The Learning Organization. It’s a concept that best captures my vision for the work of a school district. The district doesn’t exist primarily to balance budgets, or to maintain the physical plant, or even to develop and deliver a rigorous curriculum. Those are important tasks. If you mess up the budget, you end up in the newspaper and lose your job. If the physical plant fails then lawsuits start showing up on your door. If you fail to develop a high quality curriculum, then the potential for powerful learning is greatly diminished. Fail to meaningfully address these critical managerial tasks at your peril.
But they don’t represent the most important leadership task at hand.
The role of leadership is to elevate learning to its highest priority. And I’m not just talking about student learning. A learning organization recognizes that deepening the skill and capacity of its employees is a fundamental strategy for any enterprise trying to dramatically improve outcomes.
Today I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation about building capacity for systems transformation. In other words, fostering a learning organization. The lesson was led by Peter Senge, who is a bit of an organizational theory guru who teaches at MIT. I’ve led plenty of leadership learning sessions that draw heavily on Senge’s work, and it was a lot of fun to finally learn from him in person.
Of course, while it’s easy to say that developing the capacity of staff should be the highest priority of the system if it is serious about dramatic improvement, it can be very hard to accomplish in practice. Especially in schools. Our discussions today got me thinking about those professional responsibilities that strengthened my own capacity to lead systems-level change.
Punching Above My Pay Grade
I owe a lot of my professional growth to a small group of mentors who have taken an outsize interest in my leadership development. For people like Dr. Gregg Good, Dr. Alex Molnar, and Gia Truong, I wasn’t just another employee doing a job. They all saw in me the potential to learn and contribute in powerful ways that went far beyond my job description. While I was still a classroom teacher, Dr. Good asked me to lead a team of administrators to visit an out-of-state district to learn more about implementation of the International Baccalaureate program and how we might develop a strong language policy at a school with various language communities. Dr. Molnar put me in charge of a major research project and publication. As my direct supervisor, superintendent Truong encouraged me over and over again to come to my own conclusions, and act out of a sincere sense of what was right and effective versus simply doing what I was told to do.
In all cases, these mentors offered me one of the most valuable assets a leader can extend. Trust. They trusted me to take on projects and initiatives that, on paper, I probably wasn’t entirely qualified to take on. I made mistakes, sure, but on the whole I delivered when given the opportunity. Perhaps even more importantly, I deepened my capacity to lead meaningful change on a broader scale.
The central importance of taking time to reflect on our leadership work was reinforced yet again today in my learning session at the Carnegie Summit. You have to take time to stop and reflect. Take stock of where you are, what you’ve accomplished, and where you need to go next. For Senge, who has conducted research into organizational improvement for decades, this need for reflection time has emerged as one of the three most vital leadership capacities.
In practice, reflection time takes many shapes. It takes shape as a blog site, where I occasionally stop to try to make sense of what I am experiencing. By committing my thoughts and challenges to paper, I’m forced to work out the jumble of thoughts happening in my head. Sometimes it takes the shape of a retreat. I openly encourage principals and teachers alike to find time to get away from their schools and classrooms. Yes, this can be controversial because the structure of schools demands our physical presence every day. But it is nonetheless essential. We have to get away to have space and time to reflect on the organizational architecture of the institutions we lead. We have to regularly flex our strategic muscles by taking a step back and considering the systems in which we are embedded.
This is closely related to the time we set aside for reflection. Leading change is not technical work. It is adaptive in nature. When done in any meaningful way, leadership moves people. It moves them off of entrenched positions and perspectives. It forces people to confront uncomfortable scenarios and corrosive relationships. It is emotional work. It is sometimes lonely and uncertain work. As Hefeitz and Linsky suggest, it is dangerous work.
It is dangerous precisely because it is so personal. We don’t like to acknowledge how we contribute to the mess. As Senge called it today, we are uncomfortable seeing our own handprint on the dysfunction of the system. Much of our work today was spent doing a “left column analysis,” designed to highlight the gap between what we really observe, think, and believe and what we are willing to say.
As my wife will attest, my work stories typically have me at the center – the protagonist. It would be better to more regularly cast myself as the villain. How am I undermining the highest purposes of the organization and what steps can I take to mitigate my own weaknesses? Asking those type of questions of ourselves can be deeply unnerving, yet is an essential exercise for one aspiring to develop a genuine learning organization.