Executive Perspective

Leading by Numbers

by Paul D. Houston

When we were children many of us had a chance to do an activity called “Paint by Number.” This involved a white piece of drawing paper with numbers and shapes on it. Each shape had a number that corresponded to a color. If you painted each shape with the right color, you ended up with a picture that looked sort of professional. It had all the shapes right and the colors correct. Of course, there was no artistry in it—the painting was just a mechanical rendering of something someone else had created.  

A little later, as a young professional in the early 1970s, I encountered a fad of making “teacher proof” materials available. The pervading belief was that it was too hard to help teachers become competent so instead materials would be developed that would allow children to learn without the teacher intervening. The movement died a quick and appropriate death when it was rediscovered that education is a human enterprise and you can’t take the humanity out of it.


Yet when I observe the current educational landscape, I find we are trying to “leader proof” education. We are asking leaders to “lead by numbers.” As more federal and state intervention occurs and as some school boards shy away from hiring people with vision and courage, we find that those being asked to lead are being reduced to a bureaucratic role.

One of the great tragedies I have encountered over the last few years is watching my professional colleagues, who entered the profession with a sense of purpose and passion, being reduced to number crunchers whose only role is to behave compliantly to those calling the tune in the state or nation’s capital.

Sunrise Seeking

You can’t create a vibrant learning world out of two-dimensional, prefabricated chunks of knowledge and programs. You can’t achieve a masterpiece by carving the canvas into a hundred small blanks to be filled in later. You can’t achieve excellence by excluding those very people whom you are expecting to lead you there.

I had occasion this spring to spend a weekend with several dozen impressive leaders at the International Leadership Forum in La Jolla, Calif. I was honored to rub elbows with folks whose writing and leadership skills had inspired me during my career and whose work continues to set standards for those who follow. Interestingly, many in the group were well past usual retirement age, yet their focus and world view centered on the future. They weren’t retired or retiring, being far from ready to go gently into that good night. And while the topics of conversation were laden with heavy and often negative issues, the discussions were filled with joy in the possibilities to be found behind the problems.

As I observed these remarkable people I was struck that while they were chronologically advanced, they were the youngest crowd I had been with in a long time. Their entire beings were pointed toward the horizon and the sunrises to come. They were full of hope and joy. And they were creating a future they would not live in. And isn’t that what leadership should be about?

Bridge Building

Our time here as humans and our terms here as leaders are finite. They will end. Lives and contracts expire. Yet as leaders our task is to point toward the future to create a world we personally will not live in. I have joked for years about my fear of driving across bridges. My friends told me that I have a bridge phobia. I have answered them by pointing out that phobias are irrational fears and there is nothing irrational about being afraid to cross a bridge. Bridges take you from what you know to the unknown—from places of comfort and familiarity to strange and unknown territory. Yet isn’t that what education is about? Isn’t that what leadership is about?

Our task as leaders is to build bridges and take people across them. We have to help folks see their possibilities and help them overcome their fears about going there. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, we are like Moses—we might not get to the Promised Land with them, but we have to do what is necessary to give them the chance of getting there themselves. And that requires a level of courage and creativity that goes well beyond leading by numbers or allowing others to leader-proof our work.

Leadership isn’t just about doing what we have to do well—it is also about going against the tide. Leaders are more than bureaucrats and implementers of accountability systems. Leaders also must hold the world accountable. And given the conditions facing so many of our children, isn’t there much to hold folks accountable for?

St. Francis of Assisi said, “If you work with your hands, you are a laborer. If you work with your hands and head, you are a craftsman. If you work with your hands, your head, your heart and your soul, you are an artist.” The leadership challenge in today’s world is to bring a sense of artistry to our work by building bridges between our heads and our hearts and by making certain that our hearts and souls are engaged in the work. Then our creation will not be a pale copy—it will be a masterpiece.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.