Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What is a "cagebusting" leader?

Today, I sat in on a fascinating lunch forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) entitled "Cagebusting Leadership in K-12 Education." The panelists were very well-respected educators, administrators, and advocates including Adrian Manuel, Principal at Kingston High School, Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, Christopher Barbic, founder of Tennessee's Achievement School District, and Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of DC Public Schools. They all had experience attempting to reform struggling institutions and shared their insight on what it takes to be a change agent.  Many of the qualities they discussed are applicable well beyond the realm of education reform.   

Based on the discussion, here’s what I learned about “cagebusting” leaders (NOTE: I might need to amend this once I get the book “Cagebusting Leadership” by Frederick Hess):

·         They are visionaries.  In order to take on the laws, regulations or rules that hamper any system, you have to be able to envision what the world would look like without those rules.   
·         They don’t stop pursuing change. All of the panelists had prior experience working in a different part of the education system (i.e. from teacher to administrator, administrator to advocate, etc.). These leaders seemed adept at taking what they learned from prior positions and using it to pursue reforms once they’ve moved on.
·         They are diplomatic.  In order to make policy changes, implement them and slowly change a culture you have to be able to appease a number of interests.  While we all know it’s supposed to be all about the kids in the education system, there are a number of other interests that influence how well schools work.  Cagebusting leaders have to be able to navigate all of these interests and figure how to make them work together for the best possible outcome.
·         They don’t have to be liked.  This is probably the main reason why I’ll never be a cagebusting leader.  I remember vividly the negative press Michelle Rhee received when she was Chancellor of DC Public Schools.  She didn’t seem at all bothered by it or let it stop her.  It takes a strong person to give up being liked to pursue a greater good.  Kudos to those who can do it.
This was a lunch hour well spent.  I was inspired by the dynamic people that are working for our schools and their efforts.  I hope to one day be a “cagebusting” leader wherever I might be and be willing to fight the battles that come along with it. 

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