President's Corner

A Quick Glance: Leadership Versus Culture

by Eugene G. White

The 2006-2007 school year is a year of opportunities for me. I have the opportunity to spend my second year as the superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools, and I have the opportunity to serve as president of AASA.

While AASA is already the pre-eminent educational leadership organization and IPS has a long tradition of excellence in serving students, as a relatively new leader to both organizations, I will continue to assess their effectiveness and work with my colleagues to develop strategies to better meet the needs of the organizations and the people they serve.

My current focus is on the challenges of trying to bring change to an organization. No change is truly valid until it is accepted and woven into the culture of the organization. Culture can be a powerful foe. Like an enemy holding its ground against invaders, culture is firmly entrenched. It’s the way we have always done things. A school district’s culture is complex, yet the elements are tightly woven. Culture is influenced by location, money, politics, socioeconomic factors, race, ethnicity and climate. But the essence of a school district’s culture is found in its beliefs, values, traditions, practices and norms.

 

  • Beliefs in the worth of learning, the value of teaching, the potential of students and expectations;

     

     

  • Value placed on education, democracy, freedom, diversity and learning;

     

     

  • Traditions such as ceremonies, rewards and responsibilities;

     

     

  • Practices, including instruction, leadership, professional development, punishment and praise;

     

     

     

  • Norms regarding achievement, expectations, evaluations, success and effectiveness.

 

A school district’s culture is made up of these factors and much more. These factors create synergy, which is what we walk into when we become superintendents. Every change we make means the synergy shifts. Someone in the culture gains or loses something. In many situations, they can’t tell you what they have lost, but the change makes them uneasy. When leaders fail to measure the force of the status quo of the district culture, the changes they make are ineffective, maybe even harmful to the system as a whole.

My challenge as the superintendent in Indianapolis is to change the culture and create a climate of high expectations and high performance built on four district values: excellence, scholarship, respect and courage. The school district will expect the best and provide the support we need to make the desired outcomes reality. It will take three to five years to change the district’s culture, and that is my greatest challenge.

If we want excellence, we must model and demand it from the top down and bottom up. Every aspect of the district operations must reflect the culture built on the district values. All employees must understand their role in building the new culture, requiring a carefully planned and effectively executed professional development strategy.

Some might find this line of thinking too orchestrated or controlled, but we usually get what we expect to get. Effective change does not last until people take ownership for the change. People will not take ownership if the culture compromises their efforts.

True cultural change lasts well beyond the tenure of the leader who initiated the change. In the beginning, it is always the leadership versus the culture of the organization. So leaders must answer the question for themselves: How can I work from within to change the culture so it supports and maintains district improvement strategies? It won’t always be an issue of leadership versus culture. With time and hard work, we’ll have leadership within the culture.