Airing “real differences”

I was about to find refuge from the New York City humidity (not yet even 9 am and it’s feeling like a collective eight-million-person-plus armpit in my apartment!) when I encountered a short piece in the New Yorker about the recent firing of General Stanley McChrystal that had me really thinking–thinking so much that I had to come back to my computer and write this quick post.

Here’s the quote of interest for educational leadership from Richard Holbrooke:

People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.

I was thinking about some of my experiences in schools and about how important it is for school and district leaders to encourage the norms of professional discourse to center on honesty and presenting difficult ideas, questions, and beliefs. Without norms that encourage underlying beliefs to emerge and without the structures in place to unpack and explore those beliefs and differences of opinions surrounding those beliefs, the group’s work to further the organizational tasks–on the long run–is really lost.

A big part of leadership is about challenging underlying beliefs and finding ways to articulate among those in the organization a coherent vision and logic, so that when individuals return to their tasks in solitude, they approach the work with the common goal in mind.

There is nothing new about this idea, perhaps the article just re-affirmed something I already believed about leaders and group dynamics. I just think that we work too hard for us to “paper over” the real divisions among a team, and it takes courage for a leader to both provide a space for different beliefs and a functional set of structures for all those at the table to work toward a common understanding.

We work too  hard to be working at cross-purposes.

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