Les M. Omotani

A Complicated Mission Made Accessible by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Les Omotani often turns to metaphors when he discusses systemic thinking and other sophisticated concepts about organizational leadership that defy easy understanding.

He's inclined to talk about learning as the "gold standard for the 21st century," "moving from backyard decks to frontyard porches" (referring to the need to build a sense of community) and "pollution of lilyponds" (about unintended consequences of choice) as he diligently applies the ideas of Stephen Covey, Peter Senge and other such theorists to the 8,700-student West Des Moines, Iowa., district. It's all part of a master plan to build a learning community for the 21st century that had its origins about two years before Omotani's arrival.

As West Des Moines superintendent since 1995, Omotani recognizes that developing a shared sense of ownership for public education is substantially more complex and painstaking than tacking a mission statement to a wall and declaring the job done.

"Leading through caring and systems thinking requires the use of more patience than one might want to demonstrate," he acknowledges. "It is important to give everyone time to learn, reflect and grow."

Toward that end, he convened a cross-section of 40 community residents to read and jointly discuss Senge's The Fifth Discipline during the past year. This spring, he is launching a series of communitywide dialogues.

One book discussion participant, Jamie Ferrare, dean of the Drake University School of Education, says Omotani "has brought about a great deal of community involvement--it's legitimate and ongoing and not just attending PTA meetings. You go and you learn. There's work involved in learning about learning."

Omotani also has forged a pair of private-sector alliances with Xerox and IBM that could have long-lasting implications for all parties. The arrangement with Xerox provides the school district with ongoing consultation from the company's quality professional services team--something the superintendent says will have much more enduring value than a hardware donation.

"Schools can learn a lot of transferable lessons from a company that redefines a document as information rather than a piece of paper," he says.

IBM is helping West Des Moines devise an integrated and comprehensive technology plan. "We're looking for a different way of deciding what we want to do with technology so student learning drives all decisions," says the superintendent.

One significant paradigm shift already under way is the shortening of the cycle for computer hardware replacements from 10 years to 3 or 4 years. Omotani says this will effectively "let the learner drive the need." This private-sector counsel fits neatly into his view of all things being connected in a school system striving to forecast the learning needs of those who will live most of their lives in the next century.

What the two corporations receive in return for lending high-calibre and high-priced expertise is a long-term opportunity for research and development in a live school setting "to learn how education really happens," he says.

A native of Alberta, Canada, Omotani never had worked full-time in the United States (though he had studied here and done some consulting) before landing the top administrative post in West Des Moines. He had spent 15 years with the Medicine Hat district, a two-hour road trip from where he grew up, and four years with the province's department of education.

Omotani has come to appreciate the comparatively comfortable berth he fills in a district of above-average wealth and a largely supportive citizenry. "Some time in the future," he says, "I would like to help the most needy students in our nation to learn, achieve and be successful."

That urging comes from restlessness. He is not someone inclined to sit idle for extended periods.

For now, though, Omotani is content with his current assignment. He says he finds great reward in being West Des Moines’ superintendent because it allows him to blend avocation with vocation--even if the job has granted him precious few opportunities to take to the ski slopes, a favorite pasttime. "Where else do you get to wake up everyday and serve, care for and lead 8,800 kids?"

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: