The broom. No matter how hard I try to see the whole picture, I keep fixating on the broom. A symbol: clean sweep. A threat: don’t mess. A blunt force: deadwood, begone.
(Channeling: Margaret Hamilton? Women leaders need to be careful about their props.)
Medium = message. TIME cover = serious celebrity.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee made the cover of TIME Magazine this week, the latest in a series of national media appearances that are ratcheting-up the stakes for tangible outcomes in her leadership of our troubled local schools. Kudos for her! There’s much to admire in this story. But, also, cause for concern.
As I looked at the Chancellor’s stern glare and that broom, and then read the article replete with references to her tough, uncompromising style, I remembered another story.
I was also 36 years old when I snagged this great leadership job with some huge institutional challenges, and, like Chancellor Rhee, I had not a shred of executive experience when I took office at Trinity in 1989. Like her, I was pretty brash. But a friend took me down a peg when she asked me what Trinity’s board was thinking when they asked me to become Trinity’s president — “You don’t know anything about running a college,” my erstwhile friend practically sneered at me, “how could they possibly have chosen you with no executive experience?”
“Well,” I replied, acknowledging the truth in what she was saying, “the good thing is that I don’t know what to be afraid of.”
Now I know that fearlessness is necessary for leading institutional change, a task that requires risk-taking, experimentation with new forms of organization, challenging the conventional wisdom about policies, personnel and programs. I admire Michelle Rhee for her fearlessness; I know it’s a necessary trait to make the changes that must be made in our schools.
Along the way of these last many years, I’ve also had to learn how to sort out fearlessness from recklessness, and tough-mindedness from obtuseness. On many days I’m quite sure that my polls are still running no better than 50-50 on whether I learned the balance. Not caring about the opinion polls is another necessary part of leading institutional transformation. But not caring about opinion polls is not the same as not caring about people — effective leadership requires very careful stewardship of our precious human capital. Even when the people might not form the team we really wanted to coach — Mets, not Yankees. Oh, well, we work with the gifts and talents available; the transformational leader’s job is not to bemoan the team, but to teach everyone how to succeed in their respective roles.
Which gets me back to Michelle Rhee and her broom. Transformation cannot occur in empty rooms. It’s one thing to do the clean sweep; it’s quite another to build an entirely new model for teaching and learning in the city. The truly hard work of transforming our local public schools has hardly begun. Chancellor Rhee’s job only gets tougher each day, so she needs all of our support — which might sometimes come in the form of modest advice.
Trinity depends heavily on the results of education in D.C., so I’m really rooting for Michelle Rhee to be a phenomenal success. And, in her hugely challenging leadership position, I hope that she will be a much faster learner than I was (surely she will, she’s much smarter) about the essential qualities for a successful transformational leader:
- Praise your colleagues publicly, every single one of them, even though you may need to be blunt about deficiencies in private. The collective mental health of the organization depends on the positive reinforcement of the leader. (Yes, some DC teachers have issues, but the public denunciation of teachers serves no purpose except to demoralize the entire workforce, and also their students.) How can we possibly recruit great young teachers to our schools if all we do is criticize the teachers we have? The endless trash talk about teachers drives talent away.
- Always promote your institution, no matter how flawed, no matter how profound the internal struggles. (We know the D.C. Public Schools have huge performance issues, but the students and personnel in them need to hear the leader respect and affirm them.) Here again, the collective mental health of the community depends on the cheerleader-in-chief to believe in the possibility of the vision (John Gardner’s famous phrase, “The first and last task of the leader is to keep hope alive.”) Who wants to be a student or a teacher in a school system whose leader cannot find anything positive to say about it? Today’s words in print will linger for many years; accentuate the positive in public, fix what’s broken in private.
- Invite others into the conversation about change, even if you think you know what’s best. (Ok, I admit, I still struggle with this, too, on occasion… learn how to fein interest at least!) Sometimes, in fact, if you invite them in, the people most affected by change will wind up being more progressive and aggressive than you!
- Recognize that “change” is one of the most hated words in the language because it presages the unknown future, perhaps more hard work, and breaks with a cherished, comfortable past. So many people equate change with some diminishment of something they held dear, whether that cherished tradition is rational or not. Successful transformational leadership requires a larger reservoir of patience and understanding for resistance to change, but done right, the entire community arrives at the destination whole and happy.
- Never, ever, pose with a broom.
May Chancellor Rhee’s next TIME cover photo surround her with successful DCPS graduates on their way to Trinity and other universities with vastly improved learning outcomes!