Schools as Organisms not Mechanisms – Transforming the Heroic Leader

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: November 2nd 2011

In 1989 Ursula Franklin wrote the Massey Lecture series The Real World of Technology. Her work had a profound impact on my thinking as she wrote about technology as practice. Thinking of technology as practice then links to our notion of culture. Culture,
she defined as a set of socially accepted practices and values.

Her best quote that I took away from this remarkable series
was that “schools are organisms not mechanisms.” I have always found that when
we think of schools as complex organisms, we are less likely to approach
leadership problems in mechanistic ways. This thinking was reaffirmed in a
recent read of Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. In this book, Westley, Zimmerman and Patton made the following observations:

Traditional methods of seeing the world compare its workings to a machine. We say things like “it works like clockwork” or “like a well-oiled machine,” and people are seen as “human resources” who use management “tools.” By using a machine metaphor, often we ignore the living aspects of our work. Complexity science embraces life as it is: unpredictable, emergent, evolving and adaptable – not in the least bit machine-like. And though it implies that even though we cannot control the world the world the way we control a machine, we are not powerless, either.

In complex systems, relationships are key. Connections or relationships define how complex systems work; an organization is it relationships, not its flow chart. Yet we long for simple solutions to complex social problems, we are drawn to mechanical solutions that prescribe one-size fits all remedies.

As a leader, if you feel that your work is about control and managing a mechanistic system, then your response will be about finding a technical solution that applies what you know to the task at hand. Such solutions can often be inadequate as they fail to take into account the complexity of human interactions in a social system. The need to “control the machine” may result in ongoing stress about getting things to conform to a well-defined future vision.

If you view the world through a complexity lens, you can view workplace situations more closely.

Control is replaced by a tolerance of ambiguity and

the “can-do” mentality of “making things happen” is modified by an attitude that is simultaneously visionary and responsive to the unpredictable unfolding of events. The successful social innovator is, intentionally or not, a part of the dynamics of transformation rather than the heroic figure of the leader in charge.

When faced with the next leadership challenge, step back and consider the relationships and interactions (including yours) not just as part of the problem, but as the essence of the problem itself. Examining the way in which relationships, power and control unfold may help redefine your leadership challenge and the ways in which you approach your work and the task at hand.