WHEN THE CLOCK RESETS TO ZERO
(Some Reflections of a ‘Yesterday’s Leader’)
One of the organisational contexts that has been precious over the years, is a belief in the fact that institutions should progress in an onward and upward direction. “Steady state” development has always been important. It is confirmed as a practice if what has gone before is accepted and built upon by those new to organisations. The idea that succession in office should require the successor to dump as baggage the organisational culture he or she inherited in order to start all over, is anathema.
The best organisations are those that build, accepting what has driven the particlar institution to date and moving it along. There will be some changes, including practices that might be deemed redundant. By and large however, it will be a case of incoming leadership accepting existing culture and building on existing mores. Modification, refinement, revision and extension come to mind as drivers of this precept.
Suspect organisations or those that have their credence called to mind, are those in which leadership changes are generally or always accompanied by the dumping of inherited culture in order to ‘start over’. Leaders who practice this philosophy seem to be uncomfortable with other than their own ideas and perceptions. They contextualise the organisation they have inherited as threatening, until the vestiges of development occurring under previous leaders are expunged. This means ‘wiping the slate clean’ and pretending that ‘what is’ (inherited culture) ‘never was’ because it is peremptorily wiped out.
Metaphorically, that assigns everything built up over time to the waste paper bin. If organisations are build from the foundation up, its a case of big time demolition and the reduction of what has been to a pile of rubble. Leaders who are comfortable with only this operational style are not satisfied until the very foundations on which the organisation was built, are gone.
Expunging School History
Schools are organisations. The application of this principle, (tear down to build up) to schools and school communities can, in my opinion, be extremely destructive. While it might identify the Principal or Leadership Group as the sole owners of what ultimately comes to hallmark the school, damage done in ‘evolving toward’ and reaching this point can be destructive to the extreme. Organisational history and school history are wiped out; what remains are cultural scars.
Leadership so styled flies in the face of logic. It is generated by a false belief that in order for the new leader or leadership group to feel safe and comfortable within the school, its past must be dimmed until it vanishes into a never remembered past – a past that fades until fully shrouded by the ‘never was’ mantle.
Genesis 1:1 – In and Back to The Beginning
There used to be criticisms leveled about leadership changes in remote area Northern Territory schools. It was of concern that Aboriginal Schools were destabilised by the fact that incoming leaders assigned existing policies to the WPB as the first step in ‘starting all over again’. The fact that schools were always at Genesis 1:1 ‘in the beginning’ meant that little accumulative progress was made.
There used to be an advertisment on television talking about the propensity for people to take ‘two steps forward and one step back’. With Indigenous Education it became more a case of ‘one step forward and two steps backward’. This was largely the result of incoming leaders and staff members not accepting the authenticity of pre-built culture developed by those who had come, contributed, then gone.
When this happens in school contexts, the clock resets to zero and the organisation is forced to start over. The cycle of recommencement is not confined to Indigenous Schools. It happens elsewhere. It happens far too often and the happening has a deleterious impact on schools and their supporting communities.
There is a saying “If there is no problem, why fix it?” The answer to this question lies in an innate belief that people contemporary to organisations feel impelled to individualise the institution in order to leave upon it their mark and their stamp. They don’t want their contribution to be in any way diluted. In a school context this means incoming Principals and leadership teams don’t want what they have to offer, to be colored or tempered by what has gone before. Rather than accepting and building upon organisational history the preference is to dump inherited culture and ideology, therefore starting over again.
It seems there is a lack of logic to an approach that discounts organisational development, attempting to return (its) time and historical clock to zero. Nevertheless it happens and not infrequently. One probably never quite knows why, so contemplation has to be somewhat conjectural.
The Question of Personal Security
Perhaps the most significant reason new leaders attempt to shed the ‘old’ and ‘established’ school practices is their desire to make a mark that is not seen to be influenced by what has gone before and therefore been inherited.
There may be concerns by new leaders they cannot get on while historical residue remains. They desire to put distance between themsleves and the organisation’s past feeling that until and unless they do, they will be minimally acknowledged. They don’t want to be compared to past leaders lest that comparison shows them up in a poor light. The best thing to do therefore is to promote a ‘fade out’ of what has happened in past years. “I can’t get on while memories of your involvement linger in the background’ may apply. That being the case the ‘new’ incumbent’s aim is to “put distance” between herself or himself and past leaders.
