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If ever there was a quote that captures the essence of blogging in educational leadership/management, it is the one at the end of this blog entry. One of the challenges of working in K-12 schools can be the top-down, hierarchical approach our schools take in managing people.

Please Note: Before going any further, let me say that I am NOT writing about my current employer or work situation; any resemblance is coincidental. This is a challenging scenario due to the organizational structure and culture of K-12 public school districts. The examples that I allude to are in Texas districts, certainly, and flow from my observations as an education consultant chatting with people throughout the State. That said, this is not a study of principal positions, what happens to them, etc.

For example, a school district has a failed principal. Failed is the wrong word to use because principals themselves do not see these necessarily as “failures” per se. If they did, I suspect they would be more depressed. 

So a re-assigned principal–which is done for a variety of reasons, any of which might be categorized positive or negative based on perspective–the principal at a campus is judged to not be the right fit for a particular job of enhancing teaching and learning at a campus. Or, if you want to be politically correct, there is a better fit elsewhere (which in some cases related to me, isn’t accurate and IS a canard).

As a result, the principal is re-assigned to “other duties.” Those other duties could be personnel management, testing office, counseling, assistant principal, etc. at either central office or based at a campus. “Failed” principals can also be placed in “leadership” positions as program directors. In fact, for some districts, this is desirable–placing a principal in a leadership position because they can then fine-tune the program to “better meet the needs of the campus.”

While one can’t deny that a placed principal can be effective in a particular role,  sometimes these folks have the role of being “Yes People.” I’m going to steal the description of Yes People from The Art of Followership:

Yes people are positive, always on the leader’s side, but still looking to the leader for the thinking, the direction, the vision. If the leader asks them to do something, they’ve got the energy and they’ll go forward with it. When they finish that task, they’ll come back to the leader, asking “What do you want me to do next?” Yes-people will say, “I’m a doer; that’s my job. The boss gets paid to think, and I’m the one who does the work.

Is that really a valid expectation for principals? I worry when I see this kind of behavior permeating an organization. It’s right in line with the idea that principals are soldiers that should do what they are told from on high.

I’m pushing back on this idea because my real concern is that Yes People end up in “program” leadership/management positions…yes, positions like Educational Technology, Core content Curriculum leadership, Library & Media Services that serve the entire school district. Is SERVICE defined by the Yes People’s attitude?

Such a perspective better serves a top-down hierarchy, a command-n-control approach that is (IMHO) no longer effective anywhere, including the military (I loved the movie We Were Soldiers Once and Young example of platoon leaders being wiped out and then the next in line being asked, “What are you going to do now?”), education and business. A more nimble approach is required.

In truth we need more of star followers approach in schools today:

Start followers think for themselves, are very active, and have very positive energy. They do not accept the leader’s decision without their own independent evaluation of its soundness. If they agree with the leader they give full support. If they disagree, they challenge the leader, offering constructive alternatives that will help the leader and organization get where they want to go. Some people view these people as really “leaders in disguise” but this is basically because those people have a hard time accepting that followers can display such indpendence and positive behavior. Star followers are often referred to as “my right-hand person” or my “go-to person.” Organizations with more star followers perform better because the star followers need not depend on the leader for direction or motivation. This reduces the transaction costs that hinder organizational success.

The question is, what happens when a star follower finds himself in an organization that prefers Yes People?

This is where “what we cannot say” comes into play, or as Chris Argryis defines it so well, “the undiscussables.” These things we cannot say or talk about present problems and people are afraid to bring them up…Argyris’ point in Overcoming Organizational Defenses is that….

…managements, at all levels, in many organizations create, by their own choice, a world that is contrary to what they say they prefer and contrary to the managerial stewardship they espouse. It is as if they are compulsively tied to a set of processes that prevent them from changing what they believe they should change. . .The most fundamental assumption of the underground managerial world is that truth is a good idea when it is not embarrassing or threatening — the very conditions under which truth is especially needed.

Or, as Fierce Conversations author Susan Scott puts it, “A careful conversation is a failed conversation, because it merely postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place.” It means that we often have to wrestle with the “world” that organizations have created and move to the real conversation that needs to take place. That’s why we end up with the “Yes People’s” version of what is to happen versus the Star Follower’s version. In an organization that has its defenses up–that values Yes People over star followers–and protects itself against embarrassment, which conversation is validated? The careful one or the one that needs to take place but you can’t find the people to have it with (they are hiding in their bunker).

 Consider this quote from Morning Manager:

How many undiscussables would this team discuss if this team could discuss undiscussables?”
That question, put to the top team at a manufacturer of high-end office equipment by an outside consultant, could probably be asked of many executive teams that are afraid of issues considered too hot to handle.

The people who say what we cannot say, who have the conversation that needs to happen, who work to overcome the organizational defenses…well, it’s their job to say what most are unable to say.

Of course, reflecting on that, is that you are unable or that you choose not to? If unable, then this might refer to people being written about at sites like For those that lack the courage to speak up, hmm….images like the one at the top of this blog entry remind me that there are more fearful things to speak truth to power about.

The role of writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” 

– Anaïs Nin

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure