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Taking Leadership On Adequacy By Following Up

Leadership (May-June, 2007)

Adequate. Did you ever think that would be the word we’d use to describe our hopes for a first-rate educational system? Let’s see how that terms fits with other human endeavors. Would we ever hope for:

  • An adequate spouse?
  • Adequate children?
  • An adequate novel?
  • Adequate friends?
  • Or even an adequate vacation?

Adequate is a term that should be reserved for streets, sewers, mops and fast-food restaurants. Yet, we dream: “If we could just have adequate schools … if only.” Nevertheless, it is good to have the “adequacy studies” to confirm for us (and others) what we knew and hoped for.

Moving on…

Walking from the terminal to the car rental kiosk at the Burbank airport, I was dismayed to find a long line extending out the door. In fact, the line had reached the driveway that rental car customers must use to exit once they have their automobile. Being the responsible citizen that I endeavor to be, I appraised the situation and lined up so that I was at a 90-degree angle to the person before me in line.

As a number of people were approaching behind me, I was concerned that I’d just look like a blip in an otherwise straight line, and that someone might think I was cutting in. However, (somewhat surprisingly) the next person to join the line noticed what I had done and lined up directly behind me. Within a minute the line lengthened by about 10 people, but the right turn that prevented the line from obstructing traffic remained.

After eventually getting my car and driving away, I began to reflect on what had happened with that line (what else can you do in Southern California traffic), and realized I’d just experienced a lesson about leadership.

It was not my “leadership” decision to line up at an angle that made the difference. It was the decision of the person who followed me that turned the line. As others have pointed out, “follower-ship” was the key–not leadership. Putting it in a slightly different way, it was a decision to follow, rather than a decision to lead, that proved effective.

As Jim Stroup has pointed out, “Leadership neither resides solely at the top of the organization or of any particular subcomponent of it, nor does follower-ship passively await instructions (or actively seek out opportunities) to express that leadership.”

So, what makes a good follower? Warren Bennis writes that “the most important characteristic may be a willingness to tell the truth,” and that “the ultimate irony is that the follower willing to speak out shows precisely the kind of initiative that leadership is made of.” Which means that a willingness to take a chance is just as important in following as it is in leading.

And that, believe it or not, leads us back to the adequacy studies. What becomes of this work will not depend as much on the leaders who created the studies or those who use them to create policy as it will on who chooses to follow in the direction that they aim. And getting to the target will require that both leaders and followers tell the truth.

Adequacy, truth and education

Chances are about 100 percent that you’ve already heard various individuals and organizations (ACSA included) “spin” the information from these 22 studies. The studies themselves, in fact, have their own “spin.”

“Adequacy” and “truth” and “education.” What genius follower or leader is going to cement those words together?

George Manthey is assistant executive director of ACSA’s Educational Services Department.

By: George Manthey

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