Teaching, managing, leading
Even the best generalizations about human behavior can be confronted quite appropriately by occasional counter-examples, “The exceptions that prove the rule”. But I suggest that there is considerable truth to the following sweeping propositions:
1. American K-12 schools have been considerably damaged by the academic educationists who established the system under which EdDs are considered proper credentials for immediate appointment as principals or superintendents without prior experience of personally teaching, of having actual classroom experience.
2. American business and commercial activities suffer analogous dysfunctions owing to the success of business-school theorists in selling the notion that management and leadership skills can be taught direct and in the abstract, and that commercial enterprises of any kind can be successfully led by people with MBAs even if they have never before actually worked in the enterprise they are appointed to manage.
The same misguided notion has infected academe, whereby university presidents and wannabe presidents now flit from one college to another without staying long enough in any of them to learn, let alone respect, individual local history and characteristics.
In the commercial sphere, one sorry illustration of this dysfunctionality is in the pharmaceutical industry. The general public and the medical profession are not well served by a Big Pharma whose overriding, driving, purpose is the satisfaction of stockholders, so that highly consequential decisions are governed by the profit motive and not by technical considerations of the benefit-to-harm ratio of the manufactured products. A considerable responsibility for this state of affairs rests on the replacement of CEOs with science or medical backgrounds by individuals with MBAs whose previous management experience might include some entirely different kind of enterprise.
Managing any enterprise means managing people. Executives who have never personally labored at any of the tasks that the actual workers in the enterprise perform cannot know, in a very real sense, what they are doing — they do not know what it feels like to be working in that enterprise.
A recent illustration might come from discussions of the poor performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine: It lacks the infrastructure of non-commissioned officers, sergeants in particular, who are in most Western armies the most direct leaders, knowing exactly what it feels like to be a soldier; and who are relied on heavily and continually by commissioned commanding officers who know what they are doing, namely, that they should rely heavily on the NCOs.
First-hand illustrations come from a couple of the exceptions that prove the general rule. At my university, the best President I experienced was Bill Lavery, who had never taught in a classroom; and the best Provost was John Wilson, who had never held a faculty teaching position. Both of them were very conscious of that lack, and each of them spent considerable time and effort to make up for that lack by spending much time away from their offices to meet casually and informally with faculty and students and to chat with them. One of my most cherished memories is of Lavery taking me aside, more than once, after staff meetings, to say, “ Henry, never stop criticizing, we need to hear it”. Would that CEOs everywhere could be so wise.
It is far from uncommon to hear that there is a shortage of teachers at all K-12 levels, together with feeble hand-waving suggestions for how to cope with that shortage. But the solution is really a very simple, not to say obvious one: Replace administrators who have never been in the classroom with experienced teachers who are willing to accept administrative burdens, perhaps only temporarily; and, not quite by the way, make the salaries and benefits of teachers more like those enjoyed by other intellectual professionals.
For managing or leading an organization, it would seem, quite obviously, to be beneficial — even an absolutely necessary credential — to have a personal, even intimate experience of working in that organization, preferably at several levels of responsibility. But that is only common sense. As already pointed out, academic theorists of education regard experience of actually teaching students as a quite unnecessary prerequisite for principals of schools and superintendents of school systems; and academic theorists in schools of Business and Management preach that management skills can be taught in the abstract and applied successfully to the management of any and all types of organizations.
My former colleague John Mason knew much better, when he once explained the flaws exhibited by one of our administrators as owing to his having once read a book about management.
A more comprehensive exposure of the illusions about management expertise are offered by John Oliver in his HBO show, The Week That Was (22nd October 2023, Series 10, Episode 14). Rather shocking mis-deeds committed by the vaunted leading management-consultants, McKinsey and Co., are exposed, including such serious — one might well say inexcusable — conflicts of interest as serving simultaneously clients with opposing interests — which is, after all, just a more-or-less inevitable corollary of the notion that managing requires no understanding or even knowledge of what is being managed, of actually caring about what is being managed.
The management-consultant mystique is now so firmly established, however, that nothing short of an actual social and political revolution is likely to modify let alone abolish it.
That absurd mystique has also taken over in academia, I suppose appropriately enough since it originated there. But I was appalled, and remain so, over the now-standard practice of colleges and universities employing commercial head-hunters to find the best candidates for administrative positions in academe. It says a great deal about academic administrators and Governing Boards of educational institutions, that they do not trust themselves or their faculty to judge appropriately and effectively who to appoint to influential positions in their own institution.
Perhaps, though, I give them too much credit. It