Mavericks, Blue Skies and the Art of Cloudiness

I may have been a little harsh on Nancy Klein. I decided to give her book another go, from the beginning. In the end, I still lost the will to live in amongst all the management strategy and the rather evangelical tone, but there are still some very helpful nuggets in there – of which more anon.

No one can accuse her of being negative, and I’m aware that anyone who detracts a lot can start to sound boorish. People much prefer to hear good news, and it’s been interesting monitoring my own blog to see what kind of posts attract most views. But as Klein herself implies, sometimes you have to work through the clouds before the sun can come back out. Her book is largely about the need for people to think openly, honestly and independently in order to make things work better. That means facing up to the negative stuff too, and I fully agree with her on that.

She  maintains that corporate environments are highly likely to stifle that process, particularly ones with entrenched hierarchies (like schools?) One section of Klein’s book covers questions that leaders should ask themselves – and their staff – regularly to ensure that they remain in touch with the reality of their organisation. It includes:

  • What do we as an organisation assume that probably limits everything we do?
  • What needs improvement in this organisation that I haven’t noticed?
  • How would your work have to change for it to be exactly right for you?
  • Whom amongst the most junior people in my organisation can I invite to think with me today?

Klein also makes the point that an organisation comprises all its individuals, and it is limiting to assume that those ‘lower down’ are only in it for themselves, that they can’t see what is happening, and have no valid opinions or strategic view. In fact, the people who are most likely to become divorced from the reality are those at the top, as they tend to be relatively removed from the work-face practicalities.

Corporate Blindness is a major hazard for all kinds of organisations, and educational ones are no exception. I (naively?) start from the assumption that people are not in education for anything other than altruistic reasons, and therefore those at the top do genuinely believe in the ‘right’ reasons for doing what they do. That said, there is no reason to assume that the same pit-falls don’t exist, and occasionally one is left with the impression that some people do in fact develop as taste for power and influence per se that is every bit as strong as those running large corporations. In schools, just as elsewhere, the malaise created by people never being listened to can spread disillusionment to a deeply destructive degree; it results in their spending their time fighting obstructions rather than moving things forwards.

In the case of British education, the most significant cause of Corporate Blindness has been – you guessed it – Ofsted.  An article in yesterday’s Guardian broached the possibility that schools might indeed be diverting too much attention into pleasing the inspectorate at the expense of real, deep education for their pupils. That’s hardly surprising when you consider the cataclysmic consequences of getting it ‘wrong’. The strength of feeling in the resulting reader-comments was quite breathtaking, as indeed were some of the anecdotes (if true). This is a classic case of unintended outcomes making matters worse rather than better, as I have been arguing for some time to anyone who would listen(!) – and try as I might, I find it very difficult to put a positive slant on it.

Which brings me to the word Maverick. One more than one occasion, I have had this label applied to me. In many people’s minds, it seems to be associated with negativity, cynicism and destructiveness. But there are two kinds of mavericks – negative ones, who do indeed embody those characteristics, and positive ones, who for all their lack of conformity, have only the best of intentions at heart.  That’s me!

A random Google search found several articles on ‘managing maverick employees’, most of which seemed to consider them largely to be a problem to be controlled. I can see why – if your main aim is to ensure 100% compliance, then people who keep asking awkward questions or doing things differently are a major headache.  But that’s where the institutional blindness comes in – if the main objective of an organisation is nothing more than conformity, then it has:

a) been diverted from its primary objective

b) gone on the defensive, more concerned with sustaining existing structures than solving real problems and

c)  probably replaced leadership with management (see below).

In fact, many individuals from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson to Anita Roddick (let alone many in politics and the arts) mavericks have proved more successful than conventional thinkers.

Manage leader

Some time ago, I came across a phrase that stuck, to the effect that management is not the same as leadership; leadership relies neither on administrative efficiency nor even on seniority, but merely on inspiration, and the fact that people willingly follow. Mavericks can be leaders too! They may ask difficult questions, and on occasions sound superficially negative – but is that really worse than head-in-the-sand positivity and conformism? Which is more likely to solve real problems? For all her unfortunate tone Kline seems to know the answer (even though she has gone on and syndicated the term ‘Thinking EnvironmentTM’  !) – and it isn’t to support the status quo…

Human instinct drives people to conform, but that does not make it the best way to solve problems; what mavericks do is to think ‘outside the box’ to identify real problems and hopefully offer ways forward. Teaching has had plenty of them over the years – something to do with employing lots of independently-minded intelligent people I suspect (though there seems to be a growing tide of conformity too, now we’re faced with the tsunami that is official-think). Too often, free-thinkers have not been given a voice – which is why scepticism often turned to cynicism.

In the case of schools, many managers have had relatively little formal training – they’re basically teachers promoted out of the classroom; I’m left wondering how widely-known problems like this actually are. Few schools seem to be seeking out people like Klein in the way major corporations are doing. No matter how good the intentions, hubris is always a risk, and people need to be aware of corporate blindness. They need to listen to the grass-roots, however uncomfortable that might be, or however negative it might initially sound. And they need do it authentically, not just going through the motions. That’s where they will discover the real limitations on the organisation.

I’m rather intrigued by the notion of the corporate joker – someone actually employed with the specific remit to puncture people’s egos and question their assumptions – all in the nicest possible way. I could do a job like that…

Mavericks may not always be popular, and they may even be a pain – but engaged with in a constructive way, they can serve a very useful purpose of seeing through the clouds to the blue sky beyond.


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