I’m in Chicago this week attending the National Charter Schools Conference, and on the plane this morning I continued reading a book that was recommended to me last week by Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, called Tribal Leadership.
It’s a fascinating book to be reading as we prepare to start a completely new school. And as someone who has written previously about the prevalence of the wrong sort of business thinking in school reform, I’m struck by how poorly most of my field’s most visible leaders heed the authors’ advice.
To test this theory, check out the following quotations and post a comment to let me know if you think it sounds a lot like (or unlike) any of our current national figures in education:
- (Describing a hospital that had effectively remade itself) — “The leaders spent most of their efforts building strong relationships between the company’s employees, volunteers, and patients. Instead of telling people what to do, they engineered experiences in which staff members would look at the same issues they were dealing with, so that strategy became everyone’s problem. And they got out of the way and let people contribute in their own way to the emerging goals.”
- (Describing a dehumanizing organizational culture) — “Within this sort of culture, knowledge is power, so people hoard it. People at this stage have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors,’ wanting help and support and being continually disappointed that others don’t have their ambition or skill. Because they have to do the tough work (remembering that others just aren’t as savvy) , their complaint is that they don’t have enough time or competent support.”
- (Describing the late 19th/early 20th century origins of our public education system) — “The solution was to train a new generation of workers by teaching them inside a system that looked a lot like a factory. A star pupil is one who does the homework and has the right answers. This new system undid the classical liberal education, which said that the value was in the well-designed question, and this shift in focus made the worker exploitable. The system didn’t emphasize creative thinking, strategizing, leadership or innovation. Stars were smart conformists, and people who stuck to the pattern became model students . That approach also bred the “I’m great (and you’re not)” mentality, based on homework, grades, and knowing the right answer. It does not emphasize empowerment, creativity, or individual satisfaction.”
The main point of the authors — who, although they may sound like Linda Darling-Hammond or John Dewey, are actually career business consultants — is that the best leaders are those that “focus on two things, and only two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Words, because they shape how we view the world and our place in it; and relationships, because without a strong amount of trust, transparency, and mutual accountability, the best you can hope for is short-term (illusory) change.
I can understand why we must be mindful of tending to these insights as we grow our school from the ground up. What I can’t understand is why doing so puts us largely at odds with the most visible “reformers” of our day.