Decisions, Dilemmas and Dangers

Are you fixing problems or managing predicaments? For school leaders, there’s a fundamental difference by Richard Farson

The image of the leader as a decision maker has enthralled and seduced leaders and followers alike for at least a century. Autobiographies of the most revered executives, Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca and General Electric’s Jack Welch, for example, chronicle their great decisions. Reading them, one cannot help but develop a picture of successful executives as tough loners who reach decisions privately, make them quickly, communicate them firmly and hold to them tenaciously—usually with the odds against them and at considerable risk to their own reputations.


Leadership as it is practiced by most of us is, of course, nothing like that. Interviewing CEOs, one learns that they make only a few really important decisions in a year and then only after prodigious research and consultation and soul searching. More than half the time they are not even involved with the internal operations of their organizations, but are dealing with industrywide issues, community relations or government business.

Most of the time CEOs simply are talking to people—in meetings, interviews, on the telephone, in the hallways. To the extent they address internal issues, they are putting out fires, holding the organization together. They question, advise, encourage, urge, commiserate, smooth, inspire and listen. Still, even though it is not what leaders mainly do, the ability to make decisions continues to be equated with strength of leadership.

One common complaint subordinates have of their bosses, therefore, is that they cannot make decisions. It can be a devastating criticism because it implies weakness and lack of courage. Most likely, however, the complaint is based on deeper issues. Often the subordinates don’t know what is expected of them, don’t feel that their talents are being fully tapped, haven’t supplied their bosses with necessary information or recommendations, or are unsure of the influence they can have on the management process. But those are more difficult conclusions for the employees to reach and would require the complainers to regard themselves as partially responsible for whatever difficulties they are experiencing. So they resort to the complaint that the boss can’t make decisions.

Problems vs. Predicaments

Part of the difficulty comes from associating decision making with problem solving. Managers are led to believe that the job of leadership is one of confronting and solving problems. But leaders at the top seldom face problems. As people make their way up the management ladder, they deal less and less with problems and more and more with what the late philosopher Abraham Kaplan called predicaments—permanent, inescapable, complicated, paradoxical dilemmas. Problems can be solved, but predicaments can only be coped with.

A problem has specific causes, pathological roots, something went wrong and can be identified and fixed. Problems can be analyzed and solved, one by one. Predicaments, on the other hand, have no clear causes or are caused by factors that we could never consider doing away with. They are complex in the extreme.

Crime, for example, is often cited as a problem. But we search in vain for causes, such as poor parenting, pornography or too much violence on television. When actually studied, none of these quite pans out. Even appalling social conditions of racism and poverty cannot explain crime. Societies with racism and poverty far worse than ours can have virtually no crime.

Absurdly, crime is more likely to come from aspects of our society that we would never want to change. It comes more from affluence, freedom, materialism, private property, mobility, urbanization—even from our attempts to control it, such as policing and penology. That is why crime cannot be solved. It is not a problem in the first place. It is a predicament. We cope.

Problems require analytic thinking. Predicaments, however, require interpretive thinking. To deal with predicaments, leaders must be able to put a larger frame around a situation, see it in the sweep of history, understand it in context. They must be especially alert to deeper paradoxical influences and therefore the possible unintended consequences of any decisions that flow from that interpretation.

Top leadership is best characterized as the management of predicaments. Practically every issue faced by school administrators has within it a fundamental dilemma, where one side is as desirable or undesirable as the other. The leader has to manage in that context, knowing that for the most part, issues cannot be permanently resolved and that choices made are to some degree arbitrary because the opposite course holds just as much promise.

Paradoxes in Leadership

When the 20th-century French author Albert Camus said, “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth,” he was not alone in identifying paradoxes, or seeming absurdities, as basic to all human affairs. Plenty of CEOs will testify to the centrality of that concept.

The absurd always plays a part in any decision process. That is why top leaders are not much interested in the idea that they can predict the future and decisively control events. Organization theorist Charles Handy explains that the term “management” did not originally mean control. Top leaders understand that and they practice management according to its earlier meanings. To them, the term seems to mean, “Oh, we’ll manage.” They equate management with coping, which is what leaders do most of the time.

While I know how rewarding educational leadership can be, I still often wonder how administrators get out of bed every morning and go off to such demanding, frustrating, even dangerous work. I so admire them and wish that we could eliminate some of the more maddening aspects that are created by the absurd conditions they face.

