Site-Based Decision-Making

Introduction - The Hero Comes of Age: Why Odysseus Must Learn to Listen

The Odysseus who served as hero to the Greeks would rate poorly as a leader for this Age of Information. He would certainly make a poor principal or Superintendent as we explore the potential of site-based management to spark school improvement across the land.

Witness the voyage home from Troy during which Odysseus and his men found themselves on a prolonged journey filled with trials and disappointments.

Looking back upon this journey, we note a leader filled with inspiration and creativity who rarely took time to assess the dangers before him, a leader who almost never consulted with members of his team, a leader who depended upon divine guidance and his own impulsive moves rather than any carefully honed problem-solving strategies. While bold, courageous and resourceful, Odysseus was an arrogant leader, a hero who returned home very late in life with no survivors from his original team.

We have all known at least one superintendent or principal who resembled Odysseus in management style, but the days of heroic top-down leadership are numbered. Schools require a style which is far more collaborative and consensual.

Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops was fairly typical. Ignoring the warnings of his men and the signs of danger all around him, Odysseus made them all wait in the Cyclops' cave expecting that the giant would serve them all a feast and bestow gifts upon them as was their due under the rules of hospitality.

With a post-modern disrespect for rules, traditions and paradigms, the Cyclops swept up two of the warriors, dashed them against the wall of the cave and dined upon their remains. Undaunted, Odysseus called his men together and assured them that he would find a way out.

Odysseus and his men did finally emerge from the cave -- thanks to trickery and creative planning -- but not until six of them were dashed against the wall and eaten. Odysseus sacrificed half his team before blinding the Cyclops and pulling off an escape.

No sooner had they jumped aboard their vessel and started rowing for safety than Odysseus climbed up on the rear of the boat and started taunting the giant even as his men pleaded with him to remain silent. It was this taunting which caused the Cyclops to demand a curse from his father, Poseidon, to prevent Odysseus and his men from ever reaching their homeland.

What does this Cyclops story have to do with site-based management? Odysseus represents the outmoded boss in a hierarchical organization -- the kind of boss we can no longer afford if education is to respond to a changing world.

The rapid and discontinuous change of the Age of Information demands a new kind of leadership. Those who guide schools relying upon past wisdom and experience are likely to be blindsided by surprising new forces, new rules, new paradigms and new developments. Those who imitate Odysseus by counting upon divine providence will find the gods uncooperative. Those who fail to heed and nurture the good ideas of their teams will find themselves unable to pass through the many rocks and hard places that lie ahead.

Discontinuous change -- by definition -- is change so sweeping and structural that it may turn everything topsy-turvy or upside down. It is change so fundamental that all assumptions and premises must be constantly re-examined. Peter Vaill calls these conditions "permanent whitewater."1 Under such conditions success depends upon continual monitoring of the environment. One can ill afford to lead with one's head either in the sand or in the clouds. One must certainly avoid complacency, the use of autopilots or unswerving reliance upon tradition.

Rapidly changing conditions require an alert, collaborative and inclusive approach to leadership which seeks to adjust perspective and strategy to match the demands of shifting times and rules. The new leader emphasizes listening and learning from those who are close to the day-to-day operations, thereby picking up clues to adjust direction. At the same time, the new leader has the skill to work with a group to sort through these clues for patterns and trends around which to weave strategic response. The leader cultivates group wisdom so that insight can spring forth.

Site-based management is an attempt to engage the creative energies of teachers, parents and principals as they seek to reinvent the American school. Basic to the strategy is a respect for the quality of decisions which may flow from a diverse and imaginative group of thinkers close to the children of the school.

This practical guide is intended to serve as a useful primer for those who would apply the techniques of site-based management to their own schools. Unlike some descriptions of site-based management, this guide will point out the perils and the pitfalls which may await those who rush into site-based management without properly cultivating the soil. Even though the author is convinced that collaborative decision-making may be the best model under some circumstances, he is equally convinced that site-based management is no panacea or quick fix. There are some schools which lack the culture, the inclination and the stamina to sustain forward progress with this model for a dozen or more years. There are others which are simply too impatient.

There is clear and present danger that site-based management will prove to be one more in a long series of educational bandwagons which have rushed through our schools for the past several decades without much positive influence upon the actual lives of children. This guide book is intended to assist a team of school-based planners in establishing more lasting and beneficial school improvement so that after the dust has settled and the proponents of site-based management have moved on to some new fad, the teachers, parents and principals who carefully implement a collaborative decision-making model will continue to see results which justify the investment of time and commitment.

Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.