What Happens When School Leaders Make Decisions Not for the Greater Good, but for the Greater Peace

“You Can Please Some of the People Some of the Time. . . But You Can’t Please All of the People All of the Time”

Dear Colleague,


As many of you know, I consult with school districts all over the country . . . helping them to get “to the next level of excellence” especially in the areas of:

  • Strategic planning and organizational development (especially under the new ESEA/ESSA);
  • School discipline and classroom management (especially as related to disproportionality);
  • Multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and programs for academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students; and
  • Strategic and intensive interventions for students with significant social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs.

As I also do a lot of special education expert witness work (in Due Process, State, and Federal court hearings), I also try to help districts and schools avoid these costly (to everyone) and often contentious confrontations.

Finally, because I tend to work with districts and schools in long-term relationships (from one year to—sometimes—a decade or more), I usually see the “revolving door” where superintendents, district-level administrators, and school administrators come and go, enter and leave . . . on average, every three years.

_ _ _ _ _

My Blog two weeks ago, The Revolving Door of the Superintendency: A Case Study on Resetting the Course of a School District. . . When Mission, Vision, and Values Count More than Resources, Requirements, and Results

described the leadership of a Superintendent who I am working with on the West Coast, and how he has led a resurgence of staff collaboration and commitment in his district by resetting its Mission, Vision, and Values.

Today’s Blog continues that story—in a different district where I am working—by discussing how some administrators sometimes perpetuate staff dissatisfaction and disaffection because they “make decisions for the greater peace, NOT for the greater good.”

The Back Story

The District in question is a diverse, largely-rural, high-poverty county school system with many high-needs students. . . academically, behaviorally, relative to school readiness and attendance, and relative to parent/guardian engagement and support.

As a consultant for the district for many years, I have worked with (already) two different superintendents and an acting superintendent.

Underlying the “revolving superintendent door” here is a School Board that often has conflicting philosophical beliefs and school management perspectives . . . where one faction dismisses a superintendent until another faction regains the majority vote to dismiss the next superintendent.

The current superintendent is trying to stop the “revolution” (pun intended) by placating as many people as possible. . . on the Board, within the staff, and extended out to the parents and community.

But he is, unfortunately, missing the Boat: In placating everyone, there is more inconsistency, more distrust, and more (public and “underground”) accusations of favoritism than ever before.

More critically: More decisions are being made for the adults THAN FOR THE STUDENTS . . . to the degree that the students’ academic, behavioral, school readiness, and engagement needs are suffering.

Ironically, these negative student outcomes may result (eventually) in the Superintendent’s dismissal . . . because the District may end up in “school improvement” at the state department of education level.

NOTE WELL: I am not saying that administrators don’t need to plan, organize, manage, and make decisions strategically . . .

And I am not saying that administrators sometimes have to “go slow to go fast,” and make deft, sometimes imperceptible “chess-like” moves to position themselves, their staff, and (especially) their students for success . . .

But, I am saying that if we please the adults to the detriment of the students (and their outcomes), we have lost the essence of our educational mission, vision, and values.

It’s the difference between feeling good (because the superintendent is giving me what I want) and doing good (because our students are getting a sound and successful education).

A Primer on Making Decisions “For the Greater Good”

In a December 19, 2015 blog, I discussed The Ultimate Organizational Strategies for School Success. Described within a “voyage” or “journey” metaphor, the strategies were summarized in the following Seven C’s:

  • Charting the Course
  • Collecting the Supplies
  • Cruising with Purpose
  • Checking Coordinates
  • Correcting for Drift
  • Containing Crises
  • Celebrating the Voyage

Below, I revisit these “Seven C’s,” and briefly discuss the negative (or just unintended) effects when administrators make decisions “for the greater peace,” rather than “for the greater good.”

#1: Charting the Course

Joel Barker said, “Almost all successful individuals and organizations have one thing in common—the power and depth of their vision of the future.”

This is the essence of strategic planning.

