When I was in college and for many years after, I worked for the Virginia Beach Leadership Workshop, a program run by the city school system in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It’s a camp, basically; in addition to leadership training, it has all the trappings of a regular sleep-away camp: decades of history, traditional songs, athletic competition, nightly skits, summer love (some years), intense longing (every year), and moments of epiphany.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was at VBLW where I started my career in education. It’s where I learned that I loved teaching, even if I wasn’t especially good at it.
It’s also where I was introduced to a short book called The Silent Majority: The Problem of Apathy and the Student Council, written in 1971 by Kent M. Keith. Keith’s thesis is that there are legions of students who wander through schools each day feeling no connection to the institution or those who fill it. He describes that existence as “…a world of lost longings; of things one would like to do but does not have the ability to accomplish…or of things one would like to understand, but does not have the insight for…a world which, if painless, may seem empty and meaningless” (4). It seemed (and seems) to me to be at best a sad way to go to school, and at worst a scenario with potentially tragic consequences. To Keith, student activities exist as an antidote to this – as a potential conduit for connection between students and the school. Student leaders, then, are the primary catalysts to create a culture of acceptance and mutual value in schools.
Given that I totally bought what Keith was selling, it’s not hard to understand why, halfway through Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (2011), I wanted to stand up and cheer when I encountered an analysis of “the profound human desire to belong, to feel the comfort and safety that acceptance brings” (48). Dignity is a book with some age on it now, but that hasn’t stopped it from regularly surfacing at conferences and in conversations with educators. And with themes ripped right from the philosophical playbook of any caring educator, this important book is indeed worth reading.
Dignity also comes at a critical time in our evolution as a species and as a nation, beset as we are by the difficulty we have in connecting with each other in authentic ways. As Hicks rightly notes, “We all seem to know how to belittle and criticize others” (13) (thanks, Snap Chat!) Hicks believes we can re-learn to connect with and value each other – and, what is more, to create genuine cultures of dignity. I hope she’s right.
Hicks defines dignity as “an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things” (1). She contends that violations of dignity are often at the root of conflict (she ought to know; she’s mediated intractable conflicts between warring parties across the globe), that treating others with dignity is a fundamental human right, and that establishing a culture of dignity is essential to organizations that want to thrive.
Dignity’s organization is simple. Part one describes the essential elements of dignity; for example, giving people the freedom to express their authentic selves, making others feel like they belong and are safe, treating people as equals, and believing what others think matters. Operationalizing this section of the book would help make every conversation in a school more authentic and our schools feel more welcoming. All educators would be wise to commit to memory its precepts. (I am tempted to send copies to our state legislature).
The second section is an analysis of what violations of dignity look and feel like. Not surprisingly, these violations are easy to commit, and it’s even easier to play an unwitting role in violating our own dignity. Hicks maintains that most of this – avoiding conflict, saving face, resisting feedback, blaming others to avoid guilt — stems from a deep-rooted desire for self-preservation.
The final section of the book is a treatise on how to reconcile conflicts by using dignity. It contains an extended recounting of a reconciliation that Hicks helped mediate between a former member of the IRA and a British police officer he shot and almost killed. Hicks contends that recognizing dignity has the potential to heal deep rifts between people.
One of the most poignant anecdotes Hicks shares is her fish-out-of-water story of leaving Madison, Wisconsin for a fellowship at Harvard. Upon arrival in Cambridge, and for a variety of reasons feeling inadequate and unworthy, Hicks found herself questioning her decision to join this new community. It wasn’t until she was literally welcomed with open arms by a colleague that she began to feel safe and valued. How many of our new families or faculty feel that same indecision, panic, and dread when faced with joining our school communities for the first time – or, after, when they feel their dignity has been violated? It’s fun to envision the schools we would have if all of our constituents — every family, employee, and alum — felt as Hicks did when her colleague exclaimed, “Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you!”
A version of this review appears online here.
Review of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan et al.
I am embarrassed to admit that for months An Everyone Culture battled for my attention on my nightstand with another book (John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran), but finally I turned to it, in part because I kept receiving karmic suggestions to get going. On a recent visit to the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, for instance, I saw it perched on the bookshelf of Bob Ryshke, director of Westminster’s Center for Teaching. Bob is someone I like and respect a great deal, and when I mentioned I was reading it, too, he recommended the book enthusiastically.
