self-regulation and behavior needs. The fact of the matter is, when we use behavior charts, we are sacrificing student dignity in favor of teacher convenience.

Alternative to Sticks, Clips, and Charts

Perhaps we’ve convinced you to stand up right now, run down the halls of the school, and tear down the behavior charts. But before you jump out of your chair, you might be asking, “What do we do instead? If I don’t have consequences in place, my classroom will be chaos.” As we advocate for avoiding punitive approaches within schools, we often hear rumblings that alternative disciplinary strategies are too soft and “touchy-feely.” Dominique has even heard restorative practices—that is, those based on reconciliation and understanding—referred to as the “hug a thug” approach.

Rest assured, we don’t recommend removing structures or accountability. We advocate for putting behavioral structures in place, just not punitive ones. We want students to be held accountable in more natural ways and to have a chance to learn the impact of their actions on others. We want them to build empathy, persistence, or whatever skills they need to behave appropriately—and for those positive behaviors to become internally driven.

There are effective, humane, growth-producing ways to teach students that their behaviors impact others. True, there may be a bit of an adjustment period when changing to a new system. But our students’ self-worth and long-term success are worth any temporary disruption we may encounter. To move away from the reactive approach of behavior charts, we recommend teachers put into place three proactive strategies.

1. “Take Ten” for Each Learner

Set aside 10 minutes each day to sit with one student (focusing on each of your students in turn). Talk about something non-school-related that’s of interest to that child. When educators build strong, caring relationships with their students, each student naturally wants to protect that relationship and avoid anything that might damage it. Students’ behaviors and approaches to learning in the classroom are then driven by relationships, not fear.

Teachers need to know as much as possible about what makes each student unique and special—her personal interests, what excites him, what delights her, what he fears. We need to understand much more than their academic strengths and needs; we need to know the whole child—who they truly are—and allow them to know our true selves, too.

Students should feel that teachers are on their side. Imagine how differently the opening anecdote might have turned out if Anisa’s teacher had built a strong relationship with her.

2. Keep It Off-Stage

Stop making discipline for poor behavior visible. Students tend to react negatively when they’re called out in front of others. Instead, when a student’s inappropriate behavior needs to be addressed, have a one-on-one conversation with the student, staying calm but firm. When possible, avoid publicly calling a student aside for this talk: Publicly—and perhaps angrily—telling a child to come talk with you can have the same humiliating effect as a behavior chart. Instead, after class invite that student to have a conversation with you or quietly ask them to talk with you at a time when other students are otherwise engaged.

Be calm and supportive in discussing the behavior. To maintain your relationship with the student, always conclude by ensuring the student understands that although you are unhappy with the behavior, you still care about them and are there to support them in their growth.

3. Hear Students Out

Before acting on any student behavior, try to understand why it happened. When a student needs a corrective conversation, first ask to hear his side of the story. Generally, students prefer to have a conversation with a teacher rather than having a teacher conversation happen to them.

There’s always a reason why students are acting as they do. Stop asking “What’s wrong with that student?” and start figuring out what happened to that student. This may mean asking questions that prompt the student to reflect on the behavior and its effects on others. Students often have a hard time knowing why they acted in a certain way. It’s only once their emotion has calmed—and through a guided analysis—that they can identify the reason.

Once a learner understands the underlying reason, we can guide him or her to consider alternatives for next time and discuss any consequence that needs to follow. Even students who are caught in a pattern of disruptive or harmful behaviors—perhaps especially those students—benefit from being heard. Certainly, there are times when we must intervene and stop a behavior, such as if it is causing harm or severe disruption. We may need to remove the student from the situation immediately to restore a calm, safe environment—and later teach that student the self-regulation skills needed to prevent such behavior in the future. The key is that the subsequent conversation should be private and should be about the behavior rather than the person.

Students Deserve Better

Imagine how much better things might have turned out if, in the opening scenario, instead of scolding Anisa, Mr. Hill had tried some of the techniques described here. He might’ve noted that Anisa was having difficulty remaining engaged in the reading and lesson and, after finishing the group read-aloud, approached her while everyone else was gathering their things and moving to stations for the next lesson. Imagine if he’d said, “Anisa, I saw you were having trouble staying with me today. I’m worried that if you aren’t paying attention to the lesson, you’ll miss something important to your learning. What was going on today?” Mr. Hill might have found out that Anisa was actually looking for a pencil to write down ideas that occurred to her as he read aloud. He might then have affirmed, “That seems to be happening a lot lately—trouble finding your pencil and other materials. Let’s find some time today to see if we can come up with an organization solution, OK?” With such a response, Mr. Hill would’ve acknowledged the need for a change in Anisa’s behavior, but not stigmatized Anisa as a “bad kid;” rather, he would have helped her develop a solution.

All students deserve this kind of supportive response. We are calling out the practice of behavior charts for what it really is: public shaming of children into compliance. We have many good strategies available for teaching self-regulation; humiliation isn’t one of them. Let’s stop “managing behaviors” and instead guide and support engagement, persistence, and positive interactions. Let’s build relationships that promote growth of the whole child—and the skills each student needs for a lifetime of positive interactions and success.

Now, go tear down some charts!

Authors’ note: All teacher and student names are pseudonyms.