Education has long courted the idea of leaders coming from the “outside” that being, organizations that are not educational in nature, bring to our business of education a perspective that cannot be gleaned from someone who is brought up through the ranks of teaching and educational leadership. I beg to differ. I seem to be somewhat of an anomaly . . . an educational leader who views leadership and organizational improvement through the lens of business. I credit a former professor for changing my trajectory, just slightly, so that my thinking as a leader might incorporate different ideas, ideas that one could not find in education at the time, but could readily find in the world of business and developing successful companies.
More years ago than I care to (or can) remember, I toyed with the idea of acquiring an administrative endorsement in education. This credential was necessary for anyone who wished to pursue school or school district leadership positions. Essentially, after a series of prescribed courses, a state will give you a license to lead. I pursued this degree largely at the urging of those who were already leaders and felt I had “natural ability,” to lead, whatever that means.
I was pretty happy as a teacher, a band director in fact. I had the best kids, the best parents, and I was able to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do. I spent my days helping students become more proficient musicians and my evenings, usually, on the football fields, teaching and practicing marching band shows. I always got great evaluations, largely because the principals charged to observe and evaluate me had no clue as to what I was doing and if I was doing it well or not. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I would not be teaching music and leading bands, especially one that had me carry a radio and watch children eat lunch for four hours a day or talk to students all day long about class tardiness or skipping class altogether.
But, with continued poking from colleagues and those for whom I had respect and admiration, I decided to sign up for a course – one course in educational leadership – just to see if I liked it. I was fairly certain I would not, but what the heck, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I don’t recall the exact title of the course but it was the introductory course to school administration. I was so disinterested in taking the course, I didn’t even bother to buy the book. I really thought this little adventure would be short-lived.
I walked into the class and looked around the room. I distinctly remember two things: 1) I was the youngest person there by quite some margin and 2) I clearly had nothing in common with the other students in this class. These two observations almost convinced me to walk out before the professor walked in. But, as fate would have it, I stayed. A few moments later, the professor arrived. To my amazement, it was the same person, who several years earlier as a high school principal, gave me my first teaching job. Uncanny, I thought. Well, it got better.
After some pleasantries and questions like “what are you doing here?” (we asked each other that one) he started the class. He asked who had purchased the book and only two people had not – of course, I was one of them. He told us the bookstore was open for another twenty minutes and we should go now and buy the book. I hadn’t read the course syllabus before I went to the bookstore, so I walked in to purchase a book and didn’t know the title.
With the help of a graduate student and excellent signage, I discovered that the book was called In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman. I thought this was both interesting and odd. I had read a number of educational books, articles, journals, and so forth and had not come across Mr. Peters or Mr. Waterman. I quickly found out there was a good reason: this book had nothing to do with education, or so I thought. I did what just about everyone does, picked the book off the stack and fanned the pages from back to front thinking that it would give me an idea of the flavor or focus of the book. It didn’t.
Back in class, the professor had already begun to discuss the rationale for the book. As he discussed organizations, systems thinking, process and performance management, MBWA, and a host of other terms that were completely foreign to me, I took some solace in the fact that everyone else in the class looked as confused as I did. And then the fateful question was asked:
“What does this book have to do with school leadership?” asked someone in the rear of the class. “How will this help us?” A broad smirk broke out across the professor’s face. He knew the question was going to be asked and he was ready; heck, he seemed born ready to take this question.
While I don’t remember the exact words, the professor artfully crafted a response centered on the need to lead first and worry about the type of organization you were leading second. This idea was completely antithetical to anything I had considered before. He told us as we got into the book we would understand how businesses became successful and how the role of the CEO shaped the success. IBM, GE, 3M and other companies were offered as examples of success (remember, this was the 1980s). Systems thinking, quality management, process, vision, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, tenacity, embracing failure and creativity were all topics the professor mentioned as having importance in developing a leader.
I was hooked. I went home and I started reading. For the next several weeks, I carried the book everywhere I went and read it every chance I got. During my 23 minute lunch period, I read. After school and between rehearsals, I read and after my then toddler of a son went to sleep, I read. I folded the corners of pages and wrote in the margins. I read and re-read concepts of quality and management by wandering around. I was amazed that post-it notes were actually a mistake and because of the ingenuity of a group of people, it started a revolution – all from a failed glue.
Since that introduction to “In Search of Excellence” I have read every edition printed. I’ve considered the ideas and theories presented in the book and have had great fun helping people understand the difference between bees and flies and why that is relevant to this business we call education. I still have the original book I purchased that fateful first night of my very first class on becoming a leader. How lucky I was that this particular professor led us down another road to a different place; a place that was completely unknown to me and a place that would shape the rest of my life.
I suppose that it sounds like hyperbole to suggest that a book on business shaped my future as a leader and my life in both the business world as a start-up entrepreneur and an educational leader who talks about Jack Welch a lot more than others think is wise and considers ideas like evidence and return on investment a lot more than others wish to hear. I would not be the leader I am today if it were not for that professor exposing me to this book on business, “In Search of Excellence.”
Since those days, I have read several books by those two authors as well as other business greats: Peter Drucker, Peter Senge, Jim Collins and Jack Welch, just to name a few. Drucker taught me about culture and Senge taught me systems thinking. Welch taught me creative and bold leadership and of course, like millions of others, Collins taught me how to find a path to level five leadership. I kept finding great books and reading them and not one had a focus on education. Yet, every page, every idea, every concept or theory could be directly applied to the business I led; the business of education.
Thank you to Dr. Rick Castallo, today, professor of education at California State University at Northridge for choosing the absolute perfect book to introduce me to the world of leadership and eventually shaped my work as an entrepreneurial leader.
And, if you have never read the book, I strongly urge you to do so. I have several copies if you want to borrow one.