Perhaps an understanding of those paradoxes will free their energies for more productive efforts. To that end, let’s examine some of the paradoxes they face, the predicaments that underlie the choices they must make, the absurdities that turn what we often wish could be problem solving into what it usually must be—coping.

* Paradox 1: Teaching is a great profession, but one of the few dominated by its clientele.

It matters not how well trained or experienced a K-12 teacher, principal or superintendent may be, the client has ultimate power. Educators may know a great deal about the findings of educational research, the particular needs of their students and the new methods of instruction, but pressures from the community determine the course of events. And no matter how wise, dedicated, passionate and highly motivated they may be, educators are all subjugated (at times even tyrannized) by the people they are trying to serve.

The pressures come not so much from the students, of course, but from their parents, boards of education, state legislatures and other forces in the community that shape the discussions and inevitably compromise professional judgment. We pride ourselves on the ultimate democratic control of our educational system and would not want it otherwise. Yet the defeat of professional interests by lay control is doubtless greater in education than in any other field.

Even though teachers and administrators fully recognize these pressures often represent only fashionable trends that are unsubstantiated in research and practice, because of the power of governing school boards and state legislatures, they usually must bow to the trend. Physicians, lawyers, scientists and professors (professions that are also supported by public funds) would regard such tight control over their practice as unprofessional, even unethical, and have systems in place to resist such pressures.

Indeed, it is a principal function of professional societies to strengthen their members in such battles. Education is especially vulnerable because it involves children, because everyone has had a prolonged experience in the educational system, and because parents and others understandably believe they know what is best for children.

Administrators are pressured to forego education in the arts for an emphasis on mathematics and science, even though they and their teachers know the central importance of arts education. They now must mandate homework at every grade level, including kindergarten, even though they know that homework may be completely unrelated to achievement and excessively burdensome, not just to teachers, but to students and parents. They must forbid their teachers to touch children, even though they know that a hug from a teacher could be beneficial and represents no danger. The pressures are undeniable and must be balanced against professional experience to render judgments that recognize and can embrace both sides of the dilemmas. The administrator copes.

Compulsory Schooling

* Paradox 2: Education is highly valued, carefully planned, theoretically sound, but incredibly ineffective.

Even after devoting 13 years in full-time study, the average graduate is barely literate, could pass few of the tests he or she passed in school and will not have read a book in the past year. Recently The New York Times printed a multiple-choice history and general information test that was that was given to Ivy League college seniors. The test was comparable to one that might be administered in about the 7th grade. The median percentage score for these seniors was 53.

We should quickly note that some students spurt ahead, some teaching is brilliant, and some schools manage to get most of their graduates into good colleges. But what happens to make a professionally planned curriculum fail to deliver for most students?

Here again we are faced with paradoxes. We take pride that here in the United States education is a requirement and almost all children go to school. Yet the consequences of compulsory education (an oxymoron?) serve to make teaching exceedingly difficult. Inquiry and learning take second place to the requirements of discipline and control. The demands for learning what social critic Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, called the “hidden curriculum” take over (sitting still, raising one’s hand, taking turns, standing in line, obeying adult authority, not asking questions in certain subject areas, etc.).

These behaviors are taught by the form or ritual of education, and unforgettably learned by all. But while they are usually meant to facilitate learning the subject matter, they are often so demanding that they militate against it. Half of the new teachers, who had planned to devote their lives to this profession, become so discouraged by the emphasis on classroom control that they drop out after a few years. The administrator copes.

* Paradox 3: Today, most teachers are not themselves learners.

It is well known that the success of the women’s movement in opening the job market depleted professions previously regarded as women’s territory, such as teaching. We now miss not only some great women teachers, but also thousands of bright young women who might have chosen teaching as a career. In years past, these women teachers represented the cream of the crop. They were well-educated, thoughtful and intelligent pursuers of knowledge—studying and reading on their own.

I remember frequent boyhood visits to my two great aunts who had both retired from teaching in Chicago; one even had been a superintendent. They were among the most intellectually inquisitive people I have ever encountered. One was a poet and essayist, the other an avid naturalist and birdwatcher. Their home library was filled with great literature and with books on science and politics. Their conversation was all about current affairs. Students who were lucky enough to have been assigned to them embarked on a fascinating journey of inquiry, a journey that their teachers also were motivated to take.