Charting the Course focuses on specifying the goals, objectives, and outcomes of a district’s current or desired journey or “voyage”—at the organizational, instructional, staff, and multi-tiered student levels.

Relative to Barker’s quote, the goals are based on the mission, vision, and values of the district . . . but also on the history, resources, needs, and outcomes for the students.

When decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

The needs and outcomes of the students are sacrificed, and poor decisions are made relative to the hiring of new and the placement of current staff; the selection of curricula and the evaluation of instruction; and the identification of short-term goals versus the unwavering focus on long-term outcomes.

#2: Collecting the Supplies

This step focuses on identifying and gathering the needed resources so that the district’s educational journey has the highest probability of success. Significantly, many people think only about money as their primary resource.

And yet, there are other resources that sometimes are more powerful. For example:

  • Other people—colleagues, mentors, consultants, or other professionals—can—be resources.
  • Written, audio-visual, or multi-media information sources—books, DVDs, web-based trainings or references—can be resources.
  • Time—to do research, to engage in training, to devote to self-improvement, to focus tenaciously on a strategic goal—is an essential resource.
  • Places and facilities—libraries or other research sites, model or exemplary practice sites, simulation or job-related training sites—are possible resources.
  • And, finally, technology—with all of its wondrous innovations and advances—is a resource.

When decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

The district may not attain the “return on investment” needed to support student, staff, and school outcomes. Indeed, the district may become incorrectly, inefficiently, redundantly, and/or under-resourced. Thus, it may never build the momentum needed to reach its goals, or it may need to abandon its journey because it “runs out of supplies.”

So, part of strategic planning is to correctly “plan for—before embarking on—the journey.”

#3: Cruising with Purpose

Districts Cruise with Purpose when they have (a) developed effective and targeted strategic plans, (b) identified and gathered the essential resources needed, (c) identified and prepared for potential challenges, (d) chosen the optimal time to begin, and (e) determined how and when to evaluate their multiple areas of progress.

With all of this accomplished, districts can embark on their “journeys” with direction, determination, confidence, and purpose.

While all of this sounds natural and easy, many districts complete all of the planning and preparation, but never embark on the journey.

Sometimes, the “coordinates” of the journey are incorrect from the start—because of the decision-making at the top.

When decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

The District cannot “cruise with purpose,” because the (student-focused) purpose is less important than the (adult-focused) agendas.

In fact, when this occurs, the journey is largely doomed from the start. That is, the district begins the journey going in the wrong direction. While the district will get “somewhere,” it will not get where it needs to be.

Parenthetically, there are times when administrators consciously decide to not make a decision—as a way to avoid disappointing, aggravating, or provoking one or more constituencies.

First of all, a decision “to not make a decision,” is a decision... one where the results of the “non-decision” may increase the probability of a negative or unintended effect. Indeed, Trammell Crow said, “There’s as much risk in doing nothing as in doing something.”

Second, a non-decision means that the district may either drift for a while (requiring later time, effort, and resources to reset the journey), or that a number of different people may take the lead on the journey (resulting in “too many oars rowing in too many different directions” such that the boat is traveling in circles).

#4: Checking the Coordinates

This step is all about “formative evaluation.”

Formative evaluation involves planned, periodic evaluations that occur at different points in time during the journey to ensure that the district is on course and not in need of mid-course corrections.

Formative evaluation is important because most goals are not accomplished in a direct, straight-line fashion. Typically, progress involves different pathways, requires different levels of energy, and occurs at different speeds. Progress also, at times, requires detours, rest periods, and moments to consolidate the advances made.

Without formatively “checking the coordinates,” schools, staff, and students sometimes get lost, miss the progress made, or prematurely believe that they have reached their destination. In addition, psychological research has long shown that when students chart and graph their progress toward long-term goals, both their motivation increases and more of their goals are attained.

But . . . when decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

Objective formative evaluation may help the district to recognize that it began the journey going in the wrong direction (see #3 above).

