Not enough school administrators are visionaries?

A recent article from The Economist, The Cult of the Faceless Boss, caught my attention. Here’s an excerpt:

In general, the corporate world needs its flamboyant visionaries and raging egomaniacs rather more than its humble leaders and corporate civil servants. Think of the people who have shaped the modern business landscape, and “faceless” and “humble” are not the first words that come to mind.

Be bold, not bland

Henry Ford was as close as you can get to being deranged without losing your liberty. John Patterson, the founder of National Cash Register and one of the greatest businessmen of the gilded age, once notified an employee that he was being sacked by setting fire to his desk. Thomas Watson, one of Patterson’s protégés and the founder of IBM, turned his company into a cult and himself into the object of collective worship. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are both tightly wound empire-builders. Jack Welch and Lou Gerstner are anything but self-effacing. These are people who have created the future, rather than merely managing change, through the force of their personalities and the strength of their visions. George Bernard Shaw’s adage about progress depending on “the unreasonable man” applies just as much to business as to every other area of life, if not more.

The previous outbreak of the cult of facelessness was in the 1950s, when books such as “The Organisation Man” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” topped the bestseller list, and when two of America’s biggest firms, General Motors and General Electric, were both run by men named Charles Wilson. Today’s world is as different as possible from the one that produced organisation man: an unusual degree of turbulence requires unusual bosses, rather than steady-as-she-goes functionaries.

I wonder if this is the issue with P-12 school leadership. Are most of our school administrators just ‘steady-as-she-goes functionaries?’ Are they too bland, concerned more with not rocking the boat than they are with facilitating meaningful organizational change? Do we have too many managers and not enough visionaries? If so, is it possible to foster more visionary leaders within our current P-12 organizational and higher education preparation systems or is there no hope unless our systems change? Thoughts?

18 Responses to “Not enough school administrators are visionaries?”

  1. As a guy that would like to place himself in the visionary camp there is a real difference with the above examples. Henry Ford didn’t have consumers that thought they knew how a car should be built. If these men’s visionary ideas failed a company suffered or even went out of business versus a set of young children having a lesser developmental experience. These folks also didn’t have a system based on and steeped in traditions of adult work and privilege. P-12 organizations do need many more visionaries. There is also a great need for policy and cultural freedoms for these men and women to operate. A visionary without the space to operate and flourish is dragged into the submission of the status quo. Somehow this space to operate must be created and fostered.

  2. They system needs to change. In particular, the high school principals I know, and have known, struggle just to “keep their heads above water.” A better system needs to be developed to allow principals to spend more time in their buildings, in the halls, and to allow them to work with teachers to plan and implement effective teaching and learning strategies. In 34 years in the classroom, I have worked with nine different principals, with none lasting longer than six years. What is wrong with this picture?!

  3. Melanie Hutchinson Reply November 26, 2009 at 8:36 am

    I find the visionaries ( and count myself in this group) in the middle level of admin- with the managers above. while some of their caution is warranted, so much is not. as Tom says above ‘keeping their heads above water’ and just doing all the little ‘managing’ jobs (many that could be given away) prevent them from dreaming… or perhaps are excuses not to dream.

  4. I think it’s fundamentally the system, as well. With the focus on high stakes testing, the main goal for most schools is to stay off the “schmidt” list. For *really* high performing schools, there is a bit more leeway for innovation–for example my district has an Academy of International Studies, and neighboring New Trier has an Integrated Global Studies School, but the basic framework really forces leadership to strive for mediocrity in the form of getting the most kids to pass the key exams.

  5. Give Ford cheerleaders and a basketball team. Then have to deal with the parents don’t like the uniforms and the board member whose nephew who was cut from the team. Give Gates employees with tenure and base his companies worth on whether or not all his operating systems meet or exceed some function by an arbitrary percentage on one day out of the year. I think some of us do very well to be visionaries. I like the point that was made above. Very few of us are experts on computer operating systems or car assembly lines, but we have all been to high school therefore we know how to run one. It reminds me of my ed classes as an undergrad. Most of them were taught by folks who had never been in the classroom. All theory with no clue about how students really reacted in a classroom and did not know anything about school climate! I am a SMARTBoard certified trainer, I have written grants that have bought lots of dollars for tech. My blog has been published in a book (I know a blog in a book?) and I will present and the Illinois Computing in Education conference this coming Spring. It takes a lot of hard work and the right group of people to be able to have a climate where “vision” can be cultivated. I am sure some would tell you that I lack vision because my vision does not match theirs.

  6. One very important thing to note. It did not matter what Ford’s board thought, he had the power to do it anyway. Boards of Education can kill the vision as quick as anything. You can be as flamboyant as you desire, it is still up to them.

