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Friday, February 4, 2011

Transformation Information

There is no shortage of criticism regarding the performance of public schools in America. In fact, since nearly everyone who offers disparaging remarks on the status of education has likely attended public schools for thirteen years, they often consider that their lengthy experience legitimately qualifies them as experts. There are few, if any, other professions that are so vulnerable to condemnation. I would certainly not feel justified in questioning any particular techniques of a surgeon, or the designs of an architect, or the strategies of a lawyer. But, I'll stick to what I know and continue to provide my perceptions of public schools - from the inside.

I don't believe we will improve education if educators feel it is their right and privilege to ply their trade with impunity. Nor is anything gained by defensively recoiling to comments viewed as cynical and then discounting these ideas as potential leverage points for improvement. What I'm about to suggest may appear as heresy, coming from someone who has served as a school leader for over three decades. I believe that one of the problems with public schools is a matter of leadership.

I will use one of my favorite books as a platform for this contention - Leaders, by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. The authors suggest that the trouble with many organizations (I'll substitute the word schools) is that they tend to be over managed and underled. The people who fill formal positions of influence in schools may prioritize and revel in the ability to manage the daily routine, yet never question whether the practice should actually be performed. To manage means to "bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct." Leading is "influencing, guiding in direction, course, action, and opinion." The divide is crucial and cited in the subtitle of this book -  Managers do things right; Leaders do the right things. The difference in perceptions reflect a significant distinction in values and judgement. Managers are inclined to focus on efficiency while leaders are oriented toward effectiveness. While both effectiveness and efficiency are necessary for success, we must first establish what we need to do before worrying about how we need to do it. It's an issue of priority. A predilection for managing promotes compliance instead of commitment, favors conformity over creativity, and allows uniformity to triumph synergy. We cannot manage our way out of a crisis. We don't need committees as much as we need leadership. It's not an agenda we need but a credible and enduring vision. Mandates and commands will not facilitate success as much as menus and choices.

Progress is not advanced by simply perpetuating what has always been done. Certainly not at a time of exponential change in virtually every area of our society outside the walls of the school and beyond the gates of the schoolyard. Public schools have long operated under scrutiny but the ongoing economic crisis has exacerbated the pressure, resembling nothing short of a form of slow strangulation.  

I cannot hope to express this as eloquently as Bennis and Nanus so I will quote them instead. Their words clearly apply to Heatly and perhaps every school. The advice warrants attention. Each school should regularly conduct an audit of their "health" with reference to external conditions - i.e. political, social, financial, and technological changes and their resulting impact.

"The challenge of leadership is in redefining tradition in terms of reality. Unlearning requires the discarding of old knowledge when actions by the organization clash with changed reality in the external environment. Leaders stimulate learning by serving as role models. Some organizations are learning handicapped. They just seem to be so rigid and inflexible that nothing less than a major crisis can change them." (my suggestion = imagine this economic crisis as an opportunity in disguise - one that offers prospect of creating alternative solutions) "Leaders can provide the setting for innovative learning by designing open organizations in which participation and anticipation work together to expand time horizons for decision makers, broaden their perspectives, allow for the sharing of assumptions and values, and facilitate the development and use of new approaches. The organization can develop a sense of its purpose, direction, and desired future state."

My goal at Heatly is to engender what leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described as Transformative Leadership. I am striving to produce and sustain the conditions for followers to elevate themselves and reach their potential through envisioning their future, feeling empowering, and being enabled. It's often a messy and unpredictable process - much more like sketching free-hand on a blank page as opposed to coloring in the outlines of figures in a coloring book. But, I believe it's a more rewarding and sustaining experience whereby followers emerge as situational leaders and influence is distributed throughout the school system.
Ron Tichy describes the characteristics of Transformational Leaders in his book of that title:
1. They identify themselves as change agents.
2. They are courageous individuals.
3. They believe in people.
4. They are value driven.
5. They are life long learners.
6. They have the ability to deal with complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
7, They are visionaries.

John Kotter outlines eight steps to transforming an organization:
1)  Establish a sense of urgency
2)  Form a powerful guiding coalition
3)  Create a vision
4)  Communicate the vision
5)  Empower others to act on the vision
6)  Plan for and create short-term wins
7)  Consolidate improvements and produce still more change
8)  Institutionalize new approaches

I've supplied these specific contributions on transformative leadership from a small collection of resources among influential authors as a map for the staff and parents of The Heatly School so they will understand what I'm trying to do and where I'm trying to go.
I hope you'll join me on the journey.

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