Tribal Leadership, Chicago & Organizational Culture

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:

  1. (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.”
  2. (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.”
  3. (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.

Categories: Leadership, Starting a School, Voice

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  1. Posted June 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Sam – that sounds like a good book. I’ll add it to my list. I’ve been looking at these issues off and on for several months, and consistently finding that there are plenty of business leaders and management experts outside of education who are saying almost the same things that get shot down when educators say them. Relationships matter. Trust matters. Accountability is NOT the equivalent of management being able to fire labor for sub-standard results. Bottom-line results and hard numbers do NOT tell an objective story about performance. For more on the topic, check out my blog posts, which cite a variety of business experts.
    Make Schools More Like Business? (Part 1)
    Make Schools More Like Business? (Part 2)

  2. Sam
    Posted June 28, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David — and amen. I’ll check out your blog now . . .

  3. Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Because I know you care so deeply about language, Sam, and because David mentioned a particular word in his post, I thought I’d add my two cents here on “accountability.”

    I have worked with someone who used the word a lot in his life and professional practice for many years. But about ten years ago, he dropped it entirely from his repertoire. He now speaks of “ownership” instead.

    As he explains it, the problem with the word “accountability” is that we end up using it as a euphemism for threat and punishment, as in the phrase “to hold one to account”. That’s not only unpleasant but it’s an “after the fact” approach to problem-solving that has little hope of solving much of anything at all. It also suggests that our challenges are all “out there” somewhere and that most of us are merely victims of circumstance. Accountability is something that one entity puts upon another. Ownership is internal; we can’t use it on others, only on ourselves.

    Being able to account for something suggests that there is value in explaining it. Sometimes there is, but more often than not, and especially when things go wrong, teasing out the “why” of the past yields surprisingly little leverage in the present, and provides almost no advantage in a future that is unlikely to unfold in a similar fashion.

    Perhaps worst of all is the fact that “accountability” inevitably involves assigning fault and blame when something goes wrong. These are useless concepts if what one wants to do is solve a problem. Of course, they’re perfect concepts if what one wants are levers for threat and punishment.

    Accountability pressures and constricts. It makes us nervous. It throws up a wall between the best of our nature and the true nature of the world around us. By contrast, ownership—of a thing, a project, a problem, a result—empowers, emboldens, and embodies a way of being in the world that is open, authentic, and maximally effective.

    Ownership works equally well in both the professional and personal realms, as well as the individual and the collective. We also have easy metaphors—like owning versus renting—to help us tease out any tricky issues that may arise. Unlike accountability, with its attendant dangers and complications, ownership is safe and effective.

    As a leader, I prefer owners in my tribe. As a follower, I don’t think being accountable makes me nearly as effective as taking ownership of my life, my work, my words, and my relationships.

    This little language problem would be just that—a little language problem—were it not for the specific and ubiquitous use of the term “accountability” in education. Many people use it but few seem to follow its implications all the way to the bitter end. Perhaps the reason it hasn’t worked so well is because no one took ownership of it.

    Thanks for all your great thoughts. Especially that one about the hydrangeas.


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