Learning Environments Consortium International

The New Leader

James W. Keefe and Eugene R. Howard

In an early critique of the Clinton administration, Brown (1993) said, “There’s a little of Bill Clinton in a lot of top executives. Roughly three months after President Clinton’s inauguration, an assortment of critics on both sides of the political aisle began grumbling about how much he was taking on, compared with how little he was accomplishing.” What the president seemed to lack was a systematic, long- range plan that was clearly articulated and widely supported.

A lot of principals are like that—intelligent, committed, but with too much to accomplish and little or no systematic plan. In fact, it is no longer possible for “the man at the top” to define what should be done and to get it done alone.

The primary task of the principal today is to build the school into a learning organization. It was not always so. Principals in the past tended to manage much as other managers did. They were inclined to be authoritarian and control-oriented. They were influenced, if subconsciously, by what McGregor (1960) has called “Theory X” assumptions, that the average person dislikes work and needs (indeed, prefers) to be controlled and directed to put forth an adequate effort. McGregor proposed a “Theory Y” set of assumptions for the modern manager concerned about workers as human beings. McGregor believed that the average person wants responsibility and is self-directed toward goals to which he or she is committed. McGregor felt that managerial ingenuity and creativity were widely distributed in the population.

Modern organizational theory has become very situational, based on the dimensions of task orientation, relationship orientation and effectiveness, and such leadership characteristics as flexibility and sensitivity (Landers and Myers, 1977). Contemporary leaders are very concerned about stakeholder needs. Joiner (1994) calls this “Fourth Generation Management.” He characterizes first generation approaches as “management by doing.” This is the style of a principal who constantly says, “I’ll take care of it.” Second generation approaches are “management by directing.” The directive principal decides what must be done and tells others to do it. The third generation is “management by results.” In this approach, the principal sets the objectives and timelines and staff members figure out how to do it. Many principals who say they leave instructional issues to the teachers implicitly accept this approach. All three approaches are still in wide use.

Fourth generation management avoids the limitations of the first generation, the control orientation of the second generation, and the unsubstantiated results of the third generation. Fourth generation leaders combine a commitment to quality (satisfying the clients) with systems thinking (database decision making) and teamwork (trusting and respecting all stakeholders). These three elements are highly interdependent. Principals committed to this approach regularly survey school stakeholders about school and student needs, collect validated data on the school organization and student outcomes, and actively involve the school staff in ongoing improvement activities.

Gerstein and Shaw (1992) put it this way:

The 1990s may witness the beginning of the end of the traditional organization. A century dominated by a single type of organization—the machine bureaucracy—is slowly giving way to a new era…. The manager chosen and trained to prosper in the bureaucratic world may be a skilled incompetent in the highly participative, team-based network organization of the future. Some will learn; some will not. If the skilled incompetents are in important leadership positions, the organization must wait for the next generation of leadership before it can move on.

How many principals today are “skilled incompetents”? How many schools must wait for the next generation of principals before they can move on? How many old dogs will learn the new tricks? How many principals will build learning organizations in their schools?

Most people have no idea how difficult it is to develop a modern learning organization. Virtually everyone holds a view of leadership somewhere between Joiner’s second and third generation views. Principals are expected to build a 21st century organization on 20th (and even 19th) century assumptions and objectives.

Shared vision is the key to creating a learning organization. Organizational learning is the capacity of an organization to gain insight from its own experience and the experience of others and to modify the way it functions according to such insight (Shaw and Perkins, 1992). Leadership in a learning organization requires new skills and new rules. The skills (identified in Chapter 1) are the capability to build shared vision, to challenge existing mental models and develop new (shared) ones, and to encourage systems thinking. These new skills require new roles of principals.

People cannot be forced to change. They must be empowered to freely exercise delegated authority and responsibility. McCall (1994) tells us that principals who have been successful in building a learning organization have proceeded in this way:

1. They get all stakeholders actively learning.
2. They organize them into small learning teams.
3. They encourage the learning teams to experience dialogue and discussion.
4. They hope as the teams learn together that they develop a shared vision.
5. They support the learning teams in accepting delegated responsibility and authority in their planning and implementation.

Successful principals start by shaping the culture of the school. They do this by building a shared vision of what the school should be. They empower policies and programs that actualize the vision, and at the same time, they model in their personal behavior the cultural values and beliefs that affirm their commitment to the shared vision (Sashkin and Kiser, 1993). Peter Senge (1990b) describes these critical roles of leadership as “designer, steward, and teacher.” Building learning organizations demands these new roles of leadership.

Leader as Designer

The principal as designer helps to fashion a shared vision for the school, develops a decision-making model for the organization, and uses systemic and strategic thinking to inform the culture of the school. Design is a holistic task requiring the principal to see the school as a system in which the parts are interconnected, both inside and outside the school. Most changes in our schools are piecemeal or simply reactions to current crises. The designer is constantly trying to see the big picture and to put the pieces together. “The first task of organization design,” according to Peter Senge (1990b), “concerns designing the governing ideas of purpose, vision, and core values by which people will live.” Unlike typical statements of school philosophy, the shared vision of a school attempts to capture the core ideas of students, teachers, parents, and community members as guides to decision making. Core values can include such concepts as the following:

• Respect for individual differences
• Self-directedness
• A reality-linked curriculum
• Student responsibility for learning and behavior
• Integration of knowledge
• Positive learning climate
• Student and staff participation in decision making
• Open lines of communication.

