LEADERSHIP: A Superintendent's Story
Thom Ficarra, Superintendent, Morris School District, Morris County, New Jersey
David Bohm wrote a host of books and articles describing the pitfalls of fragmented thinking. He posited that thought, knowledge, and meaning making are all a part of an unbroken system and process which flows through time and culture from the past into the present. This brief paper is a part of a system of thought in which I have participated. I have interacted with a series of books, people, and experiences. None of the ideas below are wholly mine. The bibliography I provided is my best attempt to catalogue some of the profound thinkers who have shaped the thoughts I encounter on this subject and which are still in process.
Transformational change in an organization is dependent upon deep learning at all levels of the system. The purpose of this paper is to provide insight into one of my core values relative to organizational learning and leadership.
The central idea is three fold: Deep and meaningful learning is derived from interiority, an embedded intelligence which lies within all living beings. Intelligence is a potential and this embedded potential can be accessed only within the context of a caring, nurturing, and safe environment. It is a leader‚Äôs job and moral obligation to establish an environment where maximum learning is possible so that each individual can reach his potential through his work.
Details explanations and examples
Knowledge is becoming and is a potency lying within, ready to be actualized. It is a preexisting pattern in the self. The more something is known, the more it is one with the knower. Learning is a mysterious interplay in which the intellect is dependent upon innate patterns in the mind. The intellect interacts with this inner impress to produce its own intellectual yield. It is a self-conscious reflection which is simultaneously inward and outward.
A metaphor may be helpful at this point. Let's look at the potency lying within an apple seed. A gardener creates an environment in which the seed can achieve its full potential and develop from a seed into a tree which bears fruit. The gardener recognizes that he does not tell the seed how to become a tree and produce apples; instead, he creates an experience in which the seed can actualize its own potential.
Deep and meaningful learning is derived from interiority interacting with environment. It is the leader's job to be a gardener and put utmost effort into shaping an environment which honors the individual, fosters good relationships, and enables personal growth. Much like the gardener in his garden who tends the soil, provides water and nutrition for his plants, the organization's leader seeks to provide learning opportunities for each individual to reach their potential. The gardener does not tell the seeds how to become trees; and the successful leader does not resolve organizational problems or reach organizational goals in isolation. Like the gardener, he provides the conditions for individuals to utilize their intellect, interact with the environment, and learn for themselves how to solve problems and reach goals. Unlike the apple seed, the human potential has infinite embedded potential and therefore a leader has a much more compelling reason to be a good gardener.
Under the right conditions work becomes personal growth and achievement. When people are learning together at their work it doesn't feel like work, it feels like play. The culture generates healthy energy, creativity, and love. A workplace becomes most productive when relationships are healthy and individuals experience personal fulfillment. If people are provided opportunities to reach further and further toward their own inner potency, they will glow in their own increasing capacity. Achieving ones potential is a natural desire of humankind. When individuals in an organization achieve their potency through their work, it is akin to a healthy, well cared for garden: It feels good to be there and there is an abundance of quality product. Organizational transformation is achieved one person at a time.
The Morris School District is located in Morris County, New Jersey. The district serves a diverse population of almost 5,000 students, pre-k to 12. The district budget is over $90,000,000, and pays the salaries of approximately 900 employees who teach and maintain 10 buildings and many acres of fields and parking lots spread across two municipalities. The school district, headquartered in Morristown, is one of the oldest in the state and the country.
Once I arrived at the Morris School District I was almost immediately confronted with a "reading war" controversy. A year before I arrived in the district, they purchased a Language Arts textbook series. Apparently, administration thought the range of expertise in reading instruction ranged from novice to master teacher; so the textbook series was brought in as the "Guide on the side," something the novice would rely upon much more heavily than the master teacher. However, by the time I arrived as the new superintendent there were some people who felt pressured to use the textbook series in their instruction; and they openly or secretly rejected the series depending on their temperament. Others thought the series was something that should be utilized because it provided a good structure and guarantied standards would be covered. The opposition said teaching from the text would eventually become the norm. The debate got hot enough to the point where the superintendent was asked to take a position and end the debate once and for all. My initial reaction was to gather my thoughts, consult a few books, collaborate with friends and put together a position paper.
