LIVING WITH YOUR DECISIONS: STANDING TALL IN THE FACE OF CRITICISM
Updated: Jun 23, 2019
Part 3 of a series of blogs on leadership and the art of decision-making.
Regardless of the decision-making process, once done, you have to own it. The more difficult the decision, the more consequential living with it becomes. Confident leaders don’t second guess themselves. In Parts’ 1 and 2 of this series, I kicked around decision-making from one end of the continuum to the other. Most leaders lean on the democratic side of the continuum, utilizing transformational leadership strategies that fully engage followers in decision-making and tend to value the human element (shared models).
Leaders who subscribe to this approach are inspired by John Wooden, who said, “Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you.”
On the transactional side of the continuum, task performance, efficiency, and compliance are most valued. Rational models help organizations maintain the status quo. During periods of organizational stability rational models thrive. During periods of organizational instability, on the other hand, marked by a general state of uncertainty, transformational leaders shepherd their organizations through the maze of ambiguity by being decisive and living with the results, win, lose or draw. Like John Wooden also said, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out." Hybrid models grounded in rational processes and infused with the human element bring leadership teams together. Strong leaders are seen as decisive. Decisive leaders are seen as strong.
Education organizations are historically unstable. The emerging academic field of education and instability, with its roots grounded in the study of education in difficult contexts, is largely concerned with mitigating the adverse psychosocial effects of poverty and economic inequality in our nation’s schools. Exacerbated by the sustained rise in inequality in wages, incomes, and wealth, and evidenced by the widening of the achievement gap since the 1970’s, leading in these types of environments requires a nuanced approach to decision-making. Under these conditions, long-term planning is abrogated by uncertain funding streams brought on by unpredictable enrollment patterns and other external forces beyond the control of decision-makers. Currently, among the most forceful external influencers are pension obligations to CalSTRS and CalPERS.
As rising pension costs and other spiraling expenses continue to gobble up significant portions of most districts’ budgets, the spirited soul of equity as constituted by California’s Local Control Funding Formula silently fades into broadening gaps that our democracy is no match for, at least not in its current state.
Leadership has never been more important than it is right now. Reversing the trajectory of organizations that have found themselves in an inescapable vortex brought on by diminishing revenues and escalating costs comes at the expense of making painful decisions that are agonizing and often unpopular. Today, districts up and down the state face challenges they have not experienced since the economic distress brought on by the recession over ten years ago. Many districts never recovered as the ghosts of 2008 still haunt those whose steady loss of enrollment has neutralized increases in funding. Due to economic necessity, many districts decided to close or repurpose schools during the worst of times, despite the anguish of such decisions, because deciding not to would have been imprudent.
Making decisions as impactful as closing or repurposing schools aren’t easy to live with, to say the least. Leaders take solace in the fact that the long-term implications, including fiscal stability and the financial freedom to best serve students, far outweigh the short-term pain and suffering. Decisions of this magnitude are always rational and follow guidelines and statutory requirements...but are still difficult, nonetheless. And once the decision is made, leaders must stand tall in the face of criticism.
One such district comes to mind. Nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in the eastern portion of Los Angeles County, this approximately 7,000-student unified school district is among those whose strategic plan my students and I study in the CSU, Fullerton doctoral studies program. Specifically, in the course of study concerned with creating organizational conditions for optimizing student success. The district closed five elementary schools and merged two alternative schools amidst a sustained trend of declining enrollment over a course of about twenty years. The most recent closure occurred during the height of the 2008 recession. While in the midst of right-sizing, they also became a District of Choice, drawing students from all over the region, steadily increasing enrollment and ultimately reversing the trend. Fiduciary duty aside, all leaders (and district governance teams) are not capable of making similar gut-wrenching decisions.
Leadership positions are generally divided into classifications based on the level of responsibility, and are compensated accordingly (except elected officials who have the greatest responsibility, but are not tied to compensation). To be a leader is to know the extent of your reach. Every leader has a point or level at which she or he functions most competently and consistently; idiomatically speaking: hitting one's stride. I’ve known many leaders who overreached with disastrous consequences, usually never to be heard from again in leadership circles.
Do you have what it takes to make decisions at a higher level or at the highest level? You decide. But know it’s one decision you can’t get wrong.
Part 4: Positional Authority and Leaders Stuck in the Middle