This worry may be aggravated by the new leader or leadership group feeling uncertain or insecure in the new position. The need to ‘prove oneself’ may come from inner motivation: It may also be that the new leader has been told she or he needs to take the school in a certain direction.
The incoming leader may have been told things about the school are wrong and need to be put to rights. The need to be a ‘fixer’ has certainly been put on incoming principals appointed to various schools in the Northern Territory over the years. Unless the Principal lives up to the expectation… ! The consequence may be less than palatable.
These matters go to the heart of personal security. Often it seems those new to principalship suffer from feelings of insecurity. This is likely to be exacerbated if the Principal is taking up appointment in an interstate or intra-territory location.
Elements Impacting on ‘Person Security’ Issues
The issue of security – with its close links to personal well-being is impacted by further considerations.
1. The fact that the Principal occupies (in the NT) a non-permanent position with the maximum temporary appointment being a four year contract, adds to anxiety and can create feelings of personal disequilibrium. The Principal becomes a creature anxious to please and therefore a person who is very conscious indeed, of superordinate expectations.
2. The loading down onto schools of Government expectations with accompanying accountability and compliance requirements may make new leaders anxious to show their worth by doing it their way – where their way has close alignment to systemic policy.
3. There may be a belief held by the incoming leader that the previous incumbent will somehow continue to impose upon and influence matters at the school. It could be a case of ‘gone but not really’. This means that in terms of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) Analysis, the previous Principal and leadership group are regarded as threatening the newly appointed leader.
This being the case, the new leader will take every opportunity possible to distance her or his predecessor from the school. There is a certain worry about new leadership being compared and contrasted with the past; this can be felt as a threat by the new leader, particularly if the previous leader was in place for a substantial period of time and during that time had built up a respect base of appreciation within the school community.
An astute leader new to a school community will carefully assess that past and aim to engage her or his predecessor in a way that enhances opportunity and builds strength for the incoming leadership team.
There is danger that if the incoming leader and leadership team predetermine the outgoing leader to be a threat, this concern may become a reality. It is not hard to imagine that if the outgoing leader perceives herself or himself to be regarded as ‘alien’, this too may become a reality. No-one who has made a sincere commitment to an organisation for a long period of time appreciates being tossed aside and regarded as distasteful. It would take a noble person indeed, to ‘suck this up’ without reacting. Incoming leaders need to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
4. It follows that new leadership may suggest that what is inherited is inferior or sub-standard. That justifies statements such as “drastic remedial action is necessary” and “things will get worse before they get better” – implying that if those within the school have been comfortable in working within an inferior environment, they will be given a good shake as the new leadership groups takes the school toward betterment.
Wise leaders take their time to carefully assess inherited environments before initiating wholesale change. While they may wish to change the way schools are branded, this needs to be done with care. Good inherited organisational practice deserves to be maintained, not tossed aside.
5. Plagiarism is an interesting juxtapositional point that comes into the equation of new leadership, particularly in Northern Territory schools. There are rapid population shifts within the Territory. It is not unusual for schools to have a turnover of one third to one half of the school student population every twelve months to two years.
With this being the case, incoming school leaders can allow processes and practices to lapse for a period of time, then re-introducing them as new ideas after twelve months or two years. This is accepted as healthy change by a client group who, not familiar with the way it was, considers these changes to be new rather than ongoing. This could apply to school assessments, reporting to parents, school marketing, methods of newsletter circulation and so on. Far from being new, these approaches are back to the past; however they are claimed as being new ideas. Undeserved credit is given to leaders for what is tantamount to recycling.
‘New’ initiatives and approaches are new to those who come later, but not to those who have been there all along. In other words, what is ‘new’ is really old hat.
No -one denies that school leaders (and leaders of other organisations) need to be given a fair go. Pragmatic people rejoice with leaders for and in their management and administrative successes. Those who don’t are sadly negative or inherently jealous.
However, when incoming leaders in turn deny what has gone before, wanting to minimise memories of previous leadership contribution and distance their predecessors from the current and contemporary organisation, a similar negative applies. The one is hardly better than the other.
Some leaders from the past may want to ‘push in’, being reluctant to let go. Others are more than willing to relinquish but can stay connected in a positive context as resource people.
It is behoven on school leaders to be careful lest their actions lead to negativity and generate bitter waters and bad feeling for and within their organisations.