Many teachers today are not even prepared in the subjects they are assigned to teach, let alone ardent inquirers into other fields. It would seem that teachers, of all people, should be interested in the life of the mind.

Sad to say, the education schools in most universities now attract the least qualified and least intellectually oriented students of any schools on campus. Education today is thus devoid of the most important ingredient—teachers who are themselves eager learners. As a consequence, administrators must make decisions in a situation where the recruitment of intellectually inquiring minds is out of reach, for reasons having little or nothing to do with the administration of any specific school district. It’s a predicament. The administrator copes.

Marketplace Demands

* Paradox 4: Standards can be counterproductive to education.

America is now on a binge of concern about standards and accountability, much to the consternation of educators who understand that learning does not flower under such conditions. Indeed, the negative consequences of imposing standards go far beyond oppressing the innovative teacher. As we have become painfully aware, it can lead to teaching to the test and to outright cheating, even by teachers and administrators.

The accountability model is championed most forcefully by superintendents who have been recruited from non-academic fields such as business and government. They have succeeded in convincing their boards that students, parents and community should be regarded as “customers” and that education should be treated more like an enterprise that is market-driven. While no one argues that caring about the concerns of those that education serves is necessary, the concept of being driven by the demands of the market is a dangerous one. Indeed, what makes education a profession instead of a business is precisely its rejection of that model. Professions must be goal-driven. We can perhaps see the danger more clearly if we imagine medicine or law being responsive only to what people want, not what they need. Nothing corrupts a profession more rapidly than its decision to travel down that path.

The obsession with standards shared by politicians, legislators, school boards and some administrators is based on their inability to distinguish between training and education. Training involves learning skills and techniques, and all who receive such training become similar in that respect. But education is completely different. Education, in the right hands, leads to understanding, critical thinking and wisdom. It involves the continuing effort to marry a student’s individual experience with the great discoveries, cultures, artists and ideas of history and the new frontiers of knowledge. The result is that each student becomes a unique product. Training makes students alike, while education makes them different from each other. We need both, but it is important that they not be confused. Test standards apply in one case but not the other.

Aren’t reading, writing and arithmetic the kind of skills that can be trained and measured and therefore appropriate for meeting standards? Well, yes and no. If we equate reading with the technique of identifying words, then yes, of course. But why haven’t the average high school graduates read a book in the last year? They “learned to read” didn’t they? Most did learn the technique. But more importantly, they learned not to read. In the process of learning the skill, they lost interest in the pleasures and importance of reading.

The same is true for writing and arithmetic and most other skill-oriented subjects. The system that emphasizes training and meeting standards produces the opposite of its intent. Teachers want to graduate students who are even more alive to learning than they were when they first entered the system. But for too many students, our skill training in such areas as arithmetic and writing has a chilling effect on the student’s ultimate abilities and interests in those areas. Consequently, graduates on average are exceedingly poor in all skill categories, requiring colleges to offer extensive remedial education in those areas.

The lesson educators seem to learn from that fact, however, is the wrong one. Because the colleges must offer remedial education, the assumption is that not enough emphasis was placed earlier on basic skills, on meeting standards, on accountability. Unfortunately, colleges don’t encounter high school graduates who are just poor at reading, writing and arithmetic. They don’t enjoy reading, writing and arithmetic. That is a far more serious issue, one for which there is no remedial program. But the administrator’s hands may be tied because the existing curriculum is mandated. The administrator copes.

* Paradox 5: Success and failure are interdependent and often indistinguishable.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with testing, standards and accountability is that they are based on a success/failure model of learning. Everywhere, leaders are becoming aware that if they are to foster innovation, learning and improved performance, they need to treat success and failure similarly. What? Treat them the same? But haven’t we always rewarded success and ignored or punished failure? Isn’t that the basis for almost all our thinking about management, teaching, parenthood—everything connected with human performance? Unfortunately, yes. But no evidence exists to support such a belief, and much evidence exists to undermine it.

