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Public education is facing a number of problems that seem insurmountable. Schools are dealing with issues such as chronic poverty, students living in trauma, and increased mental health needs. Further, today’s students have only known war, economic tumult and as a consequence they are seeking stability and purpose in their lives.  

In the midst of these issues, public schools are asked to provide high quality educational experiences for every student despite dwindling and inadequate resources, difficult labor negotiations leading to low teacher and staff morale, a top down approach to leadership that focuses on standardization of learning, along with a public that believes public schools are failing. In short, a difficult landscape to navigate. 

I continue to ask myself, how can public education overcome these barriers and solve the various issues they face while staying focused on the learning and engagement of their students?I see the critical question being: 

How can public education leaders bring diverse groups of people together to own these systemic issues as they co-create organizational commitment as they engage staff and community members to address these issues and maintain and sustain a positive, inter-dependent and inclusive school culture focused on learner engagement and achievement? 

It begins with teachers, principals, and other staff members who work in our schools being served by a leadership approach focused on developing the talents and strengths of staff as we ask them to align their personal visions with the organization’s shared vision. This leadership approach began to evolve over 60 years ago. A leadership continuum emerged, mid 20th century, focused more on collaborative work structures and less on top down hierarchical approaches that did not account for worker satisfaction. This continuum emerged from the work of three men who are connected by their work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which I integrated with Don Clifton’s research in the area of positive psychology. These researchers provide a basis for a leadership theory that organizational members want to perform at a high level and to do their best work on a daily basis. However, job performance is inhibited by the systems and top down leadership approaches that hinder the development and engagement of the institutional members. Further, a school system that controls the instructional behavior of teachers through proscriptive programming does not build the professional capacity of staff and prevents teachers from seeing how they fit into the system, from consistently developing their talents and strengths, and from collaborating and engaging with their colleagues as they complete the work of the school.

An early proponent of organizational change through self awareness, self regulation and job satisfaction was Douglas McGregor who wrote The Human Side of Enterprise first published in 1960. His work began the shift away from Fredrick Taylor’s view of leadership where work is focused on the needs of the organization and not the needs of individuals who perform the work of the enterprise. At the time, most organizations operated with the premise that if work was rationally planned, directly supervised and efficiently carried out that production would improve. McGregor proposed that an organization would be more effective if leadership focused more on the individual and their potential. Anyone who has studied leadership theory is familiar with the concept of his theory X and theory Y which redefined the relationship between leaders and those they lead. In 1960, most organizations were structured in a hierarchical fashion with the idea that one person could successfully lead a large complex institution. McGregor pushed for alignment of the individual’s goals to mirror those of the organization. His thinking was that this alignment would lead to greater commitment to and engagement with the institution’s objectives living in an environment of trust.  McGregor (1985) explained the application of theory Y in the following way: 

“Its purpose is to encourage integration, to create a situation in which a subordinate can achieve his own goals best by directing his efforts toward the objectives of the enterprise. It is a deliberate attempt to link improvement in managerial competence with the satisfaction of higher-level ego and self-actualization needs” (p.61).

In addition, Don Clifton began studying what successful people did to be successful. He focused in on what people did well and not their weaknesses. For years he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and later founded Selection Research Inc (SRI)., where he developed hiring instruments to identify talented people for organizations to hire. In 1999, Clifton’s work in identifying talented people led him to introduce the Clifton StrengthsFinder that helped people understand their innate talents that if properly developed could become strengths leading to personal awareness and success. Clifton’s 34 strength themes exist in all of us however some are more naturally recurring patterns of thought and behavior. Clifton often asked

What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them.” 

Similar to McGregor, Clifton discovered that we should develop our workers talents into strengths. He recognized that organizations should seek people with the talent to perform the tasks of the job we are hiring them to do and then develop that talent. Further, Conchie and Rath (2009), identified how leaders might lead their organizations by knowing their employees well and then placing them in areas of the organization suited to their talent. However, they went a bit further and identified what followers need from their leaders. They understood that effective leaders needed to instill hope in their followers, show compassion to their employees, build a culture of trust within the company, and provide stability especially in times of difficulty. Conchie and Rath (2009) said: 

“Now, you can’t build hope without trust. You can’t build hope without stability. But trust and stability aren’t enough. You do need hope to draw people toward a better future and give them aspirations. And it’s a critical aspect of leadership right now.”

Early in my career, I employed both the Gallup teacher and principal perceivers to identify those with the talent to teach in a classroom and to lead a school as principal. I learned early on that finding the right people to work in these positions and then developing those talents is crucial to finding success in our public schools. As superintendent, I once went an entire year without a high school principal until I was able to hire a person with the talent to serve as our high school principal. It is one of the best decisions I made as superintendent.