At about this time I was reading a book, Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning, by Radding and Clark. The authors' position was that Gothic architecture and Scholastic philosophy were developed from the same patterns of thinking, i.e. division and subdivision within a unified whole. It suddenly dawned on me that a learning organization should be patterned on the current thinking regarding a good learning environment, i.e. a best practices classroom. A classroom utilizing inquiry, where students constructed their own knowledge, and utilized their knowledge to collaboratively solve problems. If I wanted the Morris School District to become a learning organization, I should look to create opportunities for staff to work in learning communities that resembled the practices we valued in the classroom. It was then I hit upon the idea staff should decide the "reading war" question for themselves by utilizing the same learning patterns valued in a classroom.
We asked for volunteer teachers to read, research, and dialogue and decide the question: What is the best form of reading instruction? The volunteers were provided released time from classroom instruction as well as paid time for work after hours. They tackled their work with enthusiasm and professionalism. The staff felt honored and enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about their work. Coupling years of experience and prior reading with the opportunity for new research, dialogue among peers, and the authority to lead the way for the district in reading instruction, generated a contagious energy amongst the group. These experience teachers did not have to be told by administrators how to teach Language Arts Literacy. Like the apple seeds in the garden, the staff simply needed a gardener/administrator to provide them with the conditions which enabled them to reach for their own potential, to learn. All goals and initiatives in the Morris School District are approached in the same manner, with an eye toward providing individuals with opportunities to learn in and through their work.
Another aspect of the success or failure of our garden is the climate. The health of relationships within an organization is also frequently discussed in terms of climate. People often use terms like, "It was stormy," or "It was getting heated in the room."
Relationships, like climate for a garden, are the most important elements in organizational learning and success. One can't grow apples in the Artic and organizations will not be successful if the relationships within are too hot, too cold, or too stormy.
The organization's leader is responsible for establishing and maintaining the climate and humility is a key element in climate control. A few years ago, I heard an NPR interview with George Ellis in which he introduced Kenosis, a Greek term for self-renunciation. It was the first time I had vocabulary for an intuitive sense about one of the most important aspects of leadership: self-renunciation. One has to empty oneself of egoist needs and the resulting insecurities.
Many times I witness an overwhelming sense of relief from new principals when I assure them their job is not to be the smartest person in their school. I don't expect them to tell their staff how much they know, and how to do their jobs. Instead, what I expect from them is to draw out and energize their staffs so all can learn and lead together. Leaders have to empty themselves of the need to prove their worthy to lead. They need to empty themselves of the illusion that they are leaders because they know better. One mind cannot understand more that the collective intelligence of a healthy organization. Good leaders empty themselves of the need to be the central thinker in isolation. They think aloud and collaboratively and acknowledge it as an optimal way of working. Leadership means renouncing the need to see it your way and open up to the idea of caring, humane, collaboration which honors all. Charismatic leaders know that they are not divinely endowed with knowledge but are positioned to tap into a collective intelligence which may in fact collectively bring them a little closer to the logos.
I will summarize my thoughts on the kenotic aspects of leadership with two stories. The first one I heard a long time ago, and I am no longer sure where I heard it. It is a story about an old man's thoughts regarding charismatic leadership. When this elderly man was young, he thought a charismatic leader was someone who when people were in his presence, they thought he was great. The old man, when he was young, thought people admired and looked up to a charismatic leader. However, as the young man grew older and wiser he realized that a charismatic leader was very different. He came to understand that when the charismatic leader was present in the room, others felt great as if someone looked up to them.
The other story is said to be a Cherokee story and I first heard it from a Board member as part of her graduation speech. A wise old man told his grandchild there was a great war going on inside himself. Two wolves were locked in raging battle. One wolf was kind and generous, sought peace and harmony. He was a virtuous wolf. The other wolf was evil and egotistical. He was jealous and envious, and selfish and was ruled by vice. The wide- eyed grandson said: who will win the battle, grandfather? And the old man said, which ever wolf I feed.
We shape the behavior and the environment around us. A successful leader works toward shaping an environment which tends to the needs of others. The growth and development of all will directly correlate with the success or failure of the organization.
'animus non anima'. Mind is not the soul.
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