URGENCY IS THE ENEMY OF GREAT
Updated: Oct 30
Look on any education leader's bookshelf and you're likely to find a well worn copy of business author Jim Collins' Good to Great. "Good is the enemy of great" became a call to arms for passionate education leaders leveraging the power of words to marshal action. Even for those who found the slogan to be a familiar platitude repackaged, it proved to be an inspirational tool to stimulate dialogue and collaboration. It's also served as a nod to an asset-based theoretical framework embraced by education leaders navigating institutional boundaries in their quest to overcome them.
Collins is quick to point out that building great schools is harder than building great companies.
His monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer, is his response to the battle cry for equity and published in recognition that we cannot be a great society if education is not pluralistic. He writes, "If we only have great companies, we will merely have a prosperous society, not a great one."
The Flywheel Effect, the Hedgehog Concept, and the 20 Mile March have all made their way into the education lexicon since Collins' seminal research was popularized, ironically around the same time NCLB upped the ante on urgency and led to the era of the magic bullet, anathema to growth and success according to Collins. His 20 Mile March principle, in particular, has been reborn in the COVID-19 era as superintendents face the unprecedented challenge to remain steady and lead amidst the cluster of clamor, disorder, and uncertainty.
Turns out that while educators were focused on the Why, What, and How, they missed the Who, perhaps the most important of all Good to Great concepts.
First Who, Then What, which conceptually has morphed into getting the right people on the bus, includes consistently identifying, training and growing leaders from within the organization. Districts committed to the Who make succession planning a top priority. They may also prioritize performance management and comprehensive evaluation systems (find an example here) to build leadership capacity and develop a culture of professional growth and talent development. But most of the 14,000 or so school districts in the United States are small and have few options when it comes to building capacity. They rely on regional consortiums, partnerships with universities, and consistent recruitment efforts.
In Built to Last, Collins reported only four individual cases of an outsider coming directly into the role of chief executive from 1,700 years of combined history in the visionary companies their study identified and evaluated. That's hardly the case in the public sector. In a 2018 Journal of Research on Leadership Education publication, authors Bonnie Fusarelli, Lance Fusarelli, and Fran Riddick found that intentional leadership succession planning is much less common in the U.S. education system than it is in successful corporations. The article, titled, Planning for the Future: Leadership Development and Succession Planning in Education, found that succession planning is rare in public agencies for a variety of reasons, mostly political. The National Academy of Public Administration found that to be the case too, recommending integrating succession planning into an organization’s strategic plan.
Some school district's strategic plans address building a strong workforce, which might include succession planning, but is usually focused on taking a strategic and broad approach to training and replacing a variety of key positions (hard to staff positions too), not simply those at the top of the pyramid.
Succession planning is the most important of all human resource functions in educational administration. Yet, very few districts have highly developed leadership pipelines.
Why? The primary barrier is simply taking on the task of succession planning. Whether it falls outside the scope of a leader's work, is difficult to frame, or is the byproduct of an ever-changing political environment, succession planning, and in the case of a superintendent, replacement planning, is the exception, not the rule. Examples of school districts thrown into a state of utter confusion and disarray while replacing their superintendent or other key Cabinet-level positions are plentiful.
The "COVacancies" in the superintendent position resulting from coronavirus chaos has revealed this organizational shortcoming in many school districts.
A succession plan is no guarantee, but it can increase the likelihood that the next superintendent possesses the personal qualities and characteristics desired, is highly qualified and proven ready to assume the position, and understands the challenges the job presents given the culture, dynamics, and expectations of the district and its board of education.
As far as inspirational memes go, I was never a purveyor of "good is the enemy of great." If districts get the Who right, good becomes an ally of great, as all of the seats on the bus are filled. Great is simply the next destination, but it takes time to get there (the destination is another strategic planning principle). Urgency is the true enemy of great. After all, building a great organization is a marathon (according to Collins a 20-mile march), not a sprint.
Consistency at the top of the leadership pyramid helps districts keep the momentum moving skyward towards their north star.