Leadership In The Age Of Managers

Tuesday, July 7, 2020
The general rule is that leadership inspires action, while management organizes action. In any organization, you have to have leaders and managers. This is true in business, as well as in the public sector. San José State University professor Alvin William Musgrave Jr. argues, “It is time to rethink management and leadership in the public sector.” Some of the chaos we are seeing in our streets is the result of managers taking the role of leaders and thus failing to provide confidence and leadership.

Musgrove points out that, “Public confidence in government is at an all-time low when the government faces myriad challenges.” It is true public trust in the government remains near historic lows.
Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right. To make matters worse, in a similar 2019 Pew Research study a “majority of adults say they have little or no confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions (59%).” To put that in layman’s terms, nobody trusts the government, and the majority of people do not think we can fix it. Poor management or poor leadership? You can debate.

So, while public schools continue to take the brunt of criticism from people unhappy with the government, here is an astounding Gallup statistic: Americans' Satisfaction with U.S. Education at 15-Year High. Polling in 2019 reveals that 51% of U.S. adults are satisfied with the quality of U.S. K-12 education. That is the highest number since 2004. Most parents remain satisfied with their own children's education. The Gallup Poll finds that because education is perceived as more of a local than a federal issue, U.S. education quality is not a partisan issue. There is virtually no partisan difference in Americans' satisfaction with U.S. education.

Robert Kennedy famously said, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” Leaders can see the possibilities. John Quincy Adams wrote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Often it takes managers to translate vision into reality. Leaders can learn to manage and understand they need managers.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd shooting, Chattanooga Chief of Police David Roddy wrote on social media, “There is no need to see more video. There is no need to wait to see how ‘it plays out.’ There is no need to put a knee on someone’s neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with this...turn it in.” Roddy did not wait for a poll or a contrived public relations statement. Roddy simply did what he is known to do - he exercised leadership. It is an innate ability to know what to do at the right time that sets most leaders apart. Such is the case with the COVID-19 global pandemic. We have seen leaders rise and fall as they tried to manage the outbreak. Some have done better than others.
As students return to school in a few weeks, we need both leaders and managers. First and foremost, our districts have to be empowered by the state to make the needed adjustments. So if that is attendance requirements or assessment waivers, those may need to be permitted. Our schools cannot be managed by bureaucrats in Washington DC or Nashville, Tennessee. The only thing worse than mission creep in education or warfare is micromanagement. In the Vietnam War, imposed intrusive restraints on military operations utilizing dubious theories made the war a fiasco, even though the troops on the ground never lost a battle. Elected leaders need to keep our appointed managers at bay for the foreseeable future.

As we return to school education leaders must: 1) create clear and realistic goals that every stakeholder can understand and accept, 2) empower staff to make decisions while understanding they will ultimately be responsible for those decisions, and 3) be visible, available, and caring while ensuring that needed support or help is available. Leadership is about the real conversations you engage in with stakeholders. Each community needs a plan before school opens and input from community members, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members. People don't follow visions, schemes, or ideas; they follow leaders. 

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JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.

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