A century ago, Ambrose Bierce, the crusty American author of The Devil’s Dictionary, defined accountability as “the mother of caution.” The fact is that if we want more innovation, which is the great need of our society and our school systems, we need to encourage more risk taking and more failure, a lot more. That has been the posture of all of the great innovators, from Edison, Kettering and the Wright Brothers down through the top leaders of Silicon Valley. Instead of rewards and punishment, these leaders become engaged with the person, involved in the project, regarding any well-intended outcome as just another step on the way to further achievement. Great teachers and great administrators do the same and always have.

This means, of course, that the emphasis in education on extrinsic rewards is misplaced. All the prizes, gold stars, awards and bumper stickers need to be replaced with genuine engagement.

Even praise, that most cherished technique of so many parents and teachers, is counterproductive. As Alfie Kohn points out in his book, Punished by Rewards, children who are praised gradually do no more than is necessary to receive the praise. Praise is a “dissatisfier.” Like salaries, it fails to motivate, but if it’s expected and not given, it de-motivates. In an atmosphere where it is the main currency, it must be given.

The challenge is to change the currency from praise to listening, involvement, understanding—to engagement. True rewards are intrinsic to the work. Children who discover how to spell a long word, write their names, tell time or understand Shakespeare do not need to be rewarded. The reward is in the learning itself.

Administrators, then, again are caught in a predicament—knowing the importance of individual development, innovation and intrinsic rewards but forced to accommodate the overwhelming and misguided demand for evaluating achievement along outdated concepts of success and failure. Once again, professional judgment is balanced against societal pressures. The administrator copes.

Barriers to Resources

* Paradox 6: Even when teaching is highly competent, students learn more from each other than they do from their teachers.

One of the great ironies of education is that some of the best resources for learning cannot be fully exploited. For example, at all levels of education through graduate school, students are more likely to learn from their peers than from those whose professional roles are to teach them. And that happens without any structured effort to exploit that learning resource. Designed into the school day, it can be even more potent.

Students are not the only resources. Retirees, parents, representatives from local businesses and institutions, even ex-convicts, former drug addicts and others not normally considered desirable resources can be helpful. Many in the community might be called upon, let alone the army of professionally interested people who may not hold proper credentials for teaching. Many schools do incorporate these resources. They involve members of the community, bring in parents, hire aides and employ many forms of peer teaching.

Still, barriers to the full use of such resources exist. Paradoxically those who one would think would appreciate the potential unburdening of the teaching load on others, the teachers themselves, can be the greatest barrier.

Through their professional organizations, they have resisted that kind of help because it is a perceived threat to their standing and employment. In the name of protecting the public through professionalizing education, they have convinced legislators and others of the importance of restricting teaching only to those holding credentials. The administrator copes.

* Paradox 7: Collaboration, not protectionism, is the wave of the future.

Professional protectionism is a 20th century concept. Because it is demonstrably outdated, it is rapidly giving way to the 21st century concept of collaboration as the central idea promoting innovation, productivity and social value. Licensing, registration, certification, accreditation and all other such protective measures are being rethought. In many fields they are less and less necessary. Fewer than 50 percent of graduating architects plan to seek licenses. Only 26 percent of physicians now belong to the American Medical Association.

In most fields, business and industry, for example, if you are doing what you were trained to do, you are obsolete. Not in education, however. It’s a paradox. Education is extremely vulnerable to pressures for adopting superficial changes, dictated by parents and legislators, and yet, through its protectionist strategies, has successfully resisted almost all educational reformers armed with new designs, new technologies and new ideas that represent fundamental changes. The result is that schools today resemble in almost every way the schools of decades ago, if not centuries ago. As one educational reformer remarked: “Trying to change education is like kicking a mountain of mashed potatoes. It’s easy enough to make a small dent, but soon the dent disappears, and the mountain remains.” The administrator copes.

* Paradox 8: Teachers do not need protection, they need elevation.

Quite apart from the imminent crisis of teacher shortages, there is such a mammoth educational job to do: Teachers should not be protected in place but elevated to the status of metaprofessionals.

If we are to meet future challenges, ranging from reducing class size to the overwhelming demands of worldwide education (and with global communication technologies we can now address those issues), we need to have experienced and well-educated teachers orchestrating the work of others. Teachers must become the architects of education, teaching teachers, designing and coordinating the work of others who, with supervision, can be important resources for learning. Home schooling, already proving to be effective, could be made even better with more professional help from metaprofessional teachers. Collaboration, not protection, must be the byword.