But if the formative evaluation is subjective and focused on maintaining the greater peace, then the evaluation will be designed to . . . and likely will result in . . . “validating” (usually, incorrectly) that “we are meeting our goals.”

William Drayton said, “Change starts when someone sees the next step.”

But if a district is evaluating goals, implementation activities, and outcomes that are poorly designed from the beginning, the “next step” may seem logical, but it will be incorrect.

Said a different way: Most large bodies of water are navigated by tacking the sailboat back and forth, constantly evaluating and making the mid-course corrections need to reach the desired destination.

But if the coordinates to the destination are wrong from the beginning, all the tacking and mid-course corrections in the world won’t matter—you won’t get where you need to go.

#5: Correcting for Drift

Correcting for Drift involve the actions needed when formative evaluations tell us that we are off-course.

Let’s face it—life is complex.

A few years ago, there was a retirement commercial that began with an older gentleman chiding us, “What did you think—life was an expressway?”

Clearly not.

With all the complexities in life (in general and in school), and everything that seems to be bombarding us at the same time, it is easy to get lost in the irrelevant details, the inevitable detours, or the “crises of the day.” At times, all of this causes us to lose our focus and drift from our path.

And so, using our formative evaluation results, and as noted above, we need to periodically make mid-course corrections to stay on track.

Think about it this way: Many of you would be surprised to learn that when a plane travels across the country, it is off-course 90 percent of the time. This is because airplanes travel from one air traffic control center to the next—at least, until they are within fifty or so miles of their final destination.

Thus, because the control centers are not aligned with your departure and destination cities, during the flight, the captain, the computers, and the air traffic control centers are constantly programming the plane to make mid-course corrections based on their current formative evaluation data.

Formative evaluations must be built into and executed as part of the system, school, staff, and student goals in our strategic plans. This helps us to make the necessary mid-course corrections so that we stay on track to reach our goals. Without these corrections, we could get so off course or so lost that our only option would be to give up the journey and start over again.

But, once again . . . when decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

Unless the district realizes that it is drifting, and immediately implements a “correction action” plan, all of the mid-course corrections are either moot . . . or will “drift” the district even further off-course.

#6: Containing Crises

This sixth (of the Seven) C’s, Containing Crises, focuses on the planning that prevents crises (as districts work to attain their strategic goals), and the advanced planning that prepares them to quickly address most crises as they arise.

While we have talked some about prevention, I want to introduce what I call the “NASA Approach to Crisis Prevention.”

This involves thinking, during the development of a strategic plan, about everything that could possibly go wrong while actually executing the plan, developing an “early warning system” as an alert for potential crises, and then preparing response systems or contingency plans to address any crises that might actually occur.

The reason why I call this the “NASA Approach” is because this is exactly what NASA does when designing its space ships, and what it is doing now as it conceptualizes its future trips to Mars.

More specifically, NASA spends an incredible amount of time in development and training in the areas of crisis prevention, intervention, and response.

For example, as they design the space capsules that will travel to Mars, they are building them with what are called “redundant” or “back-up” systems.

That is, during the design process, NASA engineers envision every possible hardware or software system failure or misfortunate that might occur from lift-off to touch-down. Guided by these “worst-case scenarios,” they will build back-up systems into the shuttles—extra fuel cells, additional computer capacity, by-pass systems and strategies, and emergency procedures for unlikely, but possible, events.

Crisis prevention is also integrated into every astronaut’s training prior to leaving on a mission. Indeed, beyond preparing for the scientific parts of their mission, astronauts spend a large amount of time on “crisis response” procedures.

Once again, after imagining every possible crisis that might occur on the shuttle, NASA conditions the astronauts so that they can respond to any crisis situation at virtually an automatic level. This training and response is essential—especially when the difference between survival and catastrophe, at times, is counted in seconds, not minutes.

The point here is that districts need to think, as part of their strategic planning, about the potential crises that may affect or completely ruin their potential to succeed. While good planning may actually prevent most crises from happening, planning also results in interventions that are available to contain and minimize crises if they do occur, and responses to repair the damage once they are over.