In 1990, Peter Senge, the second MIT professor in the trilogy, published his seminal business book The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization where he built upon the work of McGregor and the concepts of positive psychology, espoused by Don Clifton, to promote the potential of the organization’s people. He proposed that systems, if properly understood, could help organizations understand their strengths and challenges by observing organizational behavior over time. He outlined five disciplines that would allow people to understand how these systems may interact within an organization leading to a learning organization. Those five disciplines are personal mastery (Gallup’s StrengthFinder fits here), mental models, shared vision, team learning (StrengthsFinder fits here too), and systems thinking. Embedded within Senge’s five disciplines is the idea that a person with personal mastery should know themselves so that they may design their own future specific to their personal vision for their life. By doing so, they become life-long generative learners and able to transfer that learning and personal mastery, to the organization through a shared institutional vision aligning one’s personal vision and beliefs with a desired future for the institution. By linking our personal visions to a shared vision bigger than ourselves, we become inspired and hopeful for the future. It is felt that if collective group of hopeful people is connected by a shared vision an organization might improve its learning as a group increasing their collective intelligence as they face difficult systems issues. 

Senge published his book in a time when organizations seemed to be decentralizing and taking advantage of the talent found throughout the institution and not merely at the highest levels of authority Senge (1990) explained the importance of a shared vision:

“Today, “vision” is a familiar concept in corporate leadership. But when you look carefully you will find that most “visions” are one person’s (or one group’s) vision imposed on an organization. Such visions, at best, command compliance-not commitment. A shared vision is a vision that many people are truly committed to, because it reflects their own personal vision” (p. 206).  

The final piece of this influential MIT trilogy is Otto Scharmer’s book Theory U: leading from the future, as it emerges published in 2007. Scharmer promotes that we must “see from the whole” if we are to deal with the many barriers limiting our ability to evolve with the system change occurring in our world. We begin to understand that successful change begins by observing the world around us through one’s experiences to better understand this observed behavior over time. Then as an individual, one reflects how they may or may not contribute to this organizational behavior. They must understand from where they operate as a leader by understanding their “blind spot” or their inner source as a leader. A leader must be open to new ideas, emerging trends, and listening to the feedback loops generated by paying attention and acting with intentionality. At that point, a generative leader asks organizational members to become aware of what is emerging in the world and the organization so that we may engage the system through deep, active listening and dialogue with diverse groups to be more cognizant of what is happening in the world around us. We can then be intentional in our work as leaders using what we have learned about how we operate as a leader and better understanding our colleagues while seeking and seeing the emerging system trends. With this leadership approach, we act in ways that allows the system to engage all members using their talents and strengths in maintaining, improving and redesigning the work of the institution.  

Examples of organic change are emerging all around us. One such change is personalized learning. Personalized learning is an emerging trend that began nearly 10 years ago as learning evolved from individualization to differentiation to personalization along with an understanding of how the brain develops and how emotion impacts the connection to deep learning for all of us.  

I observed small groups of early adopters organically understanding the evolution from instructional approaches such as cooperative learning, differentiation, constructivism, special education, gifted education and decided that teaching children how they learn best would engage and improve student achievement. Scharmer explains that successful change usually begins with a small collaborative core group of committed people.

“Whenever you look behind the scenes of stories about successful and inspiring projects, regardless of size, you will find a key person or a small core group of people who are deeply committed to the purpose and outcome of the project.” (p. 415)

Scharmer (2007) points out that boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred which includes social, positional and geographical boundaries. Today, people want to collaborate more because social, positional, and communication boundaries have been redrawn. As institutions evolve from hierarchical to decentralized collaborative structures, it is clear that in successful organizations leadership is shared throughout the organization. Sergiovanni (1992) explains that followership is as important as leadership in today’s workplace. Leaders need understand when to follow and when to lead, which is not always clear. In today’s complex organizations such as public education one person can no longer be asked to solve the organization’s challenges but instead the leader must coach / develop the organization’s members while growing a culture built on positive social capital that evolves into hope, trust, compassion, and stability encouraging staff to take responsibility while resolving the challenges facing the institution. My experience as a principal and superintendent taught me that when building strengths based learning organizations it is initially difficult because mistrust is common. However after time and with consistent intentional collaborative and shared leadership, trust begins to emerge from the collective aspirations making us all more hopeful. Armed with this hope, we are able to work toward and realize our shared vision maintaining a “creative tension” or the gap between our current reality and our desired future as we strive to align our personal goals with those of the organization.  

A strengths based learning organization builds the hope of organizational members by developing a positive inclusive, inter-dependent culture exhibiting hope, trust, compassion, and stability for all employees so they may do their best work in support of the organization’s vision and mission. In the case of public education, it is the learning and engagement of all students leading to graduates who are independent critical thinkers ready for life.

Blane K. McCann Ph.D. is currently the interim superintendent with Piper USD 203 in Kansas City, Kansas and President / CEO of Bright Future Consulting. If you would like learn more about making your organization a Strengths Based Organization, please contact 

His most recent work is the book When They Already Know It: How to Extend and Personalize Learning in a PLC at Work, published by Solution Tree, Bloomington, Indiana.

Blane McCann

Author Blane McCann

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