One might argue that education is so confined because it is publicly supported by taxpayers. But private education suffers from the same ills. Moreover, schools operated by private-sector corporations greatly resemble those that are operated by the traditional systems. There is no question that lay control of the school system has contributed to the conditions that make decisions so difficult, but it is not the only cause and may not be the main one. The issue may be more systemic, more influenced by education’s own culture and traditions and more determined by the posture of the administrators.

A Different Posture

As decision makers then, what must administrators keep in mind? What should be their posture?

First, as questions come up, they need to remember they probably are dealing with predicaments, not problems. Making the distinction is crucial because treating predicaments as if they are problems can make situations worse, as it has, to return to our earlier example, in the area of crime.

Second, they might adopt a decision strategy along the lines of what has been called simultaneous management. For the administrator, that means going in two directions at once, often in opposite directions.

Because the future is unpredictable and technology changes rapidly, the better managers today accomplish project planning by creating two teams with the same goal but employing different strategies. Although one team will “fail,” each team informs the other along the way, and the overall effort is enhanced. The essence of paradoxical management is the ability to embrace the coexistence of opposites.

Third, while it is practiced systematically almost nowhere, is difficult to accomplish and often places administrators in the position of receiving many complaints and considerable abuse, they are still well-advised to seek the involvement in decision making of the people who must carry out the decision. The paradox energizing this method is that the people who present the difficulties are usually in the best position to handle them.

Participative management, based on that fact, has been the core philosophy of almost every leadership training program for more than half a century. Following that practice is not as easy as it sounds, but for those with patience and genuine interest, it remains a valuable leadership posture.

Finally, it is useful to remember that big changes are often easier to make than small ones. Gradualism never has worked. Big changes are hard to resist for the same reason that big-budget items receive relatively less attention than small ones. It is simply easier to mobilize resistance to small issues because we are more accustomed to dealing at that level. Moreover, big changes are sometimes welcomed as long overdue.

Students of leadership tend to agree that the qualities associated with effective leaders are vision, courage, optimism, perspective, humility and compassion. To affect the stubborn issues that now limit progress in education, to risk the attempt to influence those areas, administrators will be asking the people they work with to undergo wrenching changes. The personal quality they may need most, therefore, is courage.

Beyond Coping

In the late sixties I wrote an article about the future of education titled “The Education of Jeremy Farson.” My wife was pregnant with Jeremy at the time, and I calculated that he would graduate with the class of 1984. Because that date had a special place in literature, I wrote about the education that Jeremy might have.

My article was not the least Orwellian, however, because at the time many of us social scientists and educators were excited, optimistic and confident about the possibilities for a positive transformation of education. My writing was full of promise for what our new understandings and new technologies could bring—a fulfilling education that would release the potential of each individual student.

I certainly don’t need to explain here that Jeremy’s education turned out to be nothing like my predictions. Although I was one of many who worked hard at educational reform in the following years, education was not transformed. Indeed, the education Jeremy received was probably not as good as my own had been. Too many untoward developments, some of which I’ve mentioned above, and others that administrators know better than I, kept setting us back.

Nevertheless, although what I have said so far may not show it, I remain optimistic about the possibilities for significant progress in education. My hope is not just based on the recent political attention and funding that education has received. It’s based more on the remarkable achievements in other areas that have been made in the last decade or so. For example, great steps forward have been made in understanding the various kinds of intelligence, in creating architectural designs to facilitate learning and, perhaps most importantly, in the development of advanced communication technology that has led to the Internet.

I know, I know—schools have managed to resist being changed by technology so far. The “magic lantern” slide projectors, film, radio, television, video and computers all held promise, but little changed. The Internet, however, is importantly different from previous technologies. For the first time, networking is possible, even on a global basis, leading to the potential redesign of our basic social systems.

The implications for educational progress are endless, not the least of which is the prospect of forming school administrators into a powerfully bonded community—collaborating, studying, planning and making decisions together in ways never before imagined. The prospects are encouraging indeed.

The phrase, “Education remains our best hope for the future,” need not be empty.

Richard Farson is president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, P.O. Box 1049, La Jolla, CA 92038. E-mail: rfarson@wbsi.org. He is the author of Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership and is co-author of the forthcoming Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: Managing Innovation in a Changing Economy.