Does Heroic Leadership Work?

Jim Stergios asks “Does heroic leadership work?” in the Boston Globe.  He suggests that Fenty/Rhee went down for pushing too hard and not connecting with the community.
Stergios likes Edmonton’s decentralized model better.  He’s right about the end game–revolving door strongman leadership is an urban disaster.  However, to breakup the downtown bureaucracy in most American cities it takes a hurricane or a hero to bust the Gordian knot of bad bargains, corrupt politics, and jobs-over-kids mentality.
Joel Klein made irreversible progress implementing a decentralized portfolio model. New Orleans will never be a centralized mess after Pastorek’s Recovery District.  On the other hand, Roy Romer tried to re-centralize LA and all the progress he made is long gone.
Capacity is the other challenge in orchestrating a shift to a decentralized model.
As noted on Tuesday in Leadership by Any Means, several of us tried decentralized models in the mid 1990s and found that many principals didn’t know what to do or how to do it–they had no preparation for creating a strong culture around an intellectual mission and building a team to execute at high levels of fidelity.  That’s why I think charter management organizations and school development networks are so important–they give mere mortals the opportunity to plug into a network and be successful.
The fact that most urban districts are broke will make it hard for them to build elaborate centralized agendas.  The fact that that many charter and online operators are still funded means the expansion of choices will continue.  Smart system heads will take advantage of what Duncan called the “new normal” and use SIG grants, charters, and online operators to expand options and migrate to portfolio management (see 2004 report)

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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