Related: DC Public Schools, Education, In the Media, Politics, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Trinity Alumnae, Women



Every modern leadership theory I’ve ever studied relegates the “command and control” leadership style to antiquity.  What worked for Caesar, Napoleon, Washington or Patton is largely discredited in the modern workplace — even the modern military.

As if Vietnam did not provide enough evidence of the flaws in this model, we now have the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan — I’m reading Jon Krakauer’s book Where Men Win Glory about the friendly-fire death of football-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, the command mistakes that led to his death and the subsequent cover-up.  This book is a perfect case study of the mindless dangers of command-and-control by leaders whose desire to protect their own images and politics undermines truth and effective action.

Big city mayors apparently need a reading list.  They have not gotten the message about the failed command-and-control model.

On the most prominent battleground of public life today — the reform of public education — mayors wielding unchecked powers are devastating the landscape of teaching, learning and school leadership.  Their own field marshals — the hand-picked superintendents and chancellors often appointed without consultation with educators — are self-destructing at an alarming rate.  Reality in the field trumps board-room theories about how to help children to learn more effectively.

Cathie Black’s brief tenure as the New York Public Schools Chancellor, fast on the heels of Michelle Rhee’s departure from D.C., illustrates the clear failings of the mayoral control model of public education.

Because the mayor is a politician in thrall to poll numbers, the school leader gets dragged into the same political quagmire.  New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired Cathie Black in an astonishing display of mayoral power, and then abruptly and bloodlessly fired her when her approval numbers slipped to 17%.  Former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty displayed similar contempt for consultation in hiring Michelle Rhee, and he persisted in defending her even as she torpedoed his second term through her utterly obtuse dealings with the people most concerned about improving K-12 education:  parents and teachers.  Fenty might still be mayor today if he had checked Rhee’s barbed-wire style.

Cathie Black never had a chance in New York’s voraciously punishing political maelstrom where the battle between the mayor, the unions and the general public on all sides is increasingly toxic.  Bloomberg should have stopped with two terms.

Michelle Rhee had a great opportunity to bring real value to the transformation of the D.C. Schools.  Contrary to those who hail her tenure today as a time of productive change, in fact,  little actual change could occur because people got stuck on her abrasive style.

Transformational leadership — often called “servant leadership” — focuses on helping the people in the community transform themselves in order to work together collectively to achieve desired goals.  The servant leader does not trash her followers, but rather, helps them to see the ways in which they can improve, and provides the means to achieve that improvement on the way to genuine transformation.

I’ve been in meetings with some of the powerful business leaders who disdain the “servant leader” model as too soft for today’s urgent transformative agenda in education.  In fact, without truly transformative leadership, the goals will never be realized.  The social conditions undermining the ability of children in public schools to become successful learners are myriad, and no one person — the iconic chancellor, the bright-eyed Teach for America teacher — can fix them all.  Without true transformation of the communities and families where the children live, the results of public education will continue to fall short of national goals.

The militaristic model of school reform sets up a strawman as the enemy — the teacher, organized into platoons called unions.   In this disreputable model, the general sends the field marshal out to eradicate the enemy, so, naturally, the teachers in unions actually start acting like the enemy.  A form of backwards-transformation does occur when the leader treats the followers as the enemy; the followers take on that role, and so the battle is joined.

A more enlightened transformational model for school leadership reform would exalt teachers as people who have some of the hardest jobs in our society, and would de-fang the antipathy of the unions by making common cause with union members — the teachers — in the pursuit of true educational reform.  The transformative leader would actually sit down and talk with teachers — lots of them, every day — to find out about the obstacles and opportunities for learning success.

The transformative leader would understand the conditions that children bring with them into the classroom — hunger, violence, neglect, abuse, illiterate parents, drugs, fear — and would equip teachers with the right tools to teach effectively and persuasively in such a difficult environment.

Truly transformative educational leaders would never dismiss the poverty and violence that children experience in our cities as “excuses” as too many current politicians and school reformers do.   Instead, they would focus on creating school environments that care for the whole child — and this might also include creating greater opportunities for adult education, since transforming parents through literacy programs and parenting programs could be the most effective way to improve student learning outcomes in America.

Truly transformative leaders spread credit broadly and eschew the rhetoric of self-importance.  Too many of the most prominent leaders of the contemporary school reform movement are self-appointed solons of solutions that have no real basis in effective teaching and learning practices.  Standardized testing is not teaching, nor is teaching to the test an effective pedagogical practice.  Students may be able to regurgitate more rote facts by memorizing test answers, but the solutions to future challenges are rarely found in knowledge about yesterday’s facts.  The best pedagogy teaches students how to think analytically, how to research carefully, how to use imagination for invention of ideas, systems, processes and tools that we have not yet imagined.  I have yet to see a standardized test that inspires imagination and innovation.

The current crop of reformers will say, well, that’s too hard, we can’t reform everything, so let’s focus on what’s achievable.  Busting unions, firing teachers, producing passing scores on standardized tests might all be measurable results — but to what end?  The reformers, themselves, seem to lack the imagination and courage necessary to take on the more arduous challenges of true transformation.

Real educational transformation would require the teachers, the parents, the politicians, the editorial writers and the funders to set aside their prejudices toward each other, indifference toward grave social conditions, need for power and control — and the latent impulses to schadenfreude at the collapse of each player’s pet idea — in favor of genuine cooperation, and even admission that we don’t know all the answers but need to work together to find them.

The late John Gardner, President Johnson’s HEW Secretary and founder of Common Cause, once wrote that we don’t need leaders to tell us what to do, but rather, we need them to rekindle hope in the future, the hope that we will find our way through to a better society.

No mayor, governor, education secretary or president will achieve educational reform through dishing orders and commanding change.  Change is only possible when the people affected accept the need for change and work together to achieve real transformation.  The school reform movement needs leaders of hope and persuasion, not the thoroughly discredited tactics of command-and-control.  The collapse of the command-and-control model might be the best thing yet to happen to the school reform movement.

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One Response to Command-Control-Collapse

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: