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Why Adrian Fenty Lost The City – and How Vincent Gray Can Win It Back

Now that the dust is beginning to settle from the DC mayoral race, it’s worth examining what outgoing mayor Adrian Fenty failed to understand about leadership and systems change, and what Vincent Gray will need to understand – and do – if he wants a different result.

This is an issue I explore in my most recent book, in which I argue that any organizational leader, whether s/he is an elementary school principal, a Fortune 500 executive, or the mayor of an urban city, needs to develop three foundational skills: self-awareness, systems thinking, and strategically-deployed collaborative decision-making. I also explain, in greater detail than I can here, how each skill is necessary and insufficient by itself, and how, in an organizational context, each functions in a nonlinear fashion. It is only through the combination of these abilities that leaders become more effective, and there is no strict and surefire order one should follow in order to cultivate these skills in himself and in others. As with everything else, human beings refuse to behave so predictably.

There is, however, a general continuum of which we should be aware. At the personal level, we begin by reflecting on who we are, what we value and where we are most likely to thrive and struggle as leaders. At the relational level, we start to become more aware of how our behaviors contribute to the culture around us; gradually we develop the capacity, with the help of others, to “see the whole (chess) board.” And at the organizational (or city-wide) level, we resist the urge to sell “our” ideas, opting instead to consistently invite others to co-construct the ideas – and the responsibilities – we will share.

When these three skills start to take root in individuals and the organizational culture of which they’re a part, a palpable shift takes place. Transformational change, and the collective will and clarity needed to achieve it, becomes possible. This doesn’t mean transformational change will necessarily occur, only that the proper conditions will have been created. At this point, we need a fourth leadership skill: ensuring that people have the understanding, motivation and skills they need to continually work with the forces of change.

Working with the natural forces of change is very different from “managing change,” just as co-creating a common vision is distinct from getting people to “buy in.” In one approach, organizational systems and the individuals who inhabit them are managed like machines, and people are given pre-packaged “solutions” that supersede community input; in the other, people and organizations are seen as complex, living systems, and the inherent creativity and commitment of the people being asked to change is what drives all decisions.

The fact that so many initiatives struggle to change core behaviors or processes is particularly troubling when one considers that, in essence, learning itself is change. But the greater truth is less that people resist change (though they do), and more that they resist being changed.

Knowing what will be easy and what will be difficult when it comes to systems renewal is essential for working with the natural forces of systemic change. And although there is no single way to be successful, there are different stages of the change process that can guide Mr. Gray in his work with us.

The Three Stages of Change – Mind, Heart & Voice

In everything the new mayor does, he should be mindful of how his constituents will experience the changes in three areas – their minds, their hearts and their voices.

Here’s what I mean by that: Before we are willing to change anything about our work or our behavior, we must first understand why the change is necessary and what it will require of us (mind). To actively participate in a major change initiative, we must feel intrinsically motivated in some way to contribute (heart). And to follow through on our individual and shared visions of our future community, we must have the skills and capabilities to not only demonstrate new behaviors, but also ensure greater alignment between our internal passions and our external actions (voice).

Often, what happens in massive change initiatives is we pay attention to some, but not all, of these stages. Teachers are asked to adopt a new teaching style before they fully understand why they should do so. Schools in search of more parent participation fail to explicitly consider what it will take to motivate greater numbers of adults to get involved. And students are invited to play a more active role in school governance before they’ve been equipped with the skills they need to do so effectively and responsibly.

Implicit in all of these scenarios is the recognition that implementing systems-wide change requires an approach that encompasses individual, group, and organizational learning needs. Some of these needs will be simple, visible and straightforward, such as providing basic information; others will be intangible, invisible and elusive, such as addressing basic human emotions.

To me, the most accurate (and damning) criticism of Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee was that they failed to understand, or even value, the importance of addressing the human elements of change. Some might say that such a statement is too soft-hearted, old-school and quixotically progressive to have any currency in the modern world. Yet this is what I learned in business school, not education school. For example, in Big Change at Best Buy, their book chronicling a major restructuring initiative at the consumer electronic retailer, authors Elizabeth Gibson and Andy Billings underscore the universality of these distinctly human elements of change. “Getting merchandise out on the shelves at the right time, staffing the service counter with the right number of people and within the labor budgets – these are the ‘hard’ or concrete issues,” they write, “and they are the easiest to assess and change.

