Monday, February 16, 2009

Godin's Tribes vs. Whitaker's 15 Things

As I read Godin's Tribes, I couldn't help but think of what his message means for education. Not to say Godin's work is specifically for educators... he is clear his conceptualization of leadership is for anyone in any profession. Contrast this with Todd Whitaker's conceptualization in What Great Administrators Do Differently: Fifteen Things that Matter Most, where he has a very specific audience in mind (administrators).

Both books have similar messages, but they definitely emphasize different things. Godin's emphasis is solely on change. Not minor change either, like introducing a new dress code policy. Major changes. The world needs changing, he argues, and mainly fear stands in our way. It is essential for administrators (or any educator for that matter) to a) overcome their fear and go for change, b) provide a vision of that change to the members of your tribe, and c) provide the tools/network for the members of your tribe to enact that change.

Whitaker wouldn't disagree that effective administrators can do that, but his main emphasis is on creating a positive culture. His definition of effective leaders is they are the ones who aren't necessarily up front, pushing an agenda, but rather doing the dirty work to maintain that culture. He mentions the principal's important jobs are to be a filter for teachers (filtering out all the junk that can distract them from the mission of effective teaching), to constantly be repairing relationships, and to create the atmosphere of care in the school. His primary thesis is that it isn't programs that make a difference, it is people.


I believe this difference is critical. Schools are not as systematic as the corporate world. They are more organic, often running more like a family than a structure, and likewise as often taking on the values of the community. Because of this, schools are more resistant to change.

Which, of course, is not always a positive. In fact, given the different needs of students to be citizens in today's world and the differences in the ways they learn, that resistance to change is strangling. So, yes, Godin's message applies well for education... we need to seek out tribes to move schools forward. His message just doesn't take into account the nature of a school the way Whitaker's message does.

That's what makes an administrator's job difficult, and should give us pause every time we address budget cuts with "we don't need so many administrators". It takes a balancing act. As a principal, I struggled with this. I went in, bright-eyed, ready to lead. I saw my school needing to have a paradigm shift in the way students learned, but my efforts to mobilize a tribe to enact a vision were not as successful as I'd like them to be. This is because what our school needed immediately was attention to its climate. And only after I shifted my focus to the climate did I feel I was successful. And in the end, the school moved forward mimimally in terms of Godin's change.

This is a problem, because you could correctly argue a school is always in need of attention to its climate. And, while some of our greatest principals are excellent in attending to this need, it doesn't provide them much time to a paradigm shift. And schools stay stuck.


There is a passage in Tribes that I do feel is essential for education, and it coincides perfectly with Whitaker's message. A leader needs to know when to put forth a message, but also when to step back and let other members of the tribe lead. Nowhere more so than in schools. Whitaker argues a successful administrator leads by understanding the best teachers, making decisions with them in mind, and removing obstacles so that they can lead the school. It is people that make a difference, not programs.

This is the takeaway from Godin's book. Yes, schools must change, but administrators need to know how to do this.

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