Suspending the Elephant Over the Table

Concepts of systems change can improve learning while making the job doable by Nelda Cambron-McCabe and Luvern L. Cunningham
Peter Negroni, former superintendent in Springfield, Mass., believes Ron Heifetz’s insights about the importance of taking the long view helped save his career in school administration. Negroni was on a quick fix, my-way-or-the-highway approach to school reform in 1994 but sensed he was in trouble.

Brutal and ongoing contretemps around his efforts to close the achievement gap had left him with few allies in the schools or community and feeling increasingly isolated from union leaders and significant elements on the governing school committee.

"I was taking fire from all sides and wondering when the cavalry would arrive," says Negroni, now vice president of the College Board in New York City.

Critics derided him as a brash outsider, a know-it-all from New York who didn't understand how things were done in aging New England industrial towns. Then a candidate for the school committee won election with 17,000 votes. "She'd run a campaign demanding my head," recalls Negroni wryly. "It turned out to be a pretty popular platform."

Angry about the election result, Negroni sensed that a backlash threatened the progress he had made in Springfield. People no longer cared that he'd led successful battles for school levies, imposed order on the structural chaos in the schools or saved money and improved programs for recent immigrants. All of that was greeted with disinterest.

What critics focused on was the loss of privilege for Springfield's well-to-do. It was all vaguely reactionary and racist, worried Negroni, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, suffers fools lightly and remembers how painful it was to listen to Irish cops in New York spit racial epithets at him and his teen-age buddies from Puerto Rico.

Then epiphany struck. "Who does this new board member represent?" asked Heifetz at a meeting Negroni attended of the Danforth Foundation's Forum for the American School Superintendent. "Those 17,000 voters? They stand for something. What's precious to them? What are you threatening?"

Sacred Texts

All of us like quick fixes, even though in education, as elsewhere, they rarely work well, according to Heifetz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Peter Senge, senior lecturer in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taking time to do it right may be a persuasive theory around the ivied quadrangles of Cambridge, but do superintendents enjoy the luxury of a time-consuming systems approach? With the notorious amount of heat mounting under their chairs, can they afford to acknowledge they don't have all the answers — and sometimes aren’t sure about the questions?

It's daunting, but a systems approach may be the only way to tackle what has been called the "toughest job in America." That's the consensus of skilled current and former practitioners of the high-wire act of serving as a school superintendent.

Concepts of systems change can improve learning while making the job doable, according to nearly 200 superintendents who helped us develop The Superintendent’s Fieldbook through the decade-long Danforth Foundation’s Forum for the American School Superintendent. Rosa Smith, formerly the superintendent in Columbus, Ohio, and Les Omotani, who has taken the systems approach from West Des Moines, Iowa, to his new assignment in leading the Hewlett-Woodmere district on Long Island, speak of Senge’s Fifth Discipline and Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers as akin to sacred texts.

Tim Lucas, former superintendent in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., says the same about using systems thinking. Lucas, now a professor of school practice at Lehigh University, even helped write Schools That Learn, a book applying Senge’s systems ideas to schools with one of the authors of this article.

Think Systems

"It's not personal." That's what Heifetz reminds us to keep in mind as we struggle to survive, according to Smith, president of the Schott Foundation in Cambridge, Mass. Adds Negroni: "What I realized is that it had nothing to do with me. Sure, my new board member opposed what I stood for, but she wasn't reactionary. She represented an important constituency — voters worried about change. What was happening with their kids? Their community? Their jobs?"

Leaders in education or other fields who confuse themselves with the changes their communities are moving through are asking for trouble, and they will probably get it. Taking resistance personally, they are unable to distinguish their role from themselves.

"I was a real Lone Ranger," says Negroni, who was Springfield’s superintendent from 1989 to 2000. "I even found myself lecturing the school committee, announcing that unless my proposals were adopted, they'd need to find someone else."

Omotani finds nothing unusual in Negroni's story. To state the obvious, says Omotani, who moved into the Hewlett-Woodmere superintendency in June, there's a lot involved in turning around a big school district. "We need to think systems, not programs," he says, noting that public discussions of schools isolate discrete issues like standards or assessment. "That promotes a quick-fix mentality — what is often called ‘single-loop’ thinking. What Senge and Heifetz encourage is in-depth, 'double-loop' thinking that attacks core assumptions, not their manifestations."

At West Des Moines, where he worked for nine years, Omotani learned the value of a systems approach that can be thought of as a dynamic triangle or arrowhead aimed at improving outcomes for kids. This triangle, which guided the overall work of the Danforth Superintendents’ Forum, consists of seven related entities that we call the commonplaces of school leadership: leadership itself, at the base, interlocked with governance, standards and assessment, race and class, school principals, out-of-school support for learning and community engagement.

"Heifetz and Senge ask us to keep all this complexity in front of us," says Omotani. "In The Superintendent’s Fieldbook, my wife, Barbara, referred to this process as suspending the elephant over the table so that we don’t mistake the parts for the whole."

In West Des Moines, Omotani reports, the systems approach paid big dividends. The community agreed on a long-term vision for the schools and got behind school goals. "What did it give us?" Omotani asks. "Most importantly, we created a shared vision-driven school system and community around educating children. This was a living, breathing statement that mattered — not just a plaque on the wall."

Omotani points with pride to the community’s numerous accomplishments that include an exemplary freshman high school now beginning its 10th year, a new Title I elementary school implementing an "artful" approach to learning, innovative summer intervention programs and initiation of a youth leadership forum that reflects the significant voice of Wes Des Moines’s students.

