Education Opinion

Our Schools Need Leaders, Not Managers

By Dave Powell — September 12, 2016 5 min read
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This year I decided to do something I haven’t ever done before: I signed up to be a “leadership coach.” The first thing this did was get me signed up for a Friday afternoon orientation session. For a second I thought I was going to need a leadership coach of my own to talk me into getting there, but I prevailed. And I was actually glad I did.

I was glad because the experience of getting together with other people to talk about leadership made me think a little more carefully about my own leadership style, and about what I look for in a leader. “Leadership” is one of those terms, like “accountability” and “critical thinking” and “student-centered,” that seems increasingly to have lost much of its meaning in education, mostly because everybody uses it and nobody really defines it in the same way. As we all know, “good leadership” is a lot like “good teaching": we say we know it when we see it but we sometimes have a hard time describing it to other people. Teaching it to someone else is another thing entirely.

So what makes a person a good leader? At our training on Friday we threw around a lot of the standard stuff: good leaders are purpose driven and goal oriented; they listen well; they understand that effective leaders are good collaborators; they’re emotionally intelligent. Check, check, check, check.

But there’s another trait that I look for in good leaders: a willingness to take risks. Now, I know this is not what most people look for in a leader—and the last thing many leaders want to do is take unnecessary risks. I would agree that taking unnecessary risks is undesirable but I balk at the idea that careful, cautious leadership is what people in positions of authority should strive for, especially in schools. In fact I wouldn’t call that leadership at all. I’d call it stewardship. Or maybe just management. Who ever got inspired to follow a manager?

Then something happened over the weekend that seemed to confirm exactly what I was thinking. If you’re a baseball fan you may know that Rich Hill, who pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had a perfect game through seven innings on Saturday night. He was pulled from the game after the 7th by his manager, Dave Roberts, even though Hill had only thrown 89 pitches and was completely in command. Roberts calculated that Hill might hurt himself if he went further. And he couldn’t let Hill do that.

I understand the logic: baseball managers are hired to manage multi-million dollar rosters, to manipulate lineups and massage egos and employ effective in-game strategies to maximize the possibility that the team might win a championship. They’re hired to not make mistakes. I get it. After the game Hill said he did too—his manager and coaches had all practiced their lines and agreed to that Hill’s future health was more important to the team than his perfect game—but it’s hard not to feel for him.

See, there have only been 23 perfect games in the history of major league baseball, stretching back 140 years. Think about how rare that is. It’s estimated that some 210,000 games have been played in that time, and only 23 have ended with one side never getting a single man on base. Rich Hill was six outs away from making it 24, and he had only thrown 89 pitches through seven innings of work. He was efficient and he was effective. He was dominant. He was damn near perfect. He could have gone out and finished it off, but his manager never gave him the chance to do it. He never gave us the chance to see it.

Roberts’ overabundance of caution, and his sad attempt to rationalize it as something that had to be done for the greater good, is an object lesson in the difference between management and leadership. For starters, whose “greater good” was served here? Roberts, the manager, argued that Hill owed it to his teammates to come out of the game to prevent the possibility of getting hurt because that, in turn, might cost the Dodgers further down the line. (That Hill has a long history of being hurt probably makes this a question if when, not if, which only makes Roberts’ decision more puzzling. If you believe the man is going to get hurt anyway, why not let him try to finish his perfect game?) But I would counter that Roberts cheated every baseball fan on Saturday night, not just those who care about what happens to the Dodgers. His pitcher had a chance to do something that has only happened 23 times. Instead of recognizing the opportunity his pitcher had to do something historic, Roberts punted. He decided he couldn’t afford to take the risk and in the process, as far as I’m concerned, he let everybody down.

How many times do school leaders do the same thing? Schools are widely recognized as some of our most conservative social institutions; the more they try to change, it seems, the more they stay the same. People sometimes blame this on the inertia of institutional structures, and no doubt that has something to do with it. But at some point educators have to realize the difference between managing and leading. How much could be changed if people in leadership positions took a calculated risk once in awhile? How much could be improved if leaders had a better sense of history, and of the need for change? Good leaders can see where people need to go before they see it themselves. A leader would have never doubted Hill’s ability to finish on Saturday night, and might have even made it more likely by making his faith in his pitcher known. A manager conserves and protects; a leader inspires.

I’m not arguing that change for change’s sake is a good thing. But change is what leads to growth, and you don’t have to be destructive to be disruptive. If a building is in need of repair, one solution might be just to tear it down and build a new one. But that doesn’t always make the most sense. Sometimes a better, more thoughtful solution is to repair the building while keeping the foundation intact. Either way, a building that’s in need of repair is in need of repair. When I look at schools I see a lot of cautious managers unwilling to acknowledge the need for repair and not able, apparently, to suggest how it might be done. I also see a lot of reckless “reformers” who confuse destruction with leadership. Somewhere in the middle is closer to where we need to be. Maybe by teasing out the difference between management and leadership more of us can get there.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.