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Three Ed. Leadership Lessons From Donald Rumsfeld

By Paul Kimmelman — February 19, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story’s headline misspelled Donald Rumsfeld.

Imagine the unlikely scenario in which the president of the United States singles out education in the State of the Union address as a model for all other institutions to emulate because of its great success and achievement. The military has inspired that kind of admiration.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama left little doubt that, in his opinion, success can be built around the processes that the military uses to achieve its goals. He said: “These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences.” (And, despite the fact that the president didn’t offer the same accolades about the military in this year’s State of the Union address, he did say we will maintain the best military in the world, a plaudit that should be the same for American education.)

President Obama’s salute to the military started me thinking about military leadership in the context of education. Research supports the notion that school leaders are an important school-level factor in student achievement, so I considered the potential benefits of learning from diverse leaders with different perspectives. I decided to interview former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I know that many educators would question that decision, but a chance meeting at an airport prompted our exchange.

True, Rumsfeld has been a lightning rod for criticism because of his role in the Iraq War, but he also has more than five decades of experience in business, government, the military, and politics. He served twice as secretary of defense, dealing with some of America’s most serious crises. In the early 1970s, he served on a committee established by President Richard M. Nixon to encourage and guide school desegregation policies resulting from the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

A successful leader must develop reasonable 'assumptions'—assumptions that allow for consensus-building—and base a plan of action on them."

Before that, Rumsfeld was appointed director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969. Under Rumsfeld, OEO was expected to serve as a laboratory for experimental programs, including some for education. (The notion of experimental programs led by a federal agency more than four decades ago sounds eerily similar to the Obama administration’s proposal for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education, or ARPA-ED.) One of the proposed innovative programs under Rumsfeld’s watch was an experiment in performance contracting for teachers. Conceptually, it presaged the U.S. Department of Education’s current initiative to include student-achievement data in teacher evaluations. (Both failed to win over teacher unions.)

If claims that education is a national-security interest are well-founded, specifically in two reports—the highly publicized 1983 “A Nation at Risk” and the 2012 “U.S. Education Reform and National Security” by the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force—I reasoned that asking a former secretary of defense how one might think about responding to a national-security threat made sense. After all, if prominent U.S. leaders have claimed education is a national-security issue for nearly 30 years, perhaps leadership lessons from the military might help educators implement new reforms successfully. When I sat down with Secretary Rumsfeld to talk about leadership and education, I wanted him to define the most important leadership tasks through this lens. What follows are three specific topics of focus.

Managing a crisis: “People must first decide that there is a problem, accept it, define it, and then try to understand it.” Early in an emerging struggle, Rumsfeld explains, there is a tendency for people to begin the decisionmaking process in reaction to what is happening around them. However, those charged with a solution must first see the problem as solvable; otherwise, it can be reduced to “a fact to cope with over time.” Some attempt to tackle “hair knots"—problems that can’t be untangled—and then get discouraged. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Rumsfeld suggests, would “enlarge” a problem that seemed insoluble, providing a different perspective on it. For example, putting the concept of vouchers into a broader context—a system for all students, rather than simply “school choice with the funding following the student"—could facilitate a more productive discussion.

Setting goals: “In the military you get what you inspect, not what you expect. Everyone knows what will be inspected, and they pay attention to those things.” Once a problem is identified, Rumsfeld suggests, a strong leader can determine the desired outcome and seek various paths to get there. Effective leaders understand that large institutions often resist change, but that transformation is possible over time. Transformation is not immediate: It is “a deliberate slog forward to keep evolving to succeed in an ever-changing world. It’s a continuous process.” Successful schools will not undergo major changes quickly and, as Rumsfeld suggests, school leaders need a reasonable amount of time in which to implement reform.

Focusing on what works: “Something can also be bold, exciting, new, innovative, and stupid.” Rumsfeld says that leaders can get trapped when solutions that once worked do not provide the right formula in today’s rapidly changing environment. The challenge is to look for new and effective problem-solving tactics rather than dwell on practices that are unsuccessful. Although pursuing new solutions might be considered “innovative,” Rumsfeld emphatically cautions against falling for what’s billed as “bold, exciting, and new.” For example, schools have implemented many expensive technology ideas that yield few, if any, of their anticipated improvements. Television in classrooms came with the expectation that TV would improve learning; fiber-optic cable was installed in schools even though wireless connectivity was on the horizon; and now, many believe that tablet computers will solve all problems. Education success will require deliberate thinking with evidence that the solutions have a high probability of working.

In other words, a successful leader must develop reasonable “assumptions"—assumptions that allow for consensus-building—and base a plan of action on them. Otherwise, if those assumptions fall short or if circumstances change, all you will be left with is a plan that can’t be adjusted. Articulating and openly using a set of assumptions before launching reforms will help educators stay focused on the problems they are attempting to solve.

In response to my question about the need for leadership in education, Rumsfeld said both military and education leaders who seek to implement change face pressure from the periphery to stick with the status quo. Rumsfeld cites the military’s “iron triangle"—the Defense Department, Congress, and the defense-contractor community—as an example of three bureaucratic entities that often lobby to keep things as they are. Education leaders are often confronted with their own iron triangle—school boards, parent-booster groups, and local business communities—that is reluctant to support needed change.

If education really is a national-security issue, the current approach to dealing with it falls short. A good example is how long it is taking Congress to reauthorize such important education legislation as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act). If education were an actual national-security issue, there would be a high priority to solve the problems as quickly as prudence allows, and to commit to building a system that would work for everyone—one that isn’t merely about investing more money. Rumsfeld’s deconstructive problem-solving process of deciding, accepting, defining, and understanding could be a contentious one in education. It isn’t as simple as saying all high school graduates must be career-and college-ready and assuming a national consensus will form on how to achieve that goal.

President Obama has lauded the military as an institution that exceeds expectations. Donald Rumsfeld’s thoughts might incite a useful discussion about how to get and keep education on that high plain.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Learning From Military Leadership


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