Guest post by Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership at Drake University, originally featured as a post at https://sites.google.com/site/dcintrial2/. Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Doug.
I am the proud owner/friend of a one year old 75 pound golden retriever named Landry, affectionately named after the former and well-respected coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, Tom Landry (my wife is an avid Cowboy fan!). On a recent walk, I unexpectedly gained an insight from Landry about myself connected to the principles and practices of leadership.
Let me preface my new learning by sharing that while I have always known it, given my 22 years in school leadership positions, it continues to become clearer and clearer to me that quality leadership is perhaps the highest leverage “strategy” in any organization that must be in place for improvement to occur. An effective leader is needed to help develop, articulate, and operationalize the vision of any organizational system and to help the “parts” to work together, in a coordinated fashion, in order to achieve the aim. Continual improvement, or quality, according to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, “begins in the boardroom.” In other words, continual improvement initially lies in the hands of leaders and without steadfast commitment from leaders, organizational improvement and learning are not likely to occur. With regard to education, it should never be overlooked that in addition to a district’s “formal” leaders, the teacher is the leader of the classroom system.
About three weeks ago I was on a walk with Landry and my wife. As we neared the end of our walk we emerged from a wooded pathway and onto the sidewalk of a fairly busy street in our neighborhood. As cars, moving in the same direction we were walking, drove past us Landry lunged towards the street in an effort to chase them. Attempting to chase after cars is not a new phenomenon for Landry and neither was the force I needed to apply to keep him from separating my shoulder. Since he first joined us on walks, Landry has demonstrated a strong inclination to chase…rabbits, squirrels, deer, cars…you name it. If it moves, he chases it! While I love his spirit and energy, I must admit I can at times get tired of constantly anticipating when the next chase will ensue, for not only does it grow irritating, but the health of my arm is at stake! In hopes of better understanding and possibly minimizing his chasing without impeding his youthful energy, I began conducting some research (aka “Googling”) to learn more.
“Predatory chase reflex,” also known as “prey drive” is the “instinctive inclination of a carnivore to find, pursue and capture prey” (Source: Wikipedia). Levels of this “prey drive” or “predatory chase reflex” vary from breed to breed and from dog to dog. Landry, as it turns out, is teeming with this drive, much more so than our previous goldens. In short, “chasing” is part of his nature, perhaps even his biology, even though the vast majority of the time (well, actually all the time) he comes up empty-handed (or empty “pawed”), so to speak. Despite his lack of success, he persists (I wonder if this means he possesses a growth mindset!).
As Landry attempted to chase cars during that walk, I was struck with a new insight. During my experiences as a school leader, I have exhibited the very same “chase reflex” as Landry. In my most sincere and well-intentioned desire and efforts to improve learning for the students at the schools and district I led, I chased multiple initiatives. The problem was, much akin to Landry, I chased one initiative for a little while and then another, and then another. As I reflect back, the vast majority of these chases did not result in any significant, lasting improvements in the organizations I led. They were exciting and fun for a while, but when I didn’t see immediate results, off I went in another direction. Had Yoda been mentoring me he likely would have commented (cue the Yoda voice), “The chase reflex is strong in this one.”
I do not believe I am the only leader who suffered or suffers from the “Landry Principle,” as I now refer to it. It describes the tendency of leaders, with the very best of intentions, to chase “shiny baubles;” the “soup de jour” of programs/initiatives advertised to guarantee improved student learning results. However, we know all too well where these initiatives lead and the impact they have on our budgets, and more importantly, our people. For people, there is a cascading psychological effect. As a result of chasing one new idea and then another and another, initiative fatigue sets in – like the fatigue that my arm and shoulder feel as a result of Landry’s constant chasing and pulling – ultimately leading to cynicism (sometimes I dread my walks with Landry because of the constant chasing). In order to protect themselves, people adopt the “this too shall pass” mentality – an emotional wall, so to speak – for it serves as a method for people to protect themselves psychologically and keep some sense of predictability and control in their work; two factors Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky cites as the foremost contributors to stress. As far as the budget is concerned, I cringe when I think of the money that may have been wasted with each “new fad,” that was pursued as we fell prey to the Landry Principle.
Chasing new ideas as educators is indeed understandable and perhaps even rational, for amidst the external demands and the many challenges and subsequent frustrations that exist in educating children, sometimes it just feels like we should be doing something…anything. Alas, longitudinal results over time (as demonstrated through the use of control charts) typically show little, if any improvements as a result of these “quick fix” schemes.
Truth be told, during my final school leadership position, five years as superintendent of the Urbandale Community School District, I gained control of my “chase reflex” as a result of my interaction with Dr. Deming’s work and my desire to fundamentally improve the system I led. I am happy to say that armed with new learning, new knowledge, and new methods we began the transformation of our system, achieving for two consecutive years (my last two) the highest levels of student achievement in 17 years, as measured by the percentage of students reaching levels of proficiency and above. The district, I am pleased to say, continues on with this work, improving all aspects of its performance.
Finally, I asked our veterinarian about Landry’s “chase reflex” and how long I might expect it to last. He indicated that while it may settle down a bit once he is through his “puppy phase” (2-3 years), it will likely always be a part of him. I can live with the chase reflex in my dog, for despite my complaining it’s actually one of the many things I like about him. However, as I reflect on the Landry Principle and how it might manifest itself in the work of leaders, it becomes a less lovable attribute and one with significant systemic ramifications, relative to the performance and psychological health of schools and other organizations. I wonder which of Dr. Deming’s “14 Points for Management” are being violated as a result of the Landry Principle, and what remedies might exist as a counter. While I have my own thoughts about it, I want to invite readers to consider the question and offer their own thoughts.