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School Improvement, the Ultimate Test of Leadership

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells about the Stockdale Paradox. The point Collins is trying to make is that a paradox exists between holding out hope and confidence while at the same time being able to confront the brutal facts as they currently stand.

Here's the story, Jim Stockdale (you might remember him as Ross Perot's running mate) was a prisoner of war in Vietnam's Hanoi Hilton. While he had no doubt that he would eventually be set free, he knew that it wouldn't happen any time soon. Jim Collins had an opportunity to meet Jim Stockdale and asked him the question "Who didn't make it out?" Stockdale did not hesitate with his answer. He replied "The optimists." You see, the optimists would say "We'll be home for Christmas." When they weren't they said, "We'll be home by Easter." When they missed enough milestones, they died of broken hearts.

It is easy to see the story as a metaphor for leading school improvement efforts. You have to maintain faith that improvements will come; but you also have to realistic in understanding that the improvements will take time.

I have a different moral for this story. While in the prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale would intentionally disfigure himself by cutting himself with a razor or beating himself in the face with a broken leg of a stool. He did this so that he could never be put on television as an example of how well the prisoners were being treated. Even this is not my moral. My moral is the fact that he was able to get other prisoners to disfigure themselves. In my view, true leadership only happens when people follow even though they have a choice not to.

I really liken this kind of leadership to attempting to lead a school improvement effort. Teachers can attend planning sessions, but then go a back to their rooms and do pretty much whatever they want. The job of the leader is to get people to do that which they have the realistic option of not doing.

Think that this is overstating the obvious? Me too. Wish that rather than just pointing out the obvious I would offer some guidance? Stay tuned. Next week, although I won't tell you what always works, I'll tell you what never works, and why not.

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