  7. I agree most with Dave’s comments. Corporate America doesn’t operate under the same conditions as our educational system. Let’s not forget another huge difference: in education our “products” are not objects. Our “products” are flesh and blood human beings who bring their own set of circumstances (parents, community, socio-economic setting, prior level of education, etc…) to the table.

    As far as I know computers, cars, cash registers, and refigerators don’t push back on being created and molded.

    That’s not a cop out–it’s reality. When you have people in the business of shaping and molding people you are going to have more dynamic forces at play. Children are different stages of readiness to learn.

    I firmly believe to be an effective educator you need to be a good person first. I denitely subsribe to the addage: “People (students) don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

    People first.

  8. I am aspiring to move into a position where I could be a visionary leader in a High School, since I believe it is in High School where students learn to be independent and work through issues on their own. I was a Tech Coordinator at a high school and for the entire district and had road block after road block thrown in my way when I tried to innovate. I was one of the first GCT’s (Google Certified Teachers) and I was able to do some things working within the system, but it was tough sledding and the rate of change was glacial in speed. This became my motivation to move into Administration.

    I am in my second year as a High School Administrator, after spending 20 years in the classroom and I am making a bit more change than I was able to do when I was the Tech Coordinator: 1:1 initiatives, campus-wide wireless connections, Google Apps for the entire school and increased bandwidth for the school site. These changes will definitely change the way kids will be “doing school.” I also know that I won’t be able to transform the entire system until I am the Principal of the school. This is what I aspire to and I hope that I will be able to do so in the next few years.

    When that happens… watch out!

    Happy Thanksgiving All.

  9. Hold on, we all are wanting to be in the visionary camp and yet are identifying reasons that limit administrators to take those chances. Upon the lead of a neighboring district, our entire staff read Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. The book refers to taking risks to do things differently and not worrying about the bubble sheet scores. If students are engaged, they will do fine on tests. Many good points are brought out above, but I don’t think that should be a reason to not build consensus and push forward. I work with a great visionary board, their job is to finalize programs that I bring to them or better yet, that WE build together. As any administrator is aware, the approval of a program is the easy part; it is all the background work and discussion that takes place that is the real work.

    Also working in corporate america early in my career, I don’t think it is fair that because Henry Ford had power, that there were never challenges. He might point to “you are state funded” as apposed to “when I wanted to expand I had to raise money” Walt Disney was fired from an early job….reason? He was not creative. Colonel Saunders was turned by well over 100 lenders before getting someone to back him. They also probably had a board member or 2 who they wished would “get it” and support things.

    While these people seem to have it made by calling all the shots, they had challenges just like we all face challenges in education. I think the bottom line to being a visionary leader is to have a balance between building vision with your board and community, empowering your principals to “take risks” and supporting those things. Great discussion item but with technology changing things so fast in the world, it will take risk taking and perseverance to lead in this global economy. Go for, kids will not be hurt if you intentions are based on the consensus.

  10. Too many administrators have stopped thinking about students and teachers. All they see are test scores, drop out rates and attendance percentages. In other words all they see is NCLB.

    The money behind NCLB, especially at Title I schools outweighs everything else. Principals who don’t meet the NCLB metrics are fired or reassigned to asst. community relations or some such useless position.

    Teaching, learning and any other beneficial thing is relegated to last place behind meeting the NCLB standards. So there is no room, time or money left to be bold.

  11. First, congratulations to Scott for a post that has heart and has clearly fired up a few emotions – some of the best responses I’ve read for a while. Mostly I do agree, by the way, that our challenges are different. Again, not a reason to quit or shy away from the challenge, but we do need to look at what our obstacles are when leading.

    Secondly we need to look to the heart of what Scott intended (at least my interpretation) as these were pioneers in the field. They didn’t remodel something or tweak it generally, they forged into something new. Several of the inferences above noted that concept and DI has covered the thought before too. Some of the challenge seems to be the “what can keep your job vs. what can make a difference” battle that has to have some level of support out there. Being innovative may mean that you are ahead of your “bosses” and may see the same result as noted above with a young and “uncreative” Walt Disney. Changing some of what we do isn’t really innovation – starting over is.

  12. Politically governed bureaucracies don’t reward strong approaches. It’s not just NCLB. There’s no real analog to business, where you can develop a new product or service, raise the money for it, figure out the marketing and then, if it works–with “works” defined as lots of people of their own free will choosing to purchase it with their own dollars.

    In education, lots of different groups have the power to kill things: unions, factions in the community, board members who run in opposition to school leaders, legislative committees. Nobody has power to pull untangle the knot of organizations who have a stake in the status quo.

