Leadership Principles and Style Part II: Leadership Principles

Now, leadership principles. I am endeavoring to lead like Kuei-shan. I am endeavoring to leave the work of learning to “my students”, the rising leaders of ICS. And I am trying to transmit my way of teaching, my way of embodying Kuei-shan. Right now, I can sum it up in four Principles.

First Principle: It is the leader’s job to ask questions, to bring problems to the team. I say, “We need to get student test scores up,” although I might ask, “How are we going to get test scores up?” I say, “The State is telling us we need to get test scores up in order to get a charter renewal.” I think the statement, the demand, adds urgency to the discussion which ensues which might be lacking if I only question. It is still a question. “How are we going to do it?” As answers arise, I ask further questions: “What makes you think that will work?” What evidence do you have? “If we do that, how will it impact other aspects of our schools?” Is it consistent with our core values? Is it consistent with our mission? 

“Where will the resources come from?” That’s another important question. Charter schools must succeed as businesses as well as educational organizations. 

I am providing the question, often in the form of the statement, and I am often providing the parameters of choice within which a solution must occur. Some of these can be easy to forget in the heat of a challenging problem-solving task: the limits imposed by State charter schools, other federal, state, and city regulations, our school charter, our mission, our values.

“It could be a great motivator if we could take our 9th graders to Europe,” is suggested.

Everyone agrees.

I ask, “How are we going to pay for it?”

“We will ask the parents to pay the travel costs for their students.”

“What about the kids whose parents can’t afford to pay?” About 80% of our students meet federal poverty guidelines for free or reduced-priced meals.

“It would still be a great motivator for the kids who could go.”

“No,” I say, “that’s not who we are. We are all about diversity and integration.”

Sometimes I wish I was more Socratic. Couldn’t I ask instead, “How does that plan fit with our values?”

I am way too impatient. We still have a problem with raising test scores. We still have to find a solution. My job, as I see leadership, is to keep us focused on the problem. And sometimes to deconstruct the problem. Are we sure we are asking the right question?

We inherited a middle school design paradigm which can be fairly described as early high school. Let’s be clear. American education has been struggling with the challenge of reinventing high school for many years now, although only with limited success. The middle school design, the early high school model which we inherited, was the model of the high school that existed before high school reform began. We need to keep checking: Are we asking the right questions? I bring my training and experience to the table: social work, psychotherapy, sociology, even Zen. Very different than the frames of reference of colleagues trained in teacher education programs. The development challenges of middle school students are very different than typical high school students. And developmentally, middle school students are an extremely diverse group. Perhaps most importantly for their learning, puberty and the growth spurt in the prefrontal cortex are not happening concurrently on a calendar clock. (And of course, even that is mythic. In our inherited model, we imagine all kids start school at the same age. But school starts are rigidly defined: a particular age by a particular date. As a result, the students in each grade band can be almost a year apart in age. That makes a big difference developmentally.)

Second Principle: Within the parameters of possible solutions, the possibilities are infinite. We can never think of them all. But let’s get alternatives out on the table. Let’s not grab the first idea and run with that. Let’s get as many ideas on the table before we start critiquing. 

The range of possible solutions is infinite. We can never think of them all. We can try to make sure all the “crazy” ideas are on the table before the critiquing starts. I will participate in the discussion of alternatives as my time permits. As the critiquing goes on, new possibilities arise and are added to the list of possibilities. I will ask questions, often in the form of challenging statements. I do not demand, I do not even want you to agree with my opinions. They are questions. During this deliberation stage, I want you to address my arguments, to engage with them. Within the parameters of the possible, you can make choices but you need to be able to defend them coherently. 

For me, this is a key element of professionalism. I discovered this principle in social work school. Well, I learned it in social work school or at least shortly thereafter when I began work on my Ph.D. in sociology at NYU. The department at that time was heavily into the Sociology of Professions which was a wonderful fit for me. I was able to use my experience in social work training and my beginning professional practice as a readily available source of data on which to reflect on concepts of professionalism. By my second year, working in a hospital, I had even richer sources of personal experience to draw on. What distinguished professional social work practice from good, intuitive helping was the professional’s ability to provide a rationale for practice which were supported by research or at least professional consensus. Legitimate professional opinions are established through publication in juried journals. I am looking for our decision-makers to provide coherent rationales for their decisions, logical arguments, supported by data and research.

