Leadership strategies that don’t work

September 30, 2013

Merrill Vargo

Over the past decade, educators have been focused on what research tells us works – and that’s important. But we also need to be clear-sighted about what does not work. Based on both research and experience, here are three things that do not work in leading public education organizations:

  1. Leading through vision alone or strategy alone: We’ve all heard superintendents who can tell a compelling personal story about why they believe all children can learn. Inspiring stories are a good start, but leaders cannot expect that their organizations will transform simply because the leader can describe a vision or even put forward a big idea about how to get there. The vision inspires, but it does not tell people what to do next. And strategy – the big idea about how to get there – matters only if it is translated into specific, actionable and always evolving tactics. Leaders almost never know enough about tactics, which is actually not a problem unless leaders make the next, very common mistake.
  2. Relying only on top-down strategies: Many of the education reform ideas being proposed today are attempts to make the public sector more like the private sector. The focus on metrics and outcomes, which approximates the private sector’s bottom line; the goal of making it easier to fire weak teachers; the effort to introduce competition…. These ideas all have some merit, but to the extent that their goal is to make the public sector be controllable via private-sector leadership strategies, these efforts will fail. In fact, an over-reliance on private-sector models of top-down leadership has dramatically handicapped public-sector leaders. Some examples are well known: In Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee successfully adopted stronger teacher evaluation strategies and was able to fire weak teachers. Test scores went up, but in the whole process Rhee lost the support of parents and, subsequently, her job. This story has been repeated in numerous lower-profile versions. Private-sector organizations are different from public-sector ones in a fundamental way: public-sector organizations are inclusive by design. For that reason, public-sector organizations must be able to include diverse perspectives and manage toward multiple goals rather than a single “bottom line.” That means that education leaders must always balance top-down with bottom-up strategies; neither will work alone. This makes leadership in the public sector harder, but there are two benefits that accrue to leaders who embrace this fact. First, it is the bottom-up strategies that are the source of the tactics to implement the big idea, or strategy, to get to the vision. Leaders never know enough about the specifics of the work to invent all the tactics that will be needed to successfully implement their own strategy. And, second, it is the bottom-up strategies that generate the energy and commitment necessary to make change happen and then to make it stick.
  3. A failure to acknowledge or anticipate the ways the parts of the system are interconnected: Education leaders are leading complex systems. Often, efforts at change fail because no one has thought through the way that changing the funding formula, for example, will affect the hiring and placement of teachers, or the role of the district office, or the calendar for developing the budget, or the way the governing board thinks about goals. Similarly, a new set of standards may require districts to rethink the way they provide professional development, which may lead them to reconsider the way they compensate teachers. One reason why education leaders can forget that the parts of the education system are interconnected in this way is the traditional structure of school districts, which are organized into what are often called “silos” that reflect separate state and federal funding streams and regulatory structures.

But the more fundamental problem here is that acknowledging complexity and interdependence requires leaders to acknowledge that they can influence, but they cannot always control the system they are charged with leading. None of us likes being out of control, but in the public sector, influence is often as good as it gets. President Barack Obama knows this and so does any superintendent who is paying attention. Settling for influence means that leaders must do their best to predict and anticipate the ways that the change efforts they launch will ripple across the system, watch carefully to see what actually happens and then adjust both to seize unanticipated opportunities and to respond to unforeseen problems.

Public-sector leaders also have to be brave enough to launch inclusive processes that tap into the energy and ideas of the people who work in public education and the people the system serves. Examples include the community-based planning efforts being launched in some of the districts that are committed to getting a head start on LCFF.

What will happen when communities are given the chance to be more involved with the education institutions their children attend? Nobody knows for sure. But that’s OK; we call them “public” schools for a reason.


Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.

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