When leaders are asked about how they got to where they are, many share a story; a story that makes visceral the journey they traveled, the experiences that influenced them, and hints at some of the challenges they faced.
The leaders I admire most embrace the principles of Aikido - when confronted, they seek to at least neutralize their opponent (without causing either party harm), and ideally transform that negative energy into something positive for both sides. This approach doesn't just lead to progress, it leads to sustained progress where in time, nay-sayers might even become advocates.
I've also noticed that leaders are perennial students - it is that openness that creates new possibilities and partnerships. And this almost goes without saying - you won't find a leader whose mission can't be articulated in a single, clear and succinct statement.
I was talking with my dear friend Larry last week about his creation - in his words: "our mission is to create a public." Larry is a great leader, this is his starting point, and his simple and powerful intention.
Parsing this statement, we first discussed it's Jeffersonian connection - schools must reflect all of society, and in the right proportions. It must represent all the peoples of the state (irrespective of gender, race, economic status, etc.) - that's what public means. Sadly, our current system doesn't - while desegregation is law, most schools are in fact segregated, and worse, our policies and philanthropy are intent on perpetuating this segregation! (You get more funding if your school has more underserved students - so schools tend to become all underserved to maximize $$.)
It hasn't worked with prisons (let's put all of societies transgressors together in one place in the hopes that they will rehabilitate while being surrounded by fellow criminals), what makes us think it will work in schools? Every school needs to be a place where all of society mingles, collaborates, and evolves. It is the first representation of that more perfect union, where you bring students from all walks together and give them a place to learn about each other, to work together, and learn from each other. You must create a possibility for tomorrow that is vastly superior to lumping all the poor urban kids in one school, and all the rich in another.
Larry also talks about head and hand - you must learn and do, learning theories and concepts and reading about things is not enough - you must not only build things, you must be those people - to learn biology you must do as biologists do; to learn engineering, you must be an engineer - only then can you really know, and only then can you really choose your own destiny. This is why his graduates are more focused, more adaptable and more open to a changing future.
When you explore his village of six (one elementary, two middle and three high) schools, some things occur to you - first that you would have loved to go to a school like this, second that you'd want this for your children, and finally, you'll ask: "why isn't every school like this?" So much of it is so obvious (and so right) when you see it, that you are shocked to learn that the mainstream school system resisted it because it is different; not "normal," and not how they've always done it (some continue to resist).
But with time and with leadership and with perseverance and with results, minds are changing - there is hope. Maybe one day all schools will be like this.
I'm left with this question - how do we accelerate the transformation? It's not that every school must look like Larry's. It is rather that real leaders must be in charge of all schools. These leaders should be as exacting as Larry is about hiring people, as committed to creating a place that is open to possibilities, and as intent as Larry's teachers are on helping every child find that spark that elevates them from bored to compelled, from observer to participant, from consumer to creator.
We've made education complex - it isn't. We've created a system whose rules require a book that's several inches thick, whose administrators are intent on saying no, and whose staff is only interested in test scores. We've forgotten what it's like to be a student. We've forgotten that it is about graduating children whose future is profoundly more brilliant than anything we might conceive. We've forgotten that it's about creating a public.
We need more leaders that won't ever forget.