Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Education, Bad Leadership, and Harvard

We have a problem with bad management, pretending to be leadership, in this country. And it has infected education.

Even in a small area like mine, the symptoms have been plain to see. A major local oil business was put under the leadership of a man who had previously run a soap company and a toy company. He was not good for the company. In my town, the mining machinery company that employed both my father and my brother passed through the hands of several management organizations who installed top brass who knew nothing about the mining industry. It did not end well. In both cases, major employers for the area were gutted, jobs lost, local economy damaged.

I think I left some leadership over by the tea pots.
It was the smaller scale version of what we've seen with retailers like Sears and Toys R Us-- companies that lost their flexibility and edge because they were run by dopes who didn't know the business-- just how to extract value.

All indications are that our tech giants are just as terribly run, with Facebook repeatedly in the hot seat for a morally tone deaf mistake-plagued string of bad behaviors. Duff McDonald took a look at the woman taking the heat, Sheryl Sandberg (she of Lean In fame), and in particular the kind of leadenly education she got from the Harvard Business School, which McDonald marks as ground zero in this bad leadership pandemic.

The truth is, Harvard Business School, like much of the M.B.A. universe in which Sandberg was reared, has always cared less about moral leadership than career advancement and financial performance.

It is an education, McDonald says, that stresses that there are no right answers, and, he suggests, no moral dimension to making this choices. The article includes a story about Jeff Skilling, a product of Harvard Business School and McKinsey's Uber-consulting firm, operated in the same style.

One of Skilling’s H.B.S. classmates, John LeBoutillier, who went on to be a U.S. congressman, later recalled a case discussion in which the students were debating what the C.E.O. should do if he discovered that his company was producing a product that could be potentially fatal to consumers. “I’d keep making and selling the product,” he recalled Skilling saying. “My job as a businessman is to be a profit center and to maximize return to the shareholders. It’s the government’s job to step in if a product is dangerous.” Several students nodded in agreement, recalled LeBoutillier. “Neither Jeff nor the others seemed to care about the potential effects of their cavalier attitude. . . . At H.B.S. . . . you were then, and still are, considered soft or a wuss if you dwell on morality or scruples.”

Part and parcel to this approach is a devaluing of expertise. If what matters is value created and harvested, and there are no right answers to situations, then what use is industry-specific expertise? One batch of hot-shot leaders looked at the cyclic nature of mining machinery sales and decided that value wasn't being generated in the down time, and so mandated changes that someone versed in the field would describe as "stupid." I don't want to sidetrack with a discussion of the industry, so imagine this-- some takes over a strawberry patch in Maine and decides that they aren't selling enough strawberries in January, so makes fixing that a priority. That kind of stupid.

Here's an article from last month's Harvard Business Review. It says the fundamentals of leadership haven't changed. Here they are in all their jargonified glory:

1. uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;
2. building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;
3. attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;
4. relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;
5. creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and
6. “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.

Notice what's not on the list?

Knowing what the hell you're talking about. Knowing enough to know whether  or not your  "exciting, aspirational vision" is a bunch of stupid bullshit.

And for those of us in education who have been reading and listening to reformsters for the past decade or two, don't these sound familiar? Have a bold vision, regardless of whether or not you know what the hell you're talking about. Attract the best possible talent, so get the power to hire and fire at will. Relentlessly focus on the results, even if you have to make up a toxic bullshit way of measuring them. Innovate all the time, because shiny. The other thing missing from the list? Anything about working productively and effectively with other human beings.

And most of all, pick leaders based on their leaderly superiority and never based on actual knowledge about education. Hell, a year or two in a classroom should be more than enough to make you an education visionary. But field-specific knowledge is completely unnecessary, because there are no right or wrong answers-- just your answers, your vision.

The really sad thing is that it doesn't have to be this way. I used to think W. Edward Deming was dry and cold, but he's a big woolly-hearted hippie compared to modern captains of industry. Build trust. Take care of your people. Do what's right. Know what the hell you're talking about. It's not that hard!

But no-- education reform had to be infected with the same Harvard Business bullshit that is being dropped all over the China shop of the American economy. The big question is how much more breakage has to occur before we chase the ivy-covered bull out of here.


  1. It’s the government’s job to step in if a product is dangerous.” Several students nodded in agreement. " This is what our DESE board of Ed says -- it is not their job to see that the charter schools are accountable on anything ... so the fraudulent marketing claims go unaddressed by anyone in the state.

  2. "Several students nodded in agreement."

    It's a good thing we've been doing such a great job of teaching critical thinking....