One of the biggest hurdles I see in education reform is that of handcuffed leadership. When managers, administrators, and teachers are overly restricted, creativity is squashed and the monster of apathy begins to grow. When an organization promotes a talented, zealous, competent employee to a leadership position, they must ensure that she is given enough freedom to actually take advantage of her talents. Far too often in education, the trend is to inadvertently stymie legitimate potential for improvement through restrictive legislation, overly litigated collective bargaining agreements, fear of punishment, excessive red tape, and/or disproportionate workloads.
The challenge is for leaders to break the apathy cycle. When a leader is told “no” too often, inevitably she becomes disillusioned with the system and starts to find excuses rather than solutions. As excuses pile up, the leader’s staff eventually figures out how to play the game and quality lessons begin to dwindle. Over time, a sense of “why even bother” sweeps across the organization and the apathy monster rears its head.
In the Apathy Cycle, excessive handcuffing eventually leads to frustration. Frustration gives way to excuse making and eventually, leaders find themselves merely trying to survive. Once they embrace mere survival as acceptable, they begin to live inside of apathy. Apathy inevitably produces reductions in performance that ultimately results in excessive legislation in a disconnected attempt to solve the problem. The additional legislation acts a new set of handcuffs, and the cycle resets.
Perhaps more disturbing than this vicious cycle, is the tendency for leaders to begin to protect their job by using their creative genius to generate ways to celebrate false achievements. In my opinion, this is one of the primary dangers of data driven reform. Research and data based decision making is certainly critical to organizational success, but it is imperative that leaders not hide behind inaccurate or misleading data. Educational leaders must use data as a compass for reform, but they must ensure the compass is true. It must be accurate. When leaders begin to fear for their job, it is far too easy to tout mediocrity as excellence. Once that happens, the organization is placed on a slippery slope. Following a leader’s embrace of mediocrity, it does not take long for their example to permeate the entire organization. Soon, teachers, students, parents, and surprisingly, even the media begin to celebrate trivialized achievements.
Instead of hiding behind contrived achievements, as a leader feels the pulse of their organization start to negatively shift, it is critical that she collaborate with trusted colleagues to take an honest assessment of the root of the problem. Once the problem’s cause is identified, the leader must work to develop a solution to overcome the obstacle. This can always be done, but it might require creative, out-of-box strategies. Leaders must focus on what they can influence. If a principal cannot change a particular legislative mandate, she must work to address the issues in a different way while continuing to adhere to the requirements. If there is pressure from her district or state level leadership, she must collaborate with peers to find creative loopholes that address the problem without undermining her superiors. Excellent school leaders do this well. Mediocre leaders see these setbacks as walls that cannot be overcome.
When leaders demonstrate ingenuity in problem solving, their staff follows suit. Rather than gossiping in the lounge, teachers begin focusing on finding ways to help a challenging student. Instead of leaving frustrated, they leave every day with a sense of expectancy, excited about how they will get to help their students progress. Great leaders understand that creative problem solving is not only vital to overcoming external and internal obstacles, but they understand that demonstrating creative problem solving also empowers their staff. When faculty members see a leader taking risks and creatively addressing issues in their school, they are quietly spurred to do the same in the microcosm of their classroom. Modeling creative problem solving may be the single most inspirational action a leader can take. Leaders must deliberately work to ensure they do not allow the shackles of the profession to breed apathy within their organization. Once in place, apathy is an organizational disease that spreads quickly and can ultimately result in its demise.
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