A Right-Brain Perspective on Leadership

The use of simple models can bring tangible meaning to abstract visions by ROBERT E. MILLWARD

Dr. Smith, superintendent of Keeblerville School District, speaking at the annual Rotary Club banquet, highlighted some of the district's major accomplishments. High test scores, school safety and the inclusion program topped the list.

"I'm really proud of the progress we have made these past 10 years," Dr. Smith said. "The administrative team continues to maintain the focus on our academic program and this has produced positive feedback from our parents. Our district is in good shape academically and it's a place where students feel safe."

This brief glimpse at the superintendent's positive perception of the district is the kind of message the local citizens want to hear about their schools. Even in the best school community, however, a superintendent is well aware that perceptions are not always in sync with the state of the district's programs.

For example, although the middle school principal in Keeblerville is pleased with her school’s high test scores, she is concerned about meeting the needs of a small group of student outcasts who really need to gain social acceptance from their peers. "Frankly," she says, "we have a situation that could explode, and most of our faculty and staff seem unaware that we have some serious problems here."

In one of Keeblerville's elementary schools, a teacher describes her concerns about the inclusion program. "For years I have been an advocate of inclusion," she says. "When we initiated inclusive classrooms in our building, I was one of the first teachers to volunteer. I attended training workshops, I read articles on inclusion and I participated in workshops designed to enhance teaching skills for special-needs students. For the past two years, we have not trained any new teachers to become part of our inclusion team. This program is patched together by a few dedicated teachers and it's beginning to fall apart. I don't think the administration understands how critical the problem has become."

Varying Views
This brief scenario presents three different perceptions of the same organization. Although the principal and a teacher might agree with the overall merits of the superintendent's perceptions, they also were aware of conditions that could adversely affect the organization. More importantly, these adverse conditions could have a negative impact on the organization and when problems occur, they could take the superintendent by complete surprise.

Today, a superintendent must understand how change, personnel and outside forces affect the organization. They need tools to help them monitor important variables that have an impact on the organization. Profound positive change can only occur, according to Peter Senge, author of The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, when the superintendent understands that the organization is a living and developing institution.

Model building can help a superintendent understand and monitor the perceptions of the school organization. The idea evolved during a workshop at The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., conducted by one of its creators, David Horth. With several associates, Horth wove a series of aesthetic leadership experiences into this five-day event. We were asked to draw, write, meditate, explore, listen and observe a variety of events related to the concept of leadership--but all from a right-brain perspective.

Right-brain activities, according to Horth, are those visual perceptual problems that are turned down by the verbal, analytical left brain. After the workshop, I returned home with a different concept of how a leader influences an organization.

Model I: An organization with a strong leader

A Guiding Force
Model 1 illustrates my perception of a leader in an educational organization. This model depicts the leader as a large tapered nail at the back of the organization rather than the front. I positioned the leader at the back of the organization because, too often, we automatically link the term "leader" with one who has followers.

In this case, the leader is less concerned with who is following and is more focused on guiding, pushing and persuading those less inclined to growth and development. The model depicts a leader who is perceived as a guide who is helping principals and teachers move toward common goals.

The teachers in this model are represented as nails of varying height thus depicting various degrees of growth in their teaching abilities. The short clump of nails toward the back of the model represent teachers who have shown little growth over the years and who, in most cases, are the most difficult to motivate. The needs of students, for whatever reason, have little impact on their thinking or their teaching. In fact, these teachers, whether 20-year veterans or third-year tenure awardees, seem to rarely reflect on what they are teaching and whether the content is presented in a challenging and exciting format.

Educational leaders position themselves near this group because they continue to have faith that these teachers can be guided, pushed or even herded to new heights. I am using the term "herd" as a positive attribute. For example, Plato, in defining one of many strategies associated with leadership, suggested that a leader, like a shepherd, must continually move the herd toward greener pastures. Some, however, may choose through creative counseling new pastures in another occupation.