    Freedom works.

  13. Today’s principal needs to be innovative, instructionally-driven, student-focused, respected by colleagues, and above all, reflective about his/her work as a leader.

    The term “lifelong learner” is as important as any other leadership trait and the administrator must be willing to roll up the sleeves and work on the daily struggles of the building (staff issues, student issues, parent issues, building issues, accountability issues, you get the idea!….) while also finding time to be reflective (learn a new language, publish, present at conferences, learn/shadow/PLC with a peer/ fellow-principal, and push him/her-self to constantly grow.

    The building leader must also be a forceful advocate for his/her school or organization. Thriving as a learning leader in an increasingly “flat” world is not for the faint of heart, but it can be incredibly rewarding and insightful. A few shameless plugs for my previous thoughts on this subject from Principal and Ed Leadership:
    Reflection in this role: http://www.naesp.org/resources/1/Principal/2008/M-Jp64.pdf

    Working in a colleague “PLC”: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct09/vol67/num02/The_Power_of_Two.aspx

  14. No thanks to the flamboyant, charismatic leader. If you read the Economist article comments, they are heavily leaning in opposition to Schumpeter’s conclusions about the benefits of the flamboyant visionary. Having read Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, I would much rather start the foundation for strong leadership with integrity and humility and see where that gets us. This is the same conclusion that Jim Collins came to in Good to Great. Schools need competent, forward thinking leaders who invest in the professionalism of their colleagues for student gains. The ends do not justify the means.

  15. @Scott
    Selling anyone on change is a difficult task. Many are heavily invested in the current system and find it comfortable. Those who see the merits of the change can only see them as “potential” benefits. But alas leadership means bringing meaningful change. In grad school it was argued very frequently that you could have a bad school with a good principal but never a good school with a bad principal. The idea was the good principal would help the bad school become better. If you put together a list of the most progressive high performing high schools in the country what would be the common factor? If it is leadership then by all means lets put our energy and efforts into quality school leadership programs and compensate these people well for what they do.

  16. Ok, now I understand it…after reading again the post and responses above (sarcasm warning) it makes sense why so many people are clamoring to be in administration.
    Not only do they need to be “innovative, instructionally-driven, student-focused, respected by colleagues, and above all, reflective,” and “must be willing to roll up the sleeves and work on the daily struggles of the building (staff issues, student issues, parent issues, building issues, accountability issues, you get the idea!….) while also finding time to be reflective (learn a new language, publish, present at conferences, learn/shadow/PLC with a peer/ fellow-principal, and push him/her-self to constantly grow,” according to billsterrett.
    These people also see the needs that Tom identifies, in order to “”keep their heads above water.” A better system needs to be developed to allow principals to spend more time in their buildings, in the halls, and to allow them to work with teachers to plan and implement effective teaching and learning strategies.” With some of the ideas noted solely in this posting, we have also identified that there is a desire for strong leadership to step up and take risks (and obviously the slings and arrows that accompany that concept) while realizing that, “Politically governed bureaucracies don’t reward strong approaches,” according to Michael Umphrey.
    Ok, so we have clearly identified that there is a need for some backbone and confidence and an ability to stand on an island with some level of confidence while critics throw stones.
    Yet let’s not be flamboyant or charismatic (according to Dan Winters’ “no thanks”) in our efforts to be forward thinking and support professionalism. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can do this without being charismatic (unless we simply dismiss Bob Sutton’s No Asshole Rule) – and if they can, then I’ll ABSOLUTELY live with flamboyant.
    So…all of you aspiring administrators, please come on in…the water’s fine.

  17. This very nice “talk” about students being a different kind of product from a Ford is hiding a nasty truth about American public school education that not many people get to see. At certain levels of administration, the student IS a Ford and they are discussed like Fords and organized like Fords and tested like Fords and treated in every way like Fords.

    This “line” reminds me of the nice talk we get from the publishing industry and media that insist some separation of editorial from advertising exists. What a lot of bunk.

    Same thing as the fictional “separation of church and state.” Why do we actually believe people when they say this stuff?

  18. In regard to M Campbell… I agree in education students are often considered a Ford.
    The goal should be, as and educational administrator, to be perhaps ‘THe Great Communicator’. Just another attribute to aspire to. With charismatic leaders (which I agree with Marshal that it is difficult to be an administrator that is not charismatic) and perhaps flamboyant communication, administrators may turn the public,teachers,and politicians from thinking of students as Fords and rather ‘The Future’. The vision is how to pull this all together and that is what educational leadership is about.

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