NMSA Great in 08

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I spent the week in Denver at the 35th Annual National Middle School Association (NMSA) Conference. As one of the banners at Denver International stated: “300 Days of Sun.” I was there for three.

When it was first decided I would go, I was excited about hearing Jim Collins (of Good to Great greatness) speak. While not as forthcoming with the “Did you know’s” or as entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell, Collins did not disappoint. Where Gladwell spoke to members of the National Council of Teacher of Mathematics (NCTM) about perseverance and the differences between the “Picassos” and the “Cezannes,” Collins spoke about the need for a consistent disciplined approach to problem solving.

He illustrated his point through a story about a school district in Arizona that sought to raise the literacy of its students. The successor of the struggling schools was one that chose a sensible plan and stuck to it (making adjustment along the way). The schools that continued to struggle were the ones that jumped from gimmick to gimmick without providing the needed time for whichever strategy they selected to take root and grow. It is called the Beat the Odds study.

The “difference between great and good is a culture of discipline.” The path from good to great is never a single gigantic push but the momentum of consistent ongoing efforts. The “signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.”

He spoke of the specialized challenges leaders in the “social sector” faced that those in the corporate world did not. He said clearly, schools cannot be run like businesses. The nature of the field did not allow for it. He authored a monograph addressing this point, Good to Great in the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer.

He reiterated the point he made in the monograph’s introduction:

It is simply not good enough to focus solely on having a great business sector. If we only have great companies, we will merely have a prosperous society, not a great one. Economic growth and power are the means, not the definition, of a great nation.

Among the distinctions he made regarding the differences between the corporate world and the social sector is the “executive level 5” versus the “legislative level 5.” “Level 5” being Collins’ definition of the successful leader. The latter being the goal of a school leader. He went on to say that the role of a school superintendent is to be a “shock absorber” with regard to board criticism. The superintendent’s objective is to allow for enough time for a program to take hold.

“Creating citizens who create citizens in the flywheel of society” is what he said before speaking of a “pivotal time” in a child’s life when he or she chooses a direction that will forever color his or her future actions. It’s reminiscent of Gladwell’s Tipping Point, “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”

He concluded his talk asking us to create a “stop doing list,” a list of things to stop doing in order to promote “white space,” time for reflection and thought. “Work is infinite, time is finite.”

Generally speaking, I enjoyed his talk. He ended with a powerful “thank you by proxy” to all of the teachers in the hall. It earned him a standing ovation. However, I still have  questions regarding his Hedgehog Concept. Does the hedgehog still win in an age with “information speeds” at an all time high in conjunction with competition? Who’s doing when I “stop doing”? And will that person eventually take my job if he is “doing” and when I am not? Does race and culture come into play here? How sensitive should we be to the cultural sensibilities of our coworkers, staff, and leaders?

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