Updated: Oct 29
Sometimes I wonder about the importance of being Allan, pitted as I am in the middle of a culture war seemingly for control of the future of America’s public schools. I fear becoming an unrecognizable travesty of myself. As Ken Mitchell, editor of the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice (Winter 2023) has recently written, “Today’s school leaders operate in charged political environments fraught with controversies often sparked by design to sew discord and skepticism.”
Superintendents have long worn multiple hats. Now, many must wear masks too, in polarizing contrast to the transparency that forms the foundation for trusting relationships and a positive organizational culture. Can’t imagine myself wearing one.
The moral imperatives to uphold the ethic of the profession is being compromised on numerous fronts, in some cases by orchestrated efforts to undermine public education to advance ideological, political, and even personal agendas. Ironically, much of it is cloaked in the name and spirit of democracy. It’s happening from coast to coast, by political action committees and in some cases by individuals. How superintendents (and all education leaders) remain true to the ethic of the profession while remaining employed is a topic among the key learnings in my summer course focused on ethical decision-making through resource allocation strategies (fiscal, educational, and human resources). The class could be retitled, how to make decisions in the best interest of students, not personal or political agendas.
My students and I will examine strategies to stay grounded by applying the concepts of the multiple ethical paradigms of justice, critique, care, and the profession to make defensible decisions during unstable times, in the context of Turbulence Theory.
We will begin the journey as all reflective decision-makers do, by acknowledging the two minds at work in the decision-making process: the rational mind and the emotional mind. While the rational mind lends itself to logic, reflection, and thoughtful dialogue, the emotional mind may seem illogical and impulsive, but lends itself to firmly held beliefs and values.
The dichotomy is often expressed in terms of thinking with your head versus your heart and/or your gut (the gut feeling). Sophisticated decision-making processes are quantitative by design and serve to referee the two conflicting minds. For example, when a backlash to expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts first emerged in 2020, superintendents became conflict managers. How well they managed that conflict may have been the difference between success and failure. In some cases, it was the difference between employment and unemployment.
Experienced leaders transform conflict management into a strategic advantage by institutionalizing processes for combining diverse insights into an amalgamation of ideas that do not have to be juxtaposed with polarizing antidotes.
Instead, diverse perspectives should co-exist, as ideas have for centuries in the pantheon of thought and in democratic societies. Substantive disagreement is part of the process of finding creative solutions. Superficial congeniality, on the other hand, the concept General Motor’s Jack Welch coined to explain how agreement is not always a good thing, describes the result when no one wants to disagree. Agreement is much easier (learn more about this phenomenon in the Abilene Paradox here) and is a form of conflict-avoidance. It usually leads to bad outcomes. Superintendents and all leaders should encourage dialogue and debate. It’s a norm for discussion on my team and in my classes.
Leaders voicing their disagreement with a movement or an individual’s position that is rooted in the emotional mind may find themselves on the wrong end of an unwinnable argument. Recognizing it is the first order of business.
Then, assuming a rational decision-making process is institutionalized in the organization, leaders lead the discussion by welcoming a wide breadth of opinions that diverse stakeholders bring to the table, not just the loudest voices. The more quantitative the process, the more likely consensus will be reached. In, Decision Provenance: A Transparent Line of Sight, I explain the processes I use.
I have had superintendent and other education leader colleagues, as well as some of my students share their discontent after waking up in a school district that was either disrupted or transformed politically or ideologically after the November election. I suggested they not run from ideological conversations or conflict, especially if those conversation are rooted in race and social justice or stem from personal agendas. Approach the issue head-on. If it's unhealthy for the superintendent or school leader, it's probably unhealthy for the organization, or school, respectively. Leadership trickles down. That's why #LeadershipMatters.
Leaders don’t become something they’re not in an act of self-preservation. Instead, they use their collaborative skills to build consensus among conflicting forces, even when it's apparent they’re on a collision course.
Wearing a mask is not an option.