May 20, 2013

Leadership is about climate control, not command and control


In a new TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson (embedded below) he focuses on prevailing education systems and how they stifle learning and creativity.  He eloquently makes the case that education is not a mechanistic endeavor that is about conformity and compliance, but an inherently human and organic process that is about valuing diversity and enabling creativity.  This same argument is very relevant to modern organisations.

According to Sir Ken, there are 3 principles that enable human life to flourish:

1. Diversity - Human beings are naturally different and diverse

No two children are the same, and the same is true about adults i.e. employees.  Most organisations, similar to educations systems, aren't focused on celebrating diversity, they are focused on conformity and standardisation.

2. Curiosity - Curiosity is the engine of achievement

Once the spark of curiosity is lit in a person, whether a child or adult, learning and achievement happen naturally.  As Sir Ken says: "Curiosity is the engine of achievement".   People who have an active interest in their work, who are passionate about what they do will naturally be more engaged.  They don't need extrinsic motivation to perform, their curiosity will drive them.  In his book Drive, Dan Pink writes about the latest research into human motivation, his findings are similar.  Intrinsic motivation drives creativity, extrinsic incentives stifles it.  In education, as in organisations the drive for conformity and compliance is stifling creativity and achievement.

3. Creativity - Human life is inherently creative

"We all create our own lives through this restless process of imagining alternatives and possibilities, and one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity.  Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization"

According to Sir Ken, high performing education systems in the world individualise teaching and learning - they recognise the uniqueness of each learner.  The same can be said about high performing teams, they recognise that each individual has a unique gift to offer to the team, and they intentionally nurture their uniqueness.  Another aspect of high performing education systems is that they devolve responsibility to the school level.  They don't operate in a central "command and control" modality, they realise that learning happens in the classroom and that the people who are the closest to it, who understand the context are the best at determining what should happen in the classroom.  Similarly, high performing teams are often found in organisations that have a similar culture of devolving decision making and enabling local self organisation.  A good example of this can be found in software development teams managed according to Agile principles.

Sir Ken's final argument is that education is not an industrial process that can be managed with policies based on mechanistic conceptions.  Education is a human system.  To take it further, it is a social complex adaptive system that co-evolves with its environment.  And the same is true of an organisation.

He ends of with a compelling metaphor, which manages to perfectly paint a picture that summarises his message, but also brings hope.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do (if you substitute school for organisation, it still works)

"Not far from where I live is a place called Death Valley. Death Valley is the hottest, driest place in America, and nothing grows there. Nothing grows there because it doesn't rain. Hence, Death Valley.  In the winter of 2004, it rained in Death Valley.  Seven inches of rain fell over a very short period. And in the spring of 2005, there was a phenomenon. The whole floor of Death Valley was carpeted in flowers for a while. What it proved is this: that Death Valley isn't dead. It's dormant. Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility waiting for the right conditions to come about, and with organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. It happens all the time. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.

Great leaders know that. The real role of leadership in education -- and I think it's true at the national level, the state level, at the school level -- is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn't have expected."

[ted id=1738]

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