Adaptive Change

The easy challenges are technical, says Lucas, who left school administration in 2003 for higher education. For officials outside education, they might involve locating oil or figuring out where to run a highway. In education, technical issues may involve balancing a budget or commissioning architectural plans for a new school. "Technical issues require expertise, which is available. Single-loop thinking is ideally suited to solving technical problems," Lucas says.

The tough challenges are adaptive, requiring transformation of existing structures and practices. They turn on what to do after the wells run dry, communities refuse to let highways cut them in half, voters demand services but balk at the costs, and schools have to be closed in one part of town and built in another.

"Expertise can’t resolve these dilemmas, which involve emotions and the loss of inherited ways of doing things," says Lucas. "Communities have to coalesce around solutions that require deep-rooted change and double-loop thinking."

The distinction between technical, single-loop thinking and adaptive, double-loop problem solving appeals to Omotani, a Canadian whose earlier career was spent at the district and provincial levels in Alberta. "I can monitor the technical stuff, sometimes from afar, but with the difficult issues, I need to be deeply engaged in creating a space for the schools and community to tackle tough problems. These always involve changes around things that go to the heart of what people believe and value."

Here’s where the leader’s skills are sorely tested. What isn't negotiable? What will the community go to the mat over? Leaders can't afford to play games with the things the community holds dear.

It's very hard leadership work. Too frequently, leaders prefer to fall back on old ways of doing things, in the process becoming "one-trick, single-loop ponies."

Turning Work Over

In Springfield, Negroni found himself reinvigorated by Heifetz’s question. Determined to stop hectoring the school committee and abusing union officials, he set about transforming his style. When you're trained in command-and-control, acknowledges Negroni, the formula of "I'm OK. You're OK" does not spring readily to the lips.

But he now found himself worrying about the deep-rooted systems and transformational approaches encouraged by Senge and Heifetz. "I stopped saying, 'This is what I want,' and began asking, 'What do you think we need?’" Negroni remembers. "I went from being the Lone Ranger to being the Lead Learner."

Modeling that behavior in the school district, he started visiting individual schools five days a week, encouraging other administrators and school principals to do the same. "All of us needed to become part of a learning community," he says. "I couldn’t do the community’s learning for it."

The results speak volumes: "These initial efforts at community engagement and learning changed the way we interacted in Springfield," Negroni says. "We engaged parents, businesses, religious groups and social service agencies so that we could all define an explicit covenant with one another. That covenant, which was most visible in our curriculum, then drove our common enterprise." Negroni credits improved student performance directly to the new relationships within the schools and community. These relationships also enabled the district to build or renovate 12 school buildings that led to a building boom in the city.

"Giving the work back" is what Heifetz calls this style. Community members have to do the work themselves; leaders can't do it for them. Still the approach has to be thoughtful. Unless handled deftly, the act of turning the work over can blow up in the leader’s face.

That's a lesson that some Danforth Forum superintendents learned the hard way. In one school system, a savage public dispute broke out around a proposed photo exhibit of gay families at an elementary school. The superintendent, determined to push the decision back to the people who were most affected by it, turned the work over to the principal, teachers and parents.

After a raucous public gathering degenerated into a homophobic shouting match, the group agreed on ground rules for the exhibit that satisfied the central office but seemed acceptable to few of the ideologues inside or around the school. Within a year, the principal had transferred, and the assistant superintendent who represented the central office on the issue had left the system, followed shortly by the superintendent.

Turning the work over to others requires leaders to create a process or "holding environment" where they can regulate and contain the stress of working through difficult issues. According to Heifetz, leaders who expect to survive transformational change have to gauge the rate at which the community can handle the work.

Leaders’ Loneliness

After decades in schools, including a stint as superintendent in Beloit, Wis., Rosa Smith arrived for her new assignment in Columbus, Ohio, determined to push back at the sense of isolation that envelops many school leaders.

Smith was attracted to the ideas Heifetz advances to help leaders stay alive. "You need to ‘get up on the balcony’ with some trusted friends," Smith says. "On the balcony you can see the patterns on the floor, who's dancing with whom and how partners change as the music changes."

Before assuming her new role in Columbus, Smith convened a two-day meeting involving several district employees and about 10 outside experts, including prominent superintendents and a few university professors. Spending a half-day on briefings about district challenges, she spent the remaining time with the experts figuring out how to proceed with a systemic approach.

"Was it worth it? You bet!" says Smith, who moved into her foundation post in 2001. "Would I do it again? I have. When I started at Schott Roundation, I convened another ‘balcony’ group, and I plan to visit with this group regularly."

Mastering Disequilibrium

Whether it’s Heifetz talking about adaptive work or Senge advocating the five disciplines of personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking, what leaders are really called on to do today is master disequilibrium in a complex environment.

Superintendents and other leaders have to generate some stress to make changes in a big system, according to Heifetz. The system needs to be thrown into disequilibrium. The challenge for the leader is figuring out how to parcel out sufficient stress to get people’s attention without overwhelming them.

Sound like a tough order? It is. Nobody said that suspending elephants over tables was easy.

Nelda Cambron-McCabe is a professor of educational leadership at Miami University, 350 McGuffey Hall, Oxford, OH 45056. E-mail: cambron@muohio.edu. Luvern Cunningham is an emeritus professor and former dean of the college of education at Ohio State University. They are co-authors, along with James Harvey and Robert Koff, of The Superintendent's Fieldbook: A Guide for Leaders of Learning (Corwin Press).