As it turns out, An Everyone Culture is a provocative and thought-provoking book about creating cultures of aggressively intentional personal and organizational development that I suspect would give most seasoned teachers and administrators pause. But I realized in the early stages of reading this book that we should now be creating work environments not just for ourselves, but for a new generation of teachers, young people who are pursuing workplaces that promise more than stability and security and the chance to be left alone to teach – what the authors call the new incomes: “personal satisfaction, meaningfulness, and happiness” (7). In a marketplace where new entrants into the field expect individualized strategic plans for their personal development, this book is a welcome blueprint for how to transform a school’s culture to meet their needs – and to improve as an institution in the process.
Although the book has broad appeal for organizations of all types and definite applications for schools, it is designed for business leaders, and it focuses on three corporate examples:
- The Decurion Corporation, the L.A.-based parent company of a variety of subsidiaries, including a west coast theatre chain.
- Next Jump, an e-commerce company in New York that (I think) designs and manages corporate loyalty programs for companies like Dell and Hilton. Their motto: Better Me + Better You = Better Us.
- Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund management firm based in Westport, CT.
These companies have unique cultures and have developed what the authors call “deliberately developmental organizations” (DDOs). DDOs bake in the expectation that everyone’s development will be accelerated, from the CEO on down. They have a financial interest in doing so, to be sure, but these companies also evince an extreme level of commitment to their employees. Here is the statement on Decurion’s homepage, entitled “Flourish:”
Decurion’s purpose, the fundamental reason it exists, is to provide places for people to flourish. By “flourish” we mean to become fully oneself, which includes living an undivided life and growing into what one is meant to be. We believe that every human being has something unique to express (perhaps several unique things over the course of a lifetime). While building each of our businesses to world-class standards, we seek to create the conditions in which that expression will emerge. Flourishing is the process of living into one’s unique contribution. We expect to do this through our work.
Here’s a snippet from Bridgewater’s Principles & Culture page:
We want an idea meritocracy in which meaningful work and meaningful relationships are pursued through radical truth and radical transparency. We require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation. It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.
It’s a fascinating proposition – central to the organization’s mission is the development of its human resources, which can only happen through “radical truth and radical transparency.” Our authors breathlessly describe this yeasty alternative to the pallid professional development programs that most of us have experienced: “Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day” (4). The result? A company full of intensely enthusiastic and loyal employees who see their own growth and development as essential to the success of the organization.
Sadly, in this system, gone is that annual junket to the National Council of Reflexology Practitioners that you enjoy so much. This professional development is all about exposing one’s weaknesses and mistakes, being vulnerable, and taking risks. As the authors note, “Development requires a willingness to surrender a familiar equilibrium for what will eventually be a new, more adaptive one” (113). “Constructive destabilization” is the coin of the realm in DDOs, and “members expect to be regularly, but manageably, in over their heads” (99). These companies believe that intentionally putting people in destabilizing positions forces growth. “The conditions for a strong developmental pull [a challenge that motivates growth] are created,” the authors write, “when someone is placed in a role or responsibility she hasn’t mastered or for which the complexity of the task is slightly above her current capability” (147). And once you get comfortable – once you finally feel competent – it’s time to move to a new job. It’s not for everyone, though [Next Jump even buys out employees who can’t get on board with their ideology.]
Reading about these radical corporate practices – the “issues logs,” the “talking partners,” the “situational workshops” – was exhausting, a result of my projecting myself into a DDO and imagining what must be, at least at first, a very unsettling work environment (though in the book’s examples, that lack of stability is seen by community members as an organizational strength and an attractive part of the culture). Frankly, it sounds brutal – like Tribal Council on Survivor, but one where giving and receiving honest feedback about one’s weaknesses is a daily expectation rather than the run-up to getting voted off the island. And it also seems to be transformative. And also clearly not for every organization – the authors are painstaking in their efforts to make it clear that cultures that support this kind of personal development have to be carefully built over time.
This book is essentially about feedback – continuous, authentic, and candid feedback – and about creating an organizational culture where exposing weaknesses is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than something to be hidden or circumvented. Success requires self-confidence, bravery, and openness from everyone. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but what could our schools accomplish if everyone in them was committed to mutual growth and development? This book supplies some solid answers. I highly recommend it.
a version of this review appears online here.