The principal as designer works with the school faculty and community to achieve a shared vision and a congruence between these beliefs and any proposed programs or actions.

The second task of the principal as designer is to translate these core ideas and values into workable school structures, strategies, and policies. The first requirement of this process is the formulation of a school decision-making model that makes clear to all stakeholders the scope and nature of their decision-making responsibilities. Such a model should outline the decisions delegated to various standing and advisory bodies. What decisions will the principal’s cabinet have the right to consider and make? What about the faculty as a whole? Will there be a standing advisory board that includes students, parents, and community members? The decision-making model should be written down and widely distributed. The key is to foster strategic thinking—to involve all stakeholders in formulating the ideas, solving the problems, and creating the policies that will drive the school.

Shared vision and appropriate structures are the foundation of a stable and successful learning organization in a school. For this to happen, the principal must become a real instructional leader, designing the learning processes by which students, staff, and community face the critical issues of the school. It starts with teams and teamwork in pursuit of new mental models and personal mastery of the skills needed to change the school. A school committed to comprehensive design or redesign, for example, would form task forces to design and implement the systemic components of the “new school.” Each task force would be a learning team, with the school management/design team coordinating and integrating the various policies and programs that may be developed.

Leader as Steward

The principal as steward works to empower teachers and other stakeholders in actualizing and implementing a shared vision for the school. Successful leaders of learning organizations all perceive a strong sense of mission or purpose that undergirds their personal and organizational visions. They see themselves as having a driving purpose that transcends their personal interests and ambitions. Like people of faith, they are committed to a goal or purpose that defines their lives. This commitment begins with a desire to serve and to lead others to service. This is very different from the motivation of leaders who want to gain power (control), or to become famous, or to be at the center of important activities. Leaders who are stewards aspire to serve both the people and the organizations they lead.

Stewardship focuses in a special way on school culture and climate. Culture encompasses the values, norms, and institutions of an organization. The culture of a school is a complex system of beliefs, conventions, and structures that reflect the material, emotional, and intellectual needs of the participants. Cultures vary because they must be compatible with their surrounding environments. For a school culture to be functional, it must support the needs and aspirations of its participants. Climate is both a part and a measure of culture. It describes the actual behavior of persons in a culture and measures their shared perceptions. The principal as steward understands the impact of his or her leadership on the professional, psychological, and emotional climate of school members. People can suffer under unskilled or inept leaders. The good steward recognizes this responsibility and accepts a role as custodian of the culture.

Leaders of a learning organization may “start by pursuing their own vision, but as they learn to listen carefully to others’ visions they begin to see that their own personal vision is part of something larger. That does not diminish any leader’s sense of responsibility for the vision—if any thing it deepens it” (Senge, 1990a).

Leader as Teacher

Leaders teach primarily by defining the reality of their organizations. They do this by acting as role models and mentors, showing by their actions what behaviors are central to the culture of the organization. This does not imply that the leader must be the resident expert in all things cultural or that he or she must “teach” everyone the “correct” view of the organization. To the contrary, it means that leaders help all stakeholders (including themselves) to better understand the current reality of the organization.

Principals as teachers must be experts in systems thinking. They are custodians of the big picture: how the various components of the school program fit together, how curricular and instructional strategy mesh, how policies are carried out. They must also be experts in explaining the mission of the school, its purpose, why it exists the way it does, and where it is headed. They must be educational storytellers. Principals must become experts in telling the stories of their schools.

Principals as teachers must become especially adept at telling the “purpose story” of their schools, in clarifying the mental models that people have of the reality of the school, and addressing the underlying causes of behavior at different levels of the school (Senge, 1990a). They must understand the systemic structure of the school to change underlying patterns of behavior. They must also be lovers of the truth. They must want to see the reality of their schools so that they can lead others to see its strengths and weaknesses and change those that need changing.

If principals lose the capacity to see current reality clearly, they can readily lose their vision and, to avoid conflict and uncertainty, end up pretending everything is fine. They become talkers rather than storytellers, liars rather than leaders. Truth is the most powerful ally of the principal as teacher.

The New Leader

Three of the five disciplines of the learning organization are critical to the development of the “new leader.” These capabilities are building shared vision, defining mental models, and systems thinking.

Building Shared Vision. A school vision is shared when many people in the school accept it as the reality that must be achieved. Principals and school management/design team leaders build shared vision by practicing the following skills (Senge, 1990b):

• Encouraging personal vision—Shared visions arise from strong personal visions.
• Communicating and asking for support—School leaders must risk others questioning the leaders’ visions as the basis for shared commitment.
• “Visioning” as an ongoing process—The vision statement is only a starting point for continuous review and revision.
• Blending extrinsic and intrinsic visions—Some vision goals only deal with (external) obstacles and must be blended with intrinsic goals focused on raising standards or developing new pro grams.
• Distinguishing positive from negative visions—Many school goals only describe what people want to eliminate (e.g., drug abuse, reading problems), usually in the short term. Positive vision springs from a commitment to school improvement.