But . . . when decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

The time, resources, and energy spent in crisis prevention and planning typically is wasted, because they are geared to the wrong goals and outcomes.

More critically, however, is the potential that more crises that are more serious and more difficult to stabilize and resolve may result because—underlying what appears to be “the greater peace”—are the disaffected and distrustful feelings of different staff and other district constituencies who either are instigating these crises, or (at least) are not committed to helping the superintendent resolve them.

Back “in the day” when the Ed Sullivan show was on, there was a performer (see below) who used to spin ten, fifteen, or twenty plates simultaneously on their own thin metal “pole.”

While this professional knew what he was doing, there are times when administrators focused on the “Greater Peace” are, in essence, simultaneously “spinning a bunch of plates on poles.

And what is the likely outcome? A bunch of broken plates that cannot be repaired or used again.

#7: Celebrating the Voyage

The last of the Seven C’s is Celebrating the Voyage. It focuses on celebrating the fact that (a) we can plan and improve our student, staff, and school outcomes by (b) making incremental progress toward our goals—succeeding at different stages in the process; and that (c) we should commemorate and celebrate our short- and long-term successes that result in short- and long-term contribution, growth, and achievement.

This step, then, celebrates the steps during the journey, as well as the journey once the destination has been reached.

Of the possible areas of celebration, I would suggest that the first one above is the most important.

Too many times, we focus on “the win,” “the award,” or “the recognition.” And yet, the reality is that we do not always reach our ultimate or long-term goals.

Given this, we need to refocus our “perceptions of success”—demonstrating sincere motivation and appreciation for the accomplishment of creating the strategic plan itself, for the care in preparing for the journey, for the thrill of taking the first steps, and for the excitement of experiencing new challenges and opportunities.

When decisions are made for the Greater Peace than the Greater Good:

“Celebrations” are often illusory. That is, because a district’s goals, objectives, and outcomes are focused on placating the “special interests” of selected individuals (to achieve the “greater peace”), any “successes” that are celebrated are more adult-centered than student-centered.

While celebrations are important, those that are consistent with the district’s mission, vision, and values—and that reflect legitimate student outcomes—are more valuable, sustainable, and meaningful.


The “real” messages in this Blog are the constructive, proactive, and student-centered ones embedded in the descriptions of the Seven C’s:

  • Charting the Course
  • Collecting the Supplies
  • Cruising with Purpose
  • Checking Coordinates
  • Correcting for Drift
  • Containing Crises
  • Celebrating the Voyage

The “anti-messages” involve the negative outcomes—at the system, school, staff, and student levels—that could occur at each Seven C stage when administrators make decisions for the Greater Peace (of different adults), rather than the Greater Good (of the students).

Once again, I understand the dynamics and complexities of being a great superintendent (district administrator, or school administrator). And, I understand that—as above—administrators have to make deft, sometimes imperceptible “chess-like” moves to position themselves, their staff, and (especially) their students for success.

But I also know that the decision-making approaches being used by the superintendent in the district I described at the beginning of this Blog are similarly used by other superintendents across the country—especially when they are working in districts that have experienced a “revolving superintendent door.”

But also as noted, these decision-making approaches—often motivated by self-preservation—typically are counterproductive and unsuccessful—for students, as well as the superintendents themselves.


“You Can Please Some of the People Some of the Time. . . But You Can’t Please All of the People All of the Time”

And if superintendents are trying to please staff and constituents in order to “manage” their success, they will lose the capacity to “leader” their districts to real success.

I hope that this BLOG has provided one or two (or more) kernels of wisdom that will help you—regardless of your current school, agency, or other position—to self-reflect, self-correct (as needed), and self-determine your leadership success.

As always, I look forward to your comments. . . whether on-line or via e-mail (knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net).

If I can help you in any area of the school and schooling process, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students.

Meanwhile, as you “journey” to the end of this school year, I hope that the Seven C’s will help steer you straight to the successes you deserve, while also helping you to navigate through any rough waters that you encounter.