The High Five Test

Vicki Gravlin is a local school district administrator who is responsible for “academic excellence and innovation.” She spoke to my business school undergraduate classes this week about the joys, challenges and every day realities of leading innovation and change in the highly diverse and complicated world of K-12 education.

In a common sense, often very funny and always inspirational style, she reminded us that an effective leader is “always on” and always engaged, especially when it’s the last thing they want to be. She challenged us to meet our people right where they are – at their school, in their office, in the classroom – to best understand what is going on, how they are feeling and what they need.

One of her proven methods for doing so is through the liberal application of the “High Five” test. It’s not complicated. She stands at the door of the classroom (or walks around her office environment) and as the students file past she gives them a high five. From this simple and brief act of physical contact she is able to gather a ton of information about both that individual and the state of the group overall.

A look away and a half-hearted effort probably means that the student is preoccupied or disengaged. A too aggressive slap of her hand lets her know there is something unresolved or unexpressed. She’s learned to pull a lot of data from these encounters but she doesn’t accept it all at face value. She connects and verifies with those around her through sincere questions and thoughtful listening to put the pieces together.

Vicki’s high five test is a reminder of the simple and potent power of connection. A small and sincere effort, in the classroom or the office, to even just momentarily connect with others kicks open the door of learning and awareness.

If you’re looking for evidence of thoughtful and committed leadership, the consistent pursuit of learning and awareness is about the best data you can get.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

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