Third Principle: Even within the parameters provided, I will still say “no” if and when the answer emerging poses, in my opinion, a grave danger to ICS as an organization or to the decision-maker as an individual. I will not let you throw your career away on my watch. Find a safer way to test your theory. This may sound paternalistic, it probably is, but that is the seat that I am sitting in, that is my responsibility as president. I am not going to say later, “I thought that this might be a dangerous decision, but other people wanted to do it so I went along.” It is my job, my responsibility not to go along with decisions that I think present serious dangers. 

That doesn’t mean I’m right but it is my job to trust my gut. It is also my job to recognize that sometimes we are faced with decisions in areas in which I have very little experience. These are situations in which I do not put too much faith in my “gut”. But then I do have to decide whose “gut” to trust. I can look at the decision-making records of our team members to the extent that we have collected them or can remember them. I can look at their experience. How many times have they dealt with the sorts of questions which we are confronting? But at the end of the day, it is often my “gut” that tells me whose “gut” to trust.

This comes up all the time around personnel decisions, — hiring, promotion, sometimes termination, — opinions differ. Whose opinion will weigh most heavily? I wish we had Google’s data from thousands of hiring decisions. We don’t. There is an inclination to pseudoscience to the rigid use of rubrics to make personnel decisions. These are at least as faulty as civil service examinations. They produce a pseudo rationale. We need to go with our guts, and we need to be honest about this.

One of our teachers steps up into a real leadership role for the first time. She is doing well when, a few months into her new assignment, she resigns. Family needs are taking her elsewhere. She is conflicted, distressed. She has suggestions on who on her team should replace her. Because she has little experience and has no track record in making this kind of personnel decision, I put little weight on her opinion.

There are decisions where we do end up going with my gut. I admit it. It doesn’t make me the smartest person in the room or the wisest. It just means that it is my job for better or for worse to decide whose opinion in a very difficult situation will be relied on.

Fourth Principle: We are all going to make mistakes; things will not turn out the way we expected. We absolutely must learn from our mistakes, from our short fallings. I demand this of myself and I demand it of all leaders who report to me. This is integrity.

Some people are afraid to admit mistakes; they look for others to blame. I want no blame games. This is a growth game. What did we learn? What did you learn? Learners get promoted. Blamers leave. At least, that’s my goal.

We learn more when we make mistakes than when we get it right.

I do not demand, “I’ll never make that mistake again.” Some things are hard to learn. Riding the bike or playing the piano, it takes many mistakes to achieve mastery. Trying repeatedly, trying again, learning some more. This is grit.

And sometimes things don’t work out and we didn’t make a mistake. Sometimes we make the best decision, that it would have been a mistake to have tried anything else. Sometimes we take our best shot and it still doesn’t work. For me, this is a Zen fundamental. We do not control the outcomes. This is very hard for some. It was for a long time for me. 

Working on the dissertation, I would try to bargain with my advisor, Irwin Goffman, “If I do this and that in this chapter, will that be ok?”

Irv would answer, “Write it and we’ll see.”

That always irked me. I wanted the assurance before I made the effort. I have learned in my Zen practice to make the effort with a full appreciation of the possibility of failure. It seems simple now. Sometimes, despite our intentions, our efforts are simply not aligned with the universe. Maybe this is simply not the right time. Maybe this is simply not the right place. Maybe I am simply not the right person.

Am I channeling Kuei-shan? I try, and I fall short. Am I being too grandmotherly or like Roshi Bernie am I growing impatient with the learning process, do I grab the assignment back and do it myself. Do I get impatient with Hsiang-yen? He’s been sweeping for years. When will he ever get it? Looking back now, it seems that Bernie was being very patient with me.