No Checklists

The following is one man’s opinion.  I am not a researcher.  I do not even have a career’s worth of experience to support my claims.  What I do have is deep conviction and a track record that suggests that I am not completely wrong.

I do not believe in checklists.  I believe that we areorigin_9568156463 still using a leadership model that has run its course and is no longer the best option.  There was a time when (and there may still be situations in which) dictating what and when and exactly how others are to act was an effective approach to leadership.  There can be no doubt that it was in fact the leadership model used during a large chunk of human history and did produce impressive results. It seems to me though that, in many ways, our (human) objectives have changed and demand a different approach.  One we appear reluctant to adopt.  Consider, for example, the fact that for the first time in human history, the educational system in this country and several others) aims to educate the entire population.  No other society has even attempted this objective.  Ever.  Instead of blaming teachers and The Education System in general for struggling to accomplish this Herculean task with outdated tools and resources, perhaps we should consider new approaches to the task.  One approach that would require zero additional funding is a shift to a leadership paradigm that sees vision casting and navigating as more valuable than expecting and inspecting.  While the majority of my formal leadership experience is in the field of education, I believe that these principles apply equally well in all areas.

I submit that leadership that is based on telling people what to do can not produce sustainable results.  I reject as faulty logic the argument that suggests that changing folk’s actions will naturally and eventually result in a change of mind.  Making someone do something over and over may produce automaticity but it does not necessarily produce conviction.  Unfortunately, the prevailing model of leadership (in American schools at least) is to cast a vision (tell folks what they are going to be doing), make a plan (tell them how they must do it) and evaluate progress towards “shared goals” (inspect for compliance).  It is fashionable to talk about “buy-in”, but in my experience, the what and the how are rarely really negotiable.  This paradigm runs all the way through our system.  No Child Left Behind (the federally enacted school accountability act of the last decade) however well intentioned was based on a very basic assumption: if we place enough pressure on schools to get better, they will. While good things have come from NCLB, this assumption has proven to be woefully unfounded.  Unfortunately, we continue to act out that assumption all the way down to the individual level even when we see that it doesn’t work.  We have trained our teachers to follow directions and keep their opinions to themselves – even when we “ask” for them.

It is my firm conviction that the micromanagement that we so frequently assume to simply be part of life results in superficial and temporary results at best.  We are fully aware that this leadership approach requires continuous supervision.  Most human beings simply can not stay in compliance all the time when expectations of them come in the form of a checklist (literal or figurative).  On the other hand, checklist leaders can not allow deviations because the toleration of any exception is an invitation to chaos.  The funny thing about this approach is that even when “results” are achieved, as soon as pressure to comply is released, most compliance ends.  In other words, any momentum gained is not self-sustaining.  Plenty of schools have “turned it around” and become “outstanding” by means of very tightly controlling everything.  Test scores shoot up and the educational world applauds.  When the (often charismatic) leader who drives this growth moves on or when the grant runs out or when the program is replaced, however, things slowly drift back to the way they were.  Actually, I have worked at a school where the momentum only lasted one semester before we began spiraling toward mediocrity.  In other words, checklist leadership is only as good as the last inspection.  This approach to leadership in schools frequently feeds the all too common assumption that one of the main purposes of school is to help students get more test questions right, a paradigm I have commented on in another post.  If we are to set our sights higher than creating test-acing automatons, we need a different approach.  Checklist leadership is not the way.

It seems to me that there is a better way.  Most people want to be part of something significant.  Most people want to help solve the problem.  Most people want to be good at what they do.  Very few people want to be told what to do.  Clarification: most people would rather be told what to do than to be criticized or belittled for missing the hidden agenda, but when their personal dignity is safe adults don’t like to be treated like children. Actually, children don’t like to be treated like children most of the time.  Daniel Pink explains these ideas beautifully in his book Drive.  He suggests that most people are in fact not motivated by extrinsic factors (once their basic needs have been met).  The desire for autonomy, purpose, and expertise is highly motivating.  Pink cites research studies to back his claims.  All I have is my belief about the nature of human relationships and my experience as a leader … and as someone under authority.

Even the Age of Accountability has not adequately described what we are aiming for.  We are getting outscored by Finland and a bunch of other countries and we don’t like not being first, so let’s get out there and “fix this”.  To what end?  Are we trying to get better test scores so our president can have bragging rights at the next G8 summit?  Will a race to the top of the testing heap make other countries stop bad-mouthing us?  Will better scores make life tangibly better for the individual students who achieve them or for the schools or the generation of students those individuals are part of?  I submit that schools need a better purpose than raising test scores.  A purpose that can not be prescribed by anyone outside the building nor by any one person inside the building.  The reason is simple.  If we do not all voluntarily sign up to pursue a much more meaningful goal, we will continue to become more and more irrelevant to the young people who occupy our seats because the law holds them there.  The leader who believes himself to be helpless against the time honored tradition of checklist leadership can not possibly produce results that last beyond his tenure.  At best.  The one who stares down the status quo and chooses a different approach may find that people who are challenged to be amazing – and given the freedom to pursue that goal – might begin performing at a level that could never reasonably be required by a checklist leader.  Such a leader might just disrupt things long enough to give others the courage to consider a bit of changes themselves.

photo credit: AJC1 via photopin cc

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