The taller nails toward the front of the model form three distinct groups who are moving toward the district’s mission. These three distinct groups might represent three different schools within the district or they could represent three academic departments within one building. The important unifying characteristics of these groups, however, are their focused progress toward the district’s mission and their own personal cognitive growth. The leader encourages and accepts the unique distinctions among these three groups, while encouraging them to continually address the district’s mission. If the teachers accomplish the mission, then a real transformation in student learning will occur.

The three distinct spear-shaped groups at the front of the model also represent the professional growth within the organization. First, the pointed ends depict teachers who are on the cutting edge of their discipline. The tall nails at the tip of each of the growth spurts represent the development of teacher leaders who now have their own group of newly converted followers. Some of the growth spurts are broader than others. These broader groups are indicative of an older yet effective approach that includes more teachers.

Even these older programs remain sharp and focused. They will continue to grow and evolve. In most cases, these growth spurts are indicators of positive attitudes and illustrate a spirit of camaraderie among faculty, staff, administration and students. As one moves toward the back of the model, one can see the broad open access to the front line available to everyone in the organization.

In summary, Model 1 represents a sharp focus toward the organization’s mission. Focus, movement, attitude, growth and direction happen not by chance but because of specific planned interventions of a leader.

Pockets of Isolation
In contrast, Model 2 represents a leaderless organization. Don’t look for an administrative leader in this model because none exists. Although there may be several teacher leaders who help keep the organization running, there is no real direction.

The sharply focused groups of teachers that are illustrated in Model 1 are not present in a leaderless organization. Instead, this model depicts a "circle your wagons" philosophy. Without a leader, a few ideas may flow, but the effort usually peters out into shallow disconnected streams that lack a focused direction, only to dry up within a year or two.

Model 2: A leaderless organization with islands of isolation

A leaderless organization also is characterized by islands of isolation. Teachers and staff feel isolated. They begin to believe their ideas don’t count, and they begin to develop a distrust of the organization’s administrative staff as well as a distrust of some of their peers.

In-service training in this kind of leaderless organization promotes negative attitudes because speakers, consultants and workshops are too often organized simply to fill the time because the organization has no focus. In the end, the organization promotes an unhealthy kind of growth. Individuals grow tired, bored, resentful and angry.

Helping your administrative team and your teachers to conceptualize the district's mission, academic programs and professional development through modeling can provide a sharper focus for future change within the district. If you ask teachers and principals to create models representing such concepts as the school district's supervision plan, student learning and district leadership, then a multidimensional picture emerges to help determine future organizational changes. Through modeling, teachers and principals reduce abstract concepts into concrete symbols that help them to reflect on their own role in the organization.

A Simple Model
Perhaps you might try out the idea with your administrative team. The directions are simple:

* First, create for the next administrative team meeting a model representing your building’s academic program.

* Second, ensure you and your staff are represented within the model.

* Third, make sure the model you create doesn't use any words, pictures or photographs. At your next administrative meeting, you will be pleasantly surprised at how models help to promote lively discussions about the district's present and future status.

Although I often use 6-by-8-inch pine rectangles as a base for building a model, other media can work. A Powerpoint transparency or a large poster also is an effective way to symbolize variables within an organization

At a recent state superintendent’s meeting, I had the opportunity to ask Howard Gardner, the Harvard educator, to symbolize how his book, The Disciplined Mind, might be represented if a school district were to adopt his ideas. After a slight pause he responded, "I would draw a very dark narrow shaft illuminated by a streak of lightning and at the bottom of the shaft would be a pot of gold."

His verbal symbol instantly conveyed the premise of his book, which stresses the need for schools to promote deep understanding by uncovering content, rather than superficially covering the material. Regardless of how you build a model, the finished product helps an administrator to see how personnel perceive the district’s goals, objectives and mission.

Modeling is a valuable tool for building a learning organization.

Robert Millward is director of administration and leadership studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 136 Stouffer Hall, Indiana, PA 15705. E-mail: millward@grove.iup.edu