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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Challenge Of Leadership

Perhaps the most challenging part of being a new superintendent is the struggle to look, listen, learn, and adapt to the organizational culture while communicating a personal vision guiding the direction of the district. There are unwritten policies and practices intricately embedded (often hidden to anyone new to the system) within any organizational culture over the passage of time and through every change in leadership. The institutional history of a school district is usually more difficult to learn than the history of civilization – which is at least available in book form.

Similarly, school districts are generally stressed by the introduction of a new superintendent. Anxiety and fear produce a degree of insecurity and uncertainty. People may be threatened by the prospect of changes that might accompany the new leader. What worked before, and who was important before, might be impacted by changes, however subtle and innocent.

The transition can be viewed as a lengthy, rickety bridge over a deep and treacherous ravine one must cross. Successful assimilation requires a mutual adaptation in which both parties – leader and followers – learn from each other and form the cooperative synergy and reciprocal respect necessary for attainment of commonly shared goals.

This give and take process whereby people work toward developing relationships creates an orientation point for the system. It offers a focal point and an opportunity to identify roles. Leadership is a tremendous responsibility. The absence of leadership (or ineffective leadership) can undermine an entire organization.

Here’s an example of a group acting without a leader, meandering about aimlessly. The excerpt is from The Art of the Leader, by William Cohen.

The Processionary caterpillar is an insect that earned its name because of its unusual manner of movement. They crawl in single file lines, head to tail in large processions to feed on foliage. The leader seeks the mulberry leaf, the main food of this caterpillar. Wherever the leader goes the rest are sure to follow directly behind. French scientist Jean Henri Fabre conducted a study of their routine. He formed them into a circle around the rim of a plate, so there was now no leader and no follower. He placed one of their favorite foods, mulberry leaves, in the center of the plate. The scientist wanted to know how long they would maintain the circle with no leader and no objective. The caterpillars continued their circle until they were so weak that they couldn't reach the leaves even though their food was only inches away. They continued to go forward with no objective at all.

Leadership is also situational and dependent on circumstances. Leadership may be derived from a specific skill or experience that vaults someone into a key role. Effective leaders grow other leaders by creating learning opportunities that empower people. Here’s one such example extracted from Malcolm Gladwell’s book (one of my favorites) Blink. He is quoting Paul Van Riper, a commander involved in important war game simulations who shares a leadership strategy he calls – “In command, out of control.”

By that I mean that the overall guidance and intent were provided by me and the senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn’t depend on intricate orders coming from the top. They were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward.”

Staying with examples of leadership evolving from the armed forces, Chip and Dan Heath, co-authors of the book Made to Stick, explain a similar form of leadership called Commanders Intent.

It’s an Army planning process that specifies the plan’s goal, and the desired end-state of an operation. The commander never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. As soon as people understand what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions.”

I prefer to exercise the leadership strategies described in these last two examples. They both follow the maxim that power is the only thing that multiplies when it’s divided. That is, you recognize the benefit of enabling others through training and support. In this manner you enrich the organization by growing people capable of demonstrating initiative and creativity as they pursue stated goals. They can wield ingenuity and innovate solutions while accepting responsibility and operating under accountability. Out future at Heatly depends on accessing the potential of each individual and harnessing it in a common cause.

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