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The Right Drivers

Written on December 2nd, 2015

It is always interesting to me that people with opposing opinions tend to frame their conversations in black and white; that is, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” This posture always ends in a “win-lose” situation. This is sometimes referred to as a power struggle. We have all encountered them in our relationships, whether between spouses, parent and child, teacher and student, employer and employee, or any other host of relationships.

I wonder if we might take a step back. Rather than discussing whether something is right or wrong, could we ask ourselves, “What do we LEAD with?”

Lately, I have been thinking about learning, change and school reform, and I’ve re-read Michael Fullan’s article on that topic, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform,” written for Australia’s Centre for Strategic Education. He talks about a number of opposing drivers (aka policies, strategies or levers) that need to be attended to in order to lead flourishing and change in schools. The first drivers he compares are leading change through accountability versus capacity-building. He posits that leading with accountability focuses on management, test scores and structure, whereas capacity-building opens up possibilities for growth and learning. His conclusion is that change requires investing in people: building their capacity and giving them voice, choice and healthy relationships. This makes good sense whether we are talking about the home, the school, the workplace or other institutions.

Fullan suggests that accountability may have a place in school reform, but it can’t be entirely successful on its own. In other words, high expectations are necessary, but we don’t LEAD with them. Giving people the room to grow, learn, try new things, fail (and hopefully succeed) builds capacity (and resilience, grit and determination). Capacity-building focuses on people and their strengths and gifts, whereas accountability focuses on what they didn’t do. I would suggest, as Fullan does, that seeing people as cups that are half-full or not there yet (think Carol Dweck) is a positive, healthy way of encouraging people to grow. In contrast, leading with expectations of where people need to be, or showing people how deficient they are, generally invokes discouragement, shame and disillusionment (“I can NEVER reach these expectations”). The expectations in and of themselves are not wrong (in fact, they are necessary), but LEADING with them is upside down.

When I think about the Biblical narrative, I see Jesus leading with love, encouragement and—to use a 21st century word—capacity-building. The Law is still there, but through Jesus it is reframed, no longer a yoke or a heavy burden. Jesus invites us into the “party” and the celebration of life. He encourages us to risk, and through the Holy Spirit he “makes all things new.”