Saturday, August 9, 2014


Unity is hard.

When leaders of a group start by saying, "We need to be sure we have total unity on this," the rest of the sentence is almost never "and so we are going to sit down with you and really listen to your concerns and ideas." No, generally a call for unity within a group comes with some diplomatically-worded version of "so shut up and get in line."

It's understandable. Groups, particularly groups that are focused on activism and Getting Things Done and Standing Up To The Man on Behalf of Our Members, really do accomplish more when they present a united front. The easiest way to render your opposition ineffective is to get them busy fighting with each other (like, say, getting people who might be unhappy with crooked rich people to focus their attention on teacher pension costs instead).

It's another example of the seduction of means that seem justified by the ends. "If we can get all the members lined up behind these goals," the reasoning goes, "then we will accomplish great things for them. So anything we do to get them lined up is okay." And that is how union leaders end up lying to their own members. "If we let a few outliers stir things up, it will distract from our mission," is how we get to the ironic spectacle of a group dedicated to giving teachers a voice in the ed reforms debate telling some teachers to shut up.

If you add personal ego to that, it only makes things worse. I have advised many, many student groups over the years, and every few years I hear the argument, "Look, we're getting really good things done as officers right now, so why not just extend our term and not have elections. If we elect someone else, they'll just mess things up."

I don't think lust for power ("I want to rule everything!") damages groups nearly as often as well-intentioned ego ("I'm the only one who can get us through these tough times, so I'd better hold onto the power to do that!")

Unions get crazy messed up with this stuff. NEA and all the sub-EAs stage manage meetings and votes more tightly than a college band halftime show. People can rise through the ranks-- as long as they prove that they're the Right Kind of People and pass all their litmus tests on the way up. And this year I've been reading repeatedly about some of the bizarre practices of the AFT, including loyalty oaths and groups whose rules against speaking out are far tighter than any school district's every thought of being.

I've been a union local president. I totally get the frustration that comes with That Guy (every single group has one) who wants to argue about stupid things or who demands that his quirky idea be considered or (least favorite) wants to argue about decisions made at long meetings he couldn't bother to attend. But if you're not careful, you will find that your group, formed to represent the concerns of individual members, expends enormous energy suppressing those individual voices. The BATs group is one of the most valuable new organizations to pop up in the education landscape, but it occasionally responds to dissent or disagreement with a blunt "If you don't like it, leave. We don't need you." That's embarrassing and indefensible.

Unity in a group comes from listening to the whole group. Leadership requires a balance of getting out in front of the group and staying with and within it. It's a broad, fuzzy line. If your stance is, "Well, I can't make a move until the group tells me what they want," you're on the wrong side of the line. If your stance is, "What they need??!! I'll tell these people what they need!!" you're on the other wrong side of it.

Individuals bear some responsibility as well.

It is pointless to take a stance of "I will unite behind a leader just as soon as I find one who matches what I want 100% of the time," also known as "Never."

For every leadership figure in every movement, you can find people who bitch about that leader because she is too radical, not radical enough, too cocky, too meek, or took the wrong position on the Great Waffle Debate of '07. The leader may have made a good call on 99 issues, but can't be forgiven for his position on Issue #100.

In every movement you can find people who are so twisted up about the detail work that they've lost the ability to distinguish between people who are fundamentally their allies and people who are their mortal enemies.

The answer for individuals, I think, is to stop thinking that A Leader is someone whose judgment you can always safely follow blindly. Too many people think that belonging to a movement or following a leader means that you never have to thoughtfully consider your options and your choices ever again. That's simply unwise. We are all human. I have had days of really great smartness, and profound stupid. After fifteen years of writing a local newspaper column, the best thing I still hear is, "I don't always agree with you, but..." Because if you always agree with me, God help us both.

Look, leaders are, by nature, difficult people. They have enough ego to think they can lead, and if they're at all effective, they take  a stand on issues, which guarantees that somebody somewhere will think they are wrong. No infallible superhuman is coming to rescue us; we are going to have to make our peace with the pesky live humans who have showed up to work the problem.

As members, we need to ask this question: Are our leaders standing up for values and goals that we fundamentally support?

As leaders, we need to ask these questions: Are we hearing from all our members and considering how what they have to say might matter to our mission? Are we earning their loyalty, or simply demanding it? Are we engaging their best judgment, or demanding that they not use it?

I'm not much of a joiner, and I'm very leery of groupthink. Meetings where we sing songs about how great our group is or share poems about the greatness of Fearless Leader just creep me the hell out. But I value BATs and NEA and AFT and the leaders who keep those groups moving forward, and I can offer my support and backing without doing it blindly. I try to be realistic about their strengths and weaknesses without imagining that either the strengths or the weaknesses are the full picture.

There is often a fear in leadership that debate and disagreement will weaken the group. But spirited and principled debate is often the best path to strength and unity. Maintaining unity in a movement is like balancing a stack spinning plates-- it requires constant adjustment and energy. You can't just step back and let it go, it's always just this close to falling apart, and if you try to solve the problem by just cementing all the plates together, you've ruined the whole thing.


  1. "There is often a fear in leadership that debate and disagreement will weaken the group. But spirited and principled debate is often the best path to strength and unity." Regarding NEA and AFT, I wholeheartedly agree: These are important groups to their members in numerous ways, and the level of diversity is much more extreme.

    But regarding BATs? Different creature altogether. BATs is an optional group with a set of specific, clearly defined positions. They charge no dues, and members are defined by their own choice to ally with the organization. BAT admin constantly asks members in their FB group, "Are you in the right group"? In other words, sharing a specific and delineated vision, values, and goals is what defines a BAT. A pro-Common Core assertion in BATs is not tolerated, nor should it be. A question about the nuances of BATs position on the Core, however, is certainly allowed...until the conversation jumps the track.

    Given the rather astonishing success of BATs in such a small amount of time, the effectiveness of this strategy is clear. BATs provides a meeting room at the World Teachers Convention, and a sign is posted outside the door: If you agree with all this, step inside, and let's strategize, organize, and take action. If you don't, please look at the signs posted outside the other convention room doors.

  2. Their singularity of vision is definitely an asset. But the enforcement of it can be unnecessarily harsh at times. I am a big BAT fan, but I have no illusion about the group as a place to share viewpoints and discuss varied ideas. That's fine. I don't expect them to be all things to all people, and they've done some good course correcting over the last year. They have done some great, great work, no doubt about that.

  3. Peter, I wonder how many people start out reading this saying, "Yeah, That is so right", until they see their group mentioned?

    I have thought this way ever since I started to question the fearless leadership of the Vietnam War, then when I started teaching, the UFT who ignored us newbies. I have continued to try to "hold up the mirror" to those who I worked for and leaders I worked with. With tenure as a teacher, I could do that. Some of my principals and supervisors welcomed it and some didn't.

    Organizations, no matter how true to their just cause, will always need members who "hold up the mirror" without fear. But will they?