Last month, a colleague detailed for me how a surprise edict had come down from administration to his department that outlined a new procedure his department was to follow. “Bart, no one saw this coming. It gives us much more work, without any increase in resources. We don’t even know what problem we are supposed to be solving. You know, it makes me feel like I must be an incompetent teacher who doesn’t know much about what I’m doing.” This colleague is a recognized leader in his field who has traveled the nation giving seminars on his subject area!
Do you see yourself anywhere in this scenario? Which part? I, unfortunately, have been on each side at one time or another. In this blog, I am going to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance, to identify some underlying principles I believe are in play here that may provide us some guidance.
Every Friday at lunchtime, our secondary campus music department brings in pizza to sell as an ongoing fundraiser. There’s usually a pretty big line of students, and several of the teachers also enjoy the option of having pizza for lunch. The students are very gracious and let teachers go to the front of the line, but there is one adult who never takes the students up on their offer. Each time he buys pizza, our secondary campus principal lines up with the students. A couple of month ago I asked him about this. He said he learned it from former Regent College president Walter Wright, who lined up for coffee with his students as a deliberate eschewing of his power to exercise privilege.
Students notice that the principal lines up and waits like they do. Just to be clear, I am not passing judgment on the teachers who go directly to the front of the line; they may have important meetings, intramurals, or student supervision scheduled and need to get there. This isn’t about them going to the front; it’s about the principal waiting in line.
The 30-second ad showed a dad washing his car while his young son imitated him: soaping when the dad soaped, spraying when the dad sprayed, drying when the dad dried. Then dad sat down and leaned again a tire; so did the son. The dad pulled out a cigarette and lit it; the son took one and put it in his mouth. End of ad.
I recall this ad every time I think about the gap (sometime a chasm) between my preaching and practice in a Christian high school. Sponsored by the Mormon Church, the ad depicted how imitation is a powerful tool for learning, both for good and for ill. These days we use the term “follower” as a negative, e.g., “He’s just a follower,” like a student who follows the leader of a social group into trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an America writer who celebrated “self,” said, “Imitation is suicide.” Likewise, Samuel Johnson claimed, “No man was ever great by imitation.” In education, imitation is in a recession; what’s taken its place is innovation, originality, and creativity. For the proponents, imitation is lazy, restricting, and deadening.
In my last blog, I wrote about the concept of hegemony: “the power revealed by norms, behaviors, beliefs, and practices” of an organization. The hegemony of a place can often be hidden and yet have more power in shaping a school culture than the official stances and statements the leadership uses to promote and define a place. I was heartened to read Joel Westa’s latest Voices blog wherein he talked about the power of culture: “culture eats strategy for lunch.” We’re talking about the same thing. One could say that the hidden hegemonies of a school, once exposed, are the real definers of a school’s culture.
I’d like to continue this theme of hegemony/culture for one more post, and I’d like to do that by taking a deeper dive into thinking about the power of language. The late educational theorist Thomas Greenfield once said, “Language has power. It can literally make reality appear or disappear.”
It seems everywhere I look or listen, whether it be scholarly articles, organizational self-help books, television interviews, or internet podcasts, I keep hearing some permutation of the phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch.” An entire block of my EdD coursework was on organizational culture, and my bookshelf is lined with books designed to help me discern it, measure it, change it, or run from it!
Organizational culture guru Edgar Schein said, “Either you manage the culture, or it manages you.” I am confident that every one of you who leads a school has a story of how your best laid plans of implementing the greatest change to your organization got steamrolled by your school culture.
I hope your start of the year has been good. Mine has been super busy. Why is it that, no matter how much I prepare for that busyness, I am always surprised by it? All that said, there is something that speaks deeply to vocational fulfillment when I fall into bed exhausted by a day well spent in what I believe is kingdom work, submitting it all to God and trusting him to bless it through me, and at times, in spite of me. I hope you feel passion and fulfillment in the leadership work you do for the King.
For the past year, I’ve been using this blog to share thoughts on the intersection of power and Christian school leadership. I’m hoping you’ve drawn something from those thoughts to reflect on and, in your own way, allowed it to shape your practice and beliefs. We’ve spent some time looking at factors at play in the arena of power (remember gender, charisma, theology?). I’d like to shift gears a little to deepen our understanding of how this plays out in our schools.
What a “capital campaign” that was! Nehemiah was under house arrest in a land far from Judah. We know he was a close servant to King Artaxerxes there. A small group of his fellow citizens from the homeland sent him a message that the wall of protection for the capital city was “broken down.” He felt the call to help repair it, to lead the capital campaign. There’s a lot to learn about leadership in how he went about it. What would you or I do today to emulate his leadership?
This summer I’ve spent a little time reading in and about the Beatitudes and reflecting on how they shape a more faithful view of enacting power. I was reading Darrel Johnson’s (2015) book on the beatitudes the weekend of the Charlottesville event when my Twitter feed exploded with updates. I went from reading and reflecting on what it means to be captive and captivated by the kingdom to watching clips of people being beaten and mowed down by a car. I was overcome, and I wept. I was overcome by the hatred, but I was also deeply moved by the clergy who gathered together to promote peace—followers of Jesus standing peacefully in solidarity and singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Since then, I have heard a lot of political rhetoric and blame that just adds to the sadness. So much of what was happening in Charlottesville is a grasp for power, a grasp for power that is more connected to personal fear and the oppression of others and has nothing to do with human flourishing. In a word, it is evil; it flies in the face of the life of Christ and must be named as such.
In my last blog, I posed the contrast in leadership styles—push or pull—offering reasons for pushing as a means of helping teachers to achieve the school’s mission. Pushing demands accountability; the leader who insists that teachers all post on the school’s website a paragraph about how they weave the Word into their teaching will need to push until all have posted. “Please do this soon” often gets a receptive smile and a mental shrug. “I expect you will have it posted by this date” is a push…for the teachers’ and the school’s good.
Pushing has its benefits. Pulling has more.
The former president of the US Dwight Eisenhower caught the contrast between pull and push by using the analogy of string: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” At one conference, we leaders in attendance literally tried to push a string to a goal; we wound up crumbling up the string into a wad, giggling to cover up our frustration, but we gained the goal quickly when we pulled it.
Have you ever been in a room where someone asks a question and the presenter answers with vocabulary and information that seemed designed to make the questioner look stupid? I can. I have also witnessed a presenter being asked a question that was less a question and more a clear opportunity to demonstrate superior knowledge over the presenter. I can even remember doing something similar myself when I was feeling threatened.
Knowledge and intelligence (please note that I am certainly NOT talking about wisdom here) can be wielded to gain power. This can happen on so many levels. There are people who have inside information and release it in a way that gives them status or power. There are those who have expertise on a topic who can be tempted to use their knowledge to gain power and authority. And there are times when knowledge is used to intimidate others into letting one have one’s way.