NOTES ON A NAPKIN: INSIGHTS FROM A CAREER PERSPECTIVE
Updated: Oct 30
My effort to reduce the leadership literature down to the fundamental principles that form the foundation of the variety of models that guide our work as leaders has been an interest of mine since I joined the Education Leadership department at California State University, Fullerton ten years ago. My reduction efforts stem from my suspicion that, similar to the belief that every story in the world revolves around six or seven basic plot lines, leadership models revolve around a set of basic principles. A theory is useful to help us better understand the principle(s) the theory is built upon.
Management guru Henry Mintzberg has long preached that buzzwords are the problem, not the solution. Yet, we historically look to the latest craze to motivate people who were not moved by the first, second, or third iteration of the same idea. As an example, he points to Total Quality Management, which morphed from the Quality of Work Life movement. The principle behind both movements is empowerment. That is what interests me as I attempt to intensify the flavor of the model by reducing it to its purest form.
It is now my intention to create a series of essays based on the fundamental principle behind the popular models that leaders from all sectors embrace as a means to their end game: improving their organization. The collection of essays will eventually be published collectively as a resource guide for leaders in and out of education, but recognize that it likely will appeal to my fellow educators, specifically aspiring or new superintendents. I embarked on this project with the intention of consolidating the seemingly endless trough of new ways to say the same things. Whether it’s been framed as Learning Organizations, Organizational Learning, or Professional Learning Communities, all are recipes for the perfect organizational elixir. The cool aid that will motivate groups of people to get better at what they do. The essential principle being if everyone does what they do even a little bit better, it stands to reason the system will improve..
The endless stream of metaphors describing either processes or outcomes serve as useful ways to package the same ole message to the same ole people who are in the same ole place they were when they heard it the first time. The more entrenched people are, the more difficult it is to light their fire. This is particularly true in the social sector, where I have had the privilege to reside throughout my career as a leader. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, a book of near Biblical proportions transcending industry sectors, published a version of it specifically for the social sector titled, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer. In discussing his motivation for writing the monograph, practically an addendum to Good to Great, he has written, We must reject the idea—well-intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become "more like a business." Most businesses—like most of anything else in life—fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great. When you compare great companies with good ones, many widely practiced business norms turn out to correlate with mediocrity, not greatness. So, then, why would we want to import the practices of mediocrity into the social sectors?
Collins goes on to share an anecdote related to an exchange that occurred during a presentation to business CEOs when he shared why he believes business thinking is not the answer: “A hand shot up from David Weekley, one of the more thoughtful CEOs—a man who built a very successful company and who now spends nearly half his time working with the social sectors. "Do you have evidence to support your point?" he demanded. "In my work with nonprofits, I find that they're in desperate need of greater discipline—disciplined planning, disciplined people, disciplined governance, disciplined allocation of resources.”
"What makes you think that's a business concept?" I replied. "Most businesses also have a desperate need for greater discipline. Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline—disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action—that we find in truly great companies. A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness." Continuing the debate over dinner, Collins asked Weekley: "If you had taken a different path in life and become, say, a church leader, a university president, a nonprofit leader, a hospital CEO, or a school superintendent, would you have been any less disciplined in your approach? Would you have been less likely to practice enlightened leadership, or put less energy into getting the right people on the bus, or been less demanding of results?" Weekley considered the question for a long moment. "No, I suspect not."
This exchange is a cautionary tale for education leaders like me who have long searched the leadership literature for the next best idea, framework, or model. Our tireless efforts have managed to get us no closer to institutional nirvana. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve drifted further away by blunting the cutting edge of progressivism by our incessant insistence on importing leadership models instead of exporting from them the universal principles that underscore their relevance and move people to act. In education, and I believe all sectors, it’s always better when the idea comes from someone else.
The idea that even the best leadership thinking has at some point come from someone else, has led me down the path to publishing Notes on Napkins. I hope it can serve as a guide for education leaders and others on how to reconceptualize leadership, a job that we know has been well done for centuries by great women and men, long before there were models and frameworks to explain it.
Creating a relentless culture of discipline, for example, was a leadership lesson I learned at the age of 14 from my first boss at Vito’s Pizzeria. Long before I became a chief cook and bottle washer in the field of education, I was a dishwasher taking orders from the Old World and old school restaurant owner who demanded disciplined action. He would bark out directions which the barely bilingual maître d′ would translate onto the closest napkin in proximity for me to take notice of and act upon.
My affinity for notes on napkins has led me to do most of my deepest and most meaningful reflecting in restaurants, far removed from the institutional barriers of the workplace and comforted by good food and good company. Restaurants are also stark and sobering reminders of why leadership in education is so important, as a typical restaurant employee profile resembles a typical school system, segregated by race and income-disparities.
Each chapter is dedicated to an esteemed education leader who has had a significant impact on my career. The common thread is that I’ve broken bread with them. In some instances, it was in a kitchen, and in some instances in an eatery. Either way, it was deeply personal and from the heart.
I hope that these insights from a career perspective, culled from my 30 years of experience in the field of education, in addition to my conversations with past and present superintendents, leaves you hungry for more.
With thanks to Bill Dowd, the longtime food and restaurant writer, and spirits/wine/food competition judge who has hosted a restaurant food blog titled Notes on Napkins.