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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Checking Your Vision

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement. They advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

   “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” 
     Alan Kay (Hickman and Silva, p. 149) 

     It would be appropriate to begin with the concept of vision. It all starts with an imagined state of what could be and what should be. Only then can one develop clarity of purpose and direction in the form of a mission for an organization.   
     What is a vision? Why do people talk about vision? Where do you get a vision? How do you get a vision? Our forty-first president, George H. Bush, recognized, in retrospect, the importance of vision. His 1992 campaign trail was littered with political debris resulting from his slip of tongue exclamation; “I don’t get this vision thing.” (Waterman, p. 139) Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, the victor that election year, was adept at casting forth a vision that attracted the interests and guided the energies of the masses. Clinton lured followers along his election route by referring to a biblical message within the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Old Testament, Proverbs 29:18) 

Fishing for a Vision 
     The following story is from “Bert and I,” (Dodge and Bryan, 1981) a comical perspective of Down East Maine humor created by Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge. It serves as a cautionary example of how a school operates when it lacks a coherent and credible vision for members of its community. 
     It seems that Bert and his partner were out in their boat in quest for lobster. A dense fog rolled in and enveloped their craft. Their meager lobster business left them without the technology they needed to overcome such an ordeal. There was no fathometer to determine the depth of the water. They could not tell when they were approaching land. There was no radar to detect their surroundings. They were a floating navigational hazard amid the rocky coastline that guards Maine against the relentless battering of ocean waves. 
     Bert was worried about running aground and crashing into the jagged rocks that litter the shore. Fear directed him to the bow of the vessel. He staggered forward and stooped down, reaching into a sack of Maine potatoes that he had lugged up from down below. He peered vainly into the obscuring fog, reared back and heaved a potato straight into the thick blanket as far as he could. Then he leaned toward the direction of his throw, cupped his hands to his ears, and waited.  
     If he heard a splash he commanded his shipmate to maintain the course. If he didn’t hear a splash he quickly screamed “Right!” or “Left!” depending on his best guess. 
     Do you know a school with the same sense of direction, proceeding in a fog without anything to guide the efforts of the staff in an environment replete with unknown dangers? An entire staff relying on the arm strength of the school leader throwing directives out like Bert’s potatoes and anxiously awaiting orders to sharply veer left or right in philosophy and practice in an action resembling a knee jerk reflex! 
Leadership and Vision 
     Effective leadership requires the ability to orchestrate organizational adaptation within a fluid, ever changing environment. Social, political, financial, and technological changes seem to occur at a velocity that challenges previously held positions and policies. Modern organizations must be homeostatic and maintain their equilibrium in the face of constant change. Success often hinges on the leader’s agility in shepherding change at a manageable, evolutionary pace rather than allowing the organization to be victimized by an uncontrollable, revolutionary tempo.   
     John P. Kotter provides two points underscoring the significant relationship between vision and leadership. “Successful transformations are 70 to 90 percent leadership and only 10 to 30 percent management.” And, “A managerial mindset will develop plans, not vision.” (p. 58) This observation is similar to one suggested by Neil Snyder, “A committee has an agenda, a team has a vision.” (Snyder, p. 16) 
     Cultivating and communicating a vision that can align, direct, and inspire many people is central to successful leadership. Make sure that the members of the school community where you work are pursuing a common path toward a clearly illuminated vision instead of participating in a debilitating parade of the blind leading the blind. 
What is a Vision? 
     A vision is an imagined and desired state. It is timeless rather than finite and terminal. Like the stars that guided ancient mariners, perhaps we will never reach them but we can certainly plot our course by them. A vision is an ideal that is constantly modified to meet changes and improvements in what we know about excellence in the teaching and learning process. In their work “Creating Excellence” authors Hickman and Silva describe vision as “a journey from the known to the unknown, creating the future from a montage of facts, figures, hopes, dreams, dangers, and opportunities.”(p. 151) 
     Stanford neurophysiologist Karl Pribram uses the term “feedforward” to describe those images of success that trigger our actions and beliefs. (Rowan, p. 153) He reports that a strongly conceived mental image sparks the same neural connections in the autonomic nervous system as an actual experience. His research offers that the body can’t always distinguish between the two. 
Developing a Vision 
     In an effort to craft a vision the school leader should examine the institutional history of the school for important artifacts, heroes, and legends. These symbols can be assimilated into the fabric of the vision to create context and meaning. Assuming a variety of perspectives generates multiple possibilities for the school’s future. Scanning the internal and external environments for input provides added ingredients for the vision. 
     The vision should emerge naturally without force or thrust. It is not something to be done to people; rather it is experienced with people. Rinaldo S. Brutoco explained it in his foreword to The New Paradigm in Business when he referred to the work of Michelangelo. “When asked how he could so miraculously carve warm, emotion laden human forms from cold, lifeless marble, the sculptor responded that he never carved anything in marble. Rather, he revealed, his technique was to merely “chip away” the excess marble from the form already within the marble, so it could be freed. His task was to liberate the form from the marble, not to carve his abstract concepts into it.” (Ray and Rinzler, p. XI) 
     Developing a vision is similar to the task of an architect designing a blueprint for the school. The architect is capable of looking beyond an empty plot of land and envisioning a completed building of form and function. Instead of a visible, concrete structure the school leader is creating a conceptual framework, a blueprint for “social architecture”. (Tichy and Devanna, p. 186) 
     Years ago I was invited to apply for a principal’s position in a community far removed from where I lived. I was not at all familiar with the school or the area around it. I visited the community a couple of days prior to the interview and browsed around. I kept my eyes and ears open for clues of the community’s emotional and political milieu. It was a depressed community committed to reinventing itself by using its rich heritage that stretched back to the revolutionary era. Their optimism evoked a Phoenix rising from the ashes.  
     I spoke to realtors and waitresses, shopkeepers and passers-by, and listened intently and observed keenly. Out of these experiences I forged an attendant role for the school in this crusade. The school is, as in most small towns, the center of the community, and an alliance would be important for the overall effort. During the interview I inserted my belief that the school must be able to envision a brighter future, and commit to it if the area expected to resuscitate itself. I was hired and became a willing participant in reshaping the community.

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