by Lou Russell

August 26, 2011

I'm Okay, You're a Knave and a Fool

Once where a prophet in the palm shade basked
A traveler chanced at noon to rest his miles.
"What sort of people may they be," he asked,
"In this proud city on the plains o'erspread?"
"Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?"
"What sort?" the packman scowled; "why, knaves and fools."
"You'll find the people here the same," the wise man said.

Another stranger in the dusk drew near,
And pausing, cried, "What sort of people here
In your bright city where yon towers arise?"
"Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?"
"What sort?" the pilgrim smiled, "Good, true and wise."
"You'll find the people here the same," The wise man said.
- Edward Markham

All of us struggle with problems in our schools that seem unbeatable. Will you ever be able to improve student retention, cut costs, grow recruitment, and improve quality or your own school’s unique uphill problems? Turns out these organizational problems are really team problems, and team problems are primarily people problems.

There is a theory in team research that states that a dysfunctional team member can render any team dysfunctional. I am sure you have worked with these people. On rare occasions, the only solution is for the person to leave, regardless of their competencies in other areas. On most occasions, the solution for a dysfunctional team is to help the individuals combine their strengths to complement each other's weaknesses, rather than argue and whine about each others’ differences. Here is what is needed for this to occur:

1) A leader with a vision

The college director must lead. He or she must believe that the team can work better together and be a person who sees people as ‘good, true and wise’. A leader who believes that bad teams can never be fixed is absolutely right.

Behavior shows whether a college director truly believes in the school staff. Does he or she spend time with the people who work there? Do the students see the director often, walking the halls, visiting? Does the director choose personal status over school results? Popularity with the staff over accountability? Focus on minutiae instead of urgency? Harmony over a constructive disagreement? The need to be always right over trust in the team?

2) A captivating goal

The college director must provide an incentive for each individual team member that makes it worth their while to work toward the school goals. Some people are motivated by challenge, some by money, some by social good, and still others by popularity. A good leader knows how to listen to people and figure out what really gets them going. The most common leadership mistake is to assume that everyone is motivated the same way you are. Here are some common motivational areas:

* Theoretical – loves to learn
* Utilitarian – loves to get a return on time and money invested
* Social – loves to help others
* Individualistic – loves to have power
* Aesthetic – loves beauty, harmony
* Traditional – loves a specific tradition (for example, politics, religion)

At RMA, we use a Workplace Motivators assessment to help college directors identify unique motivators for the staff.

3) Invest Time

We all know that it is necessary to exercise our bodies. It is also necessary to exercise teams to grow their strength. Improving teams requires an ongoing commitment to giving up precious time.

We often hear our students say “I don’t have time to be a leader”. The only other option is a school that can’t meet its performance goals.

4) Individual Personal Mastery

Each individual member of the team must learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses before participating in a strategy to combine strengths to minimize weaknesses. Using a behavioral assessment like DISC which we use for our customers, provides teams with the language and understanding to build a concrete plan to collaborate. Each person sees clearly his or her strengths, and areas both that can be developed as well as areas that they can depend on other members of the team to supplement. Communication preferences are identified through the assessment, and are shared with other members of the team.

5) Grow process

Once there is improved communication and the start of trust, the team must confront history together. I like to facilitate this using a process called “Appreciative Inquiry”. Ask the teams to share a time when they really worked well together, and then work from that success to build a checklist of how to be more successful moving forward. Leverage this list to create ground rules for meetings, communications, and relationships with people and organizations outside the team. Everyone knows that it is insanity to do things that haven’t worked over and over, but it is very common in troubled schools.

6) Plan for conflict

If this growth and transition go smoothly without a hitch, your team is still dysfunctional. Team building is a painful experience that requires two steps forward but always one step back, over and over. Prepare your team for the bumpiness and talk about it honestly when it happens. Catch people moving forward and discuss it. Catch people falling back into old habits and discuss how to avoid this happening again.


There is a wonderful Native American story about an older man who was struggling with great hurt. He told his grandson that he had a snake and an eagle in his chest. The eagle was telling him to fly above the hurt, consider the good in people, and work toward reconciliation. The snake was telling him to attack and kill the perpetrator of the hurt. His grandson asked, “Who will win?” The grandfather replied, “Whoever I feed”. Great teams at great schools begin with individuals on a journey to greatness.

Lou Russell

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