Defining Mental Models. The principal and leadership team must help all school stakeholders challenge their personal assumptions without engendering defensive reactions. This process requires reflective skills (Senge, l990b).

• Seeing leaps of abstraction—Leaders must be able to distinguish generalizations based on (unwarranted) assumptions from those based on fact (data).
• Balancing inquiry and advocacy—Most leaders are good at explaining their own views but they also need to understand the views of others and to know where to find data that will help break an impasse.
• Distinguishing advocated theory from theory in use—Leaders must be able to recognize the differences between what people (and they themselves) say about something and what they actually do. Sometimes an unbiased third-party observer is needed for this.
• Recognizing and defusing defensive routines—People protect themselves from threat and embarrassment by defensiveness. Leaders develop skill in defusing defensive routines by personal openness and self-disclosure.

Systems Thinking. Successful leaders learn to focus on underlying causes and less on day-to-day events. This focus demands greater and greater skill in systems thinking (Senge, 1990b).

• Seeing interrelationships and processes, not events—Leaders must become skilled in relational thinking and looking beyond individual events to sequences of events.
• Distinguishing detail from complexity—Detail is a function of many variables; complexity arises when causes and effects are removed from one another or when consequences over time are subtle. Leadership arises from an understanding of complexity.
• Focusing on areas of high leverage—Systems thinking shows how small but well-focused actions can result in large improvements. Leaders must learn to find the points of leverage.
• Avoiding symptomatic solutions-—Most leaders rely on linear thinking and quick fixes rather than on identifying the underlying causes. Even visionary leaders fall into this trap. Senge (l990b) tells us that “Many talented leaders have rich, highly systemic intuitions but cannot explain those intuitions to others. Ironically, they often end up being authoritarian leaders, even if they don’t want to, because only they see the decisions that need to be made.

The Transformational Leader

Edgar Schein (1985) summarizes the work of the new leader in challenging terms: “Leadership is intertwined with culture formation.” Building culture is the “unique and essential function” of the leader. Schein goes on to say that most top executives are not qualified to develop the culture of an organization. But, learning organizations require even greater culture-building skills. Only transformational leaders possess these skills.

Research at the National Center for School Leadership (1993) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, focuses on school leaders and culture/climate. Center work (by Krug and Wirt) indicates that the “only substantial factors affecting principal leadership abilities are how well staffs and superintendents support principals, and how dedicated principals are to their jobs!” Other factors like school size or wealth have little influence. Support and dedication are central to success.

Leadership style may be a factor in staff support. Center associate Douglas Mitchell talks about four leader work orientations: supervisor, manager, administrator, and leader. Supervisors and managers are characterized as “transactional” because they concentrate on tasks and getting the job done—on what Zabriskie and Huellmantel (1991) describe as operational leadership—the questions, issues, and decisions needed to execute existing plans. Supervisors and managers usually work in routine and stable schools. (Mitchell calls them “settlement school cultures.”)

Mitchell goes on to characterize administrators and leaders as “transformational” when they focus on interpersonal and organizational relationships—what others call strategic thinking and planning. Transformational leaders focus on the interrelated questions, issues, and decisions that identify the goals and programs of tomorrow. They are found in schools undergoing change (“frontier school cultures”). Breaking Ranks describes the transformational leader as “the keeper of the dream” (1996, p. 100).

Systems thinking is the foundation of transformational leadership and the key to developing a learning organization. Principals interested in transforming their schools into productive learning organizations should concentrate on five critical elements (Nadler, 1989).

1. Open Boundaries. Open the school to new ideas and programs through visits to other schools, workshops and seminars, consultants, etc. Listen to your clients—students and their parents.
2. Risk Taking. Support staff members in experimentation and innovation. Learning cannot hap pen without experimentation. People will try new things if they are not punished for failure but rewarded for trying.
3. Learning Experimentation. Recognize the value of productive failures and the weakness of apparent successes. Productive failures lead to organizational insight and subsequent successes; leaders and staff know what went wrong. Apparent successes occur in seemingly well-functioning programs that do not raise student achievement or self-esteem.
4. Learning Environment. Beyond experiments, the successful learning organization demands an environment that prizes, examines, and disseminates learning. Leaders must be willing to have people examine and question their beliefs and assumptions. Schools often remain closed to new ideas because their leaders are set in their beliefs and rationalize or misunderstand the reasons for poor student achievement or low teacher morale.
5. Capacity to Act. Effective learning organizations sustain the capacity of their members to act. The bottom line for the school as a learning organization is more successful learning for students and more productive teaching for teachers. Learning organizations motivate their members to develop new ideas and to use the insights of others.

Text from Redesigning Schools for the New Century: A Systems Approach, Chapter 2, NASSP, Reston Virginia. Copyright 1997, National Association of Secondary School Principals. www.principals.org. Reprinted with permission.

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