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Superintendents Michael Lubelfeld and Nicholas Polyak Talk About “The Unlearning Leader”

November 30, 2016 0 Comments

In today’s always changing environment – technologically, culturally, demographically, etc. – an organization’s capacity to innovate and change is the key to long-term success – to thriving and sometimes even surviving. Not systematically innovating and changing are a sure-fire path to failure.  So leading innovation and change is one of the highest priority – and one of the most challenging – functions of nonprofit and public chief executives, including superintendents.  Wearing their “Innovator-in-Chief” hat, superintendents must not only put in place and lead board members and staff through well-designed process for generating innovation initiatives, they’ve also got to play the leading role in overcoming the inevitable and very understandable human resistance to changing in important ways.

In my work with nonprofit and public organizations over the years, I’ve found that people’s resistance to change – even of the most sensible and well-conceived innovation initiatives – can be quite ferocious, principally because of that old demon fear: fear of failing, of being embarrassed, of losing status or ego satisfaction.  And this fear can be an especially insidious enemy of change when a person isn’t consciously aware of it.  I recently witnessed a classic case of unconscious fear at work.  I was facilitating a superintendent’s cabinet work session at which we were batting around the idea of transforming school board members into major league ambassadors of the district, who would be “booked” to speak on behalf of the district in key forums in the community, such as the county commission.  An associate superintendent – a thirty-year veteran who handled the district public relations portfolio – began to raise a number of questions about a variety of things that might go wrong if board members were sent out as district ambassadors, such as a board member veering off topic during a presentation, or getting facts wrong, or expressing personal opinions at odds with other board members, or……..on and on and on.  After sitting through this monologue for fifteen minutes I realized that I was once again hearing from a self-proclaimed devil’s advocate who, although no doubt well-meaning, was engaged in what I call “killing change with a thousand sensible questions.”  I have absolutely no doubt that she was fearful of losing control and status, albeit unconsciously.

In light of the tremendous importance of systematic innovation in the K-12 sector, Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Polyak’s forthcoming book, The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today (due out from Roman and Littlefield in spring 2017) is a welcome addition to the K-12 leadership literature.  The unifying theme of their book is that in order for significant innovation to take place in a district, board members, executives, and staff must engage in unlearning traditional assumptions and practices in all functional areas, clearing the way for essential new learning to take place.  Looking over Mike and Nick’s manuscript, I was pleased to see that they pay close attention to a subject that this blog has addressed in recent articles:  the innovation planning process.  Observing that traditional five-year strategic planning is a largely ineffective district tool in these changing times, Mike and Nick go on to discuss how plans can be turned into action, the key role of mission and vision as drivers of change, and the human resource dimension of implementing planned change.

The podcast that Mike and Nick have recorded for www.boardsavvysuperintendent.com provides a great introduction to a powerful new book that you’ll want to add to your leadership library.

Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists superintendents in building rock-solid partnerships with their school boards.
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