“By contrast, the ‘soft’ issues are more difficult  . . . and they are the heart of transformational change. The tangible features may represent the face of change, but the human factors – dealing with uncertainty, motivating and energizing people, and creating behavioral change – are critical to success. When soft issues are not addressed, the organization and its people appear resistant to change. As with any large system, organizations have their own inertia. Resistance, though an inevitable feature of change, becomes the convenient term for failure to address the soft side of change.”

Understanding the forces of change in this way places a unique set of challenges on a mayor, or a schools chancellor, or an organizational leader, because it means they must balance the community’s attention to both hard (visible) and soft (invisible) issues.

Other insights from the private sector underscore this point, and help clarify the optimal role for leaders to play in systemic improvement work. Harvard Business School professors Michael Beer and Russell Eisenstat explain: “The most effective managers [in a multiyear study] recognized their limited power to mandate corporate renewal from the top. Instead, they defined their roles as creating a climate for change, then spreading the lessons of both successes and failures.” Management consultant Jim Collins puts it another way: “True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.”

Because systems change is such a nonlinear experience, and because it requires leaders both to engender a sense of order (as opposed to control) and give people the freedom to co-author the process, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Gray feeling overwhelmed about what to do. I believe the three-stage framework of mind, heart and voice can help him for two reasons: first, it will provide a guide for him and his staff that helps explain human, group and organizational behavior in any major change initiative; and second, it can be used as a framework for outlining a specific set of knowledge, skills and dispositions that our schools and community agencies should strive to cultivate throughout their student, faculty and parent communities.

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The (DC) Odyssey

(NOTE: This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)

A decade ago this month, I taught The Odyssey to a 9th grade classroom for the last time.  Today, I’m reminded of Homer’s central lessons – now nearly 3,000 years old – as I watch Adrian Fenty’s tenure as DC mayor speed towards a potentially spectacular, and tragic, end.

I mean ‘tragic’ the ways the Greeks did – as a form of art based on human suffering in which some people find pleasure, but all people find wisdom and insight. And although the election is still a week away, no doubt political scientists are already scrambling to understand why a young leader who, just four years ago, began a presumptively-lengthy reign of the nation’s capitol by winning every single precinct, may now soon be out of work.

“He would have evaded his doom if in his blind folly he had not talked so arrogantly.”

As befits a Greek tragedy, most of the mayor’s wounds are self-inflicted – chief among them his decision, in a multiracial city, to replace black leaders with non-black replacements in four of the city’s highest-profile jobs within the first six months of taking office. Of those replacements, only one is known both locally and nationally – DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. And of those replacements, only one has chosen to hitch her fate so directly to the mayor’s, and to next week’s primary election.

“Only a fool would challenge the friend who is entertaining him in a strange country.”

From the start, Fenty and Rhee have behaved as strangers in a strange land. In Fenty’s case, it was by turning a tin ear to many of the core supporters who had been most essential to his victory in 2006. With Rhee, it was by repeatedly making public comments that demonized the group most essential to her efforts – the city’s teachers.

“We came to grief through our own senseless stupidity.”

The lesson here – both today and in Homer’s day – is not that conciliation and collaboration are all that is needed to change a calcified system filled with entrenched interests, habits and resistance. Real change is complex and evasive, and part of the tragedy in DC stems from Fenty’s and Rhee’s potential to succeed where so many others have failed. There is still hope that they will, and that a dramatic victory coupled with deep reflection on past missteps will awaken in them a greater awareness of the long-term promise of collective capacity, as opposed to the short-term power of individual glory. But time is running out.

It may also be, as Andy Rotherham wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post, that the very system thought to be so essential to their success – mayoral control – helped assure their undoing. “It decreases the political demands on the leader of the schools,” Rotherham writes, “but it does not decrease the political challenges of running a school system . . . As we’re seeing now, with or without mayoral control, urban education reform is as much about politics as it is about technical expertise or results.”

“I have learnt to use my brains by now and to know right from wrong: my childhood is a thing of the past.”

The Odyssey survives in our collective memory because Odysseus’s long and difficult journey home mirrors the universal journey of life itself. Along each of our respective paths, there will be temptation, suffering, missteps and misfortune. Our only hope is to reflect on what happens and learn as we go.

Win or lose, the mayor and the schools chancellor have given us all an opportunity to learn from the journey that has led to this point. They have brought about massive changes to a system desperately in need of a new way of operating. And they have done so in a way that has likely, in typical Greek fashion, sealed their own fate. There is a third way, but to take it we would be wise to remember the advice the aging warrior Menelaus gives to the young and impressionable Telemachus: “There should be moderation in all things.”

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