As I get older, my illusion of control weakens.
This is generally a good thing: the more I acknowledge that I can’t change much of the world, the more focus I have on the few areas where I might actually do some good.
For me, this means less time reading the news and more time on work and personal community.
But even within areas of some control, such as work, there are a lot of limits.
One of those limits is how, as a leader, to deal with what society demands.
Society Makes Demands
I recently had dinner with No Excuses charter founder, and he was describing how his school’s attempts to implement restorative justice have been a train wreck. After two years of cultural decline, the school is now just getting back to having a culture of high expectations that helps children learn.
I don’t know whether his was because of poor implementation or actual serious flaws in the restorative justice model itself. But I do know that there was a lot of pressure for the school to adopt the restorative justice model.
So let’s put aside the idea of whether or not restorative justice is a good cultural model for a school – rather, let’s consider the larger question: what should a CEO do when society demands something they disagree with?
In this case, liberal society (from which most No Excuses teachers come from) is increasingly demanding a more progressive school culture, with a lot of young white teachers reacting negatively to having to manage (what feels like to them) overly authoritarian cultures for black children.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re the CEO of a charter organization and you disagree with what society is demanding. What should do?
Bend or Stay Firm?
What if you think that restorative justice will lead to a decline in culture that hurts children’s lives? What do you do?
This is a very difficult question.
If you stay firm, you might lose the talent pipelines that had made you so successful in the first place. Or you might lose a communications battle that significantly reduces family demand for you school.
In other words, even if you think what society is demanding is wrong, it might still make sense to bend to society’s demands and just try to mitigate the negative impacts.
In this case, you’re basically trying to ride it out. Society’s demands constantly change – and you just have to hope that this moment in time will pass – and you can course correct in the future.
On the other hand, it might be the case that if you stay firm you will prove society wrong: when everyone else’s results plummet, you’ll be knocking it out of the park.
There are never any easy answers when you disagree with what society demands.
Too often, CEOs make the mistake that society, having made its demand, is now willing to hear the CEO’s response.
By the time society has made its demands, it’s usually not in a contemplative mood.
So here’s some advice:
Consider bending: The best course of action is often to bend to society in a way that keeps your organization afloat and lets you live to fight another day.
Have a values conversation: If you decide this is a place where you really need to make a stand, the default position should be to always engage society in a values conversation, not a strategy conversation. Society doesn’t make demands about operations and strategies, it makes demands about values and tribal affiliations. If you’re going to try and convince society you’re right, you need to win on values.
Make sure your team is with you: If you’re making a values argument, you’ll get clobbered if a bunch of people internal to your organization say that they disagree with your values – or provide reporters with a bunch of examples of how you’ve violated the values you’re now professing to hold.
To the extent I’ve had to push back on society’s demands (keep neighborhood schools, don’t close schools), I’ve always tried to do it in a values based way. And I’ve always tried to surround myself with people who share these values. And, at times, I’ve bended: such as supporting enrollment systems that give a partial neighborhood preference to families… and respecting the demands of people who hold different values than I do.