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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Use Your Head!

Among the hundreds of books I have collected on leadership and business is a volume that is frequently dog-eared, with several post-it notes protruding from the pages, and enough yellow streaks through the text to fill two highlighters. The book is The Renewal Factor, by Robert Waterman. I have extracted a great many ideas for school leadership from the wisdom shared by Waterman.

As our school confronts yet another threat of painful, debilitating reductions that could include personnel and programs, I am reminded of a story that Waterman related about the time (mid 1980's)when H. Ross Perot was involved in leadership at the automotive giant General Motors. Perot had sold his company. Electronic Data Systems to GM and retained a leadership role with the expanded GM empire.

"A GM executive says that when H. Ross Perot saw something that needed doing inside GM and told a GM manager to do it, the man replied 'it's not part of my job description.' "
Perot responded, "You need a job description? I'll give you one, use your head!"
The bemused GM executive said. "Can you imagine what chaos we'd have here if everybody did that?'

Our district was recently surprised to discover that the local power authority, a hydroelectric plant, had lost 75% of its revenue and was unable to contribute an annual contribution they provided the district in lieu of taxes. The amount represents 5% of our overall budget, or 10% of our local revenues. The loss of funds likely places us in a precarious position in which we either have to exercise significant cuts or seek voter approval of a large increase in taxes, or a combination of the two possibilities - all at a time of economic stress. None of the options are entertaining.

Our response will be crafted in short order after a public forum next week to inform the community of our dilemma and to obtain insight into the reaction of the community members and their level of support. Following that, there will be several board of education meetings to examine our options and plot a strategy designed to balance our mission and our money - the needs of our learners and the capacity of our community to invest in the process of converting today's learners into tomorrow's leaders.

Until then, and after the issue is resolved, we need the entire staff to roll up their sleeves and use their heads as we seek opportunities to maintain our direction and adapt to the potential losses. Despite the fears expressed by the GM excutive who worried about the ensuing chaos if everyone used their heads, the prospect of chaos that could result from a school district unprepared to contend with the economic realities is a far greater source of fear. 

These are not normal times. In fact, the perception of normal has changed drastically in the last few years. As the saying goes, "you can't use yesterday's solutions to solve tomorrow's problems." Job descriptions won't matter, neither will roles. Collaboration, accommodation, creativity and resolve are needed. We have to look around corners and over horizons. We must abandon what got us here and set out on a voyage of discovery and convert the risk into an opportunity. An opportunity to exploit the urgency as a means of transforming what we do and how we do it. What better time to restructure than a time when the structure is challenged?

We have to be mindful of the pledge each of us must follow by periodically asking ourselves the following questions as we pursue our responsibilities to promote dreams, sustain hope and push the district to its potential. We can use our answers to the questions as a guide to future endeavors.

1. Is our school district a system you would want your son and daughter to attend?
2. Is our school district a system you would want to attend if you were between 5 and 18 years old?
3. Is our school district an environment where you are comfortable spending half of your waking
4. Is our school district an organization in which you would invest your tax dollars?

I'm not sure how this will all turn out, and I'm a little anxious as well, but I know that its times like these when leadership matters most. This is why I became a superintendent - to make a difference.

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