Thursday, February 8, 2018

Horatio Nelson, Adaptability, and Leadership

Every week like most principals I have my version of the Monday Memo, Weekly report, or other piece that tries to get everyone on the same page in our school. Each week I do an 'Instructional Focus' that is usually some discussion on instructional initiatives or big ideas. This is one of those writings.

Horatio Nelson, Adaptability, and Leadership

My philosophy of leadership has always boiled down to “Support them, and get out of their way to let them do the job.” At the heart of this is the belief that in education especially it is about adaptability to the myriad variables that enter our profession: students. I believe that highly effective staff members at their core have the ability to intuitively adapt to the needs presented to them on a daily basis, and as a result maximize the learning and preparation of our students. Adaptability is critical to a successful organization. As a highly effective teacher understands that a great lesson can be tossed on its head by students who are having a rough day, highly effective leaders should realize that the most careful laid plans can be tossed to the wayside based on the variability of students. Adaptability is key to successfully navigating the changing landscape that a school presents daily.

Mr. McIntosh (9th grade science) turned me on to the above book “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McChrystal as he saw strong linkages to the work we are doing here, and the ideas presented in the book by the general. Gen. McChrystal writes intently on the idea of adaptability in organizations, from the viewpoint of his command of one of the most highly effective military teams in existence. He argues that the strongest lesson he had to learn as a leader was the fluid adaptability of this teams become mission critical for both the pursuit of victory, and the safety of his people. Whereas established doctrine dictated a much more rigid approach, and his study of military history emphasized a rigid approach, the environment and variables he was confronted with demanded a different response. He found quickly that instead of looking at his team as a series of people on his command, it was critical to look at his team as a ‘team of teams’ comprised of smaller sections that had to own, understand, and make decisions about their realms of responsibility while communicating back, and with each other for their contribution to the overall mission.

What he found was that this was a hard pill to swallow in an organization that by tradition, was hallmarked for it’s rigid hierarchy. This became a pain point in implementation of the new decision making and information sharing models that he sought to implement, for he knew that these models were what the environment, and problem demanded. He sought examples of these ideas in the history and traditions of his field, and settled upon a sound example produced by Admiral Horatio Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. The nuances of naval warfare aside, the lesson at the heart of the illustration is that Nelson gave a set of loosely defined parameters to his captains (his teams) and gave them the autonomy to self correct the plan if it went off course. This was counterculture to the established doctrine of the admiral leading each movement of the battle from his ship in a rigid succession of orders. McChrystal correlated this to his experience battling Al Qaeda, in that the rigid military hierarchy was forced to become flexible in the face of an enemy that’s hallmark was adaptability. While we are not at war here at school, I think the lessons speak soundly to large organizations dealing with complex variables. He speaks of “shared consciousness” which results from transparent information sharing. In the example below he outlines the traditional model of team, the next iteration of commanding teams, and then the finally example he strived for, the ‘Team of Teams’. I’d encourage you to look at it through the lens of the school and where we fall as a school. I’d argue that the first iteration isn’t the most conducive to maximize the learning and preparation of our students. While it works in some schools, I think the rigidity doesn’t adapt to the variability our students present, especially in a high needs school that has the multivariate factors of poverty. I think the real strength is in the area between the second and third iterations of his idea. We can ensure the success of these models by how we communicate, and what monitoring systems we have in place to ensure we remain focused on the mission. We do this through support and cultivation of decentralized decision making.

Decentralized decision making authority, what the General terms “empowered execution” aided his team of teams in dissolving barriers of the individual silos and levels of their hierarchies. While these traditions had given a uniform efficiency, the need for adaptability in the face of a changing landscape became critical. I think there is a strong connection to education in this analysis. Our organization is based in traditional, rigid hierarchies and traditions. Such as the principal as the prime decision making authority, the teacher as the font of knowledge, or the sage on the stage that delivers instruction to receptive students who sit patiently in organized rows to consume the knowledge provided.

We know these traditional hierarchies are not only outdated, but in many ways wholly inefficient, and unadaptable. We then look to newer organizational models. In these models the principal empowers decisions makers while retaining organizational oversight and decision making ability, teachers become flexible facilitators of knowledge rather than the sages on the stage, and classrooms are no longer orderly rows of desks with basal readers on one corner, and pencil neatly in the tray. Instead we develop environments where decision making is shared, teams have autonomy to adapt to the variables that are presented in their unique situations, teachers are given the space to adapt lessons and instructional techniques to the diverse needs of their learners, and the classroom environment becomes flexible. Or, at least we should.

Here in our school we have made policy and practice that I think supports these ideas. While we can always do better, i’d like to take a moment and write about the structure of decision making and adaptability. In some things we are very tight and rigid in our decision making. In some aspects we are much more loose, and adaptable. Our guiding team is SBDM, who involve themselves in matters of large policy, budgetary decisions, and hiring practices. In practical application the day to day oversight of budgeting, policy implementation, and staff development falls to the admin team. Front line concerns fall to the teams/ academies/ sections that have oversight of their concerns, and decision making is executed at multiple levels. My goal is that each team/ academy/ section has decision making ability in their area, that filters up through the various team leads, academy leads, and department chairs who comprise our 2 ILT teams. In these teams we should see the hallmarks of initiative for improvement of their areas tied to the overall mission of the school, and a collection of individuals that combine critical thinking abilities to implement our overall mission that THE Marion C. Moore school will be a school where students want to be, adults want to work, and the community is proud to have their children attend.  I think, at the heart of this is the ability to adapt, and the resiliency to move forward.

Education is by nature a field of variables.  Resiliency of our organization comes into play when we are confronted with change, adversity, challenge, even animosity; and the ability as a school to roll with these punches, or as the quote above states "benefit from them."  What a wonderful idea if we are so strong a school in our adaptable systems, that we don't shudder or balk at growth and conflict, but instead we become stronger and more agile for it.  This is what we should strive for in all of our teams.

What I think we gain from this type of organization, and more importantly what we must continue to strive to nurture is the leadership of our individual teams to maximize the learning and preparation of our students. The trick of making this all work is that we are adaptable in our individual areas, but tight in our overall cohesion as a school. We have made some great strides in culture, and feel of the building. I think that for the most part we like to come to work, have a vision of what we want to become, and generally get along as a staff. We continue to have growth in the tightness of our processes, the pedagogy of our approaches, and the analysis of our work to see if it is indeed maximizing the learning and preparation of our students. To support this structure we place a premium on transparency and communication. To support this structure we place a premium in decentralized and ‘spread out’ decision making. Where we continue to have growth is ensuring our communication is sound, and our decision making keeps at its heart an analysis of what is best to maximize the learning and preparation of our students.

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