Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A debate over adaptive versus technical leadership

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, recently appointed Cathleen Black as head of the New York City schools. Ms. Black is currently the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, but has no experience leading a public education system.  This appointment has set off yet another debate over the issue of who is best suited to lead large, complex urban public education systems.  A number of experts weigh in on this debate in the New York Times Room for Debate: Who's qualified to run New York City schools?

What I find interesting is that most of the arguments against Ms. Black's appointment focus on her lack of technical expertise.  Only two of the debaters consider her adaptive leadership skills.

The country has focused on education reform for over forty years, yet the achievement gap stubbornly remains a problem.  Much of the focus of reform has been to improve the technical aspects of education.  Yet, much of the problem lies in the social aspects of education.  There is more involved than simply ensuring that curriculum is aligned to standards and highly qualified teachers work with our students, although these are important.

Education is a social enterprise.  And much of what doesn't work in our public schools is rooted in social failings, which often exist outside of our schools.  If we really want our schools to work better, we need to connect them to their larger context and work to improve that context.  If we want to see success we need to consider the collective impact  of all of the organizations in a community that focus on the social well being of its citizens.

Many of the posts on this blog point to the promise technology holds to help transform our schools.  Yet technology alone won't do it.  We need standards and curricula that align to those standards.  We need highly qualified, highly effective teachers in our classrooms.

Even more importantly, we need leaders who can develop relationships across the various (and often conflicting) stakeholders in our communities.  Creating a context that enables those closest to the problem to act is critical to the success of any leader, no matter what the sector.  The effort needs to be high tech and high touch.

Yes, technical expertise is important.   AND, adaptive leadership skills--listening, empathy, the ability to hold the space so the messy work of transformation can occur--are more important than ever.  We need to get off of the either/or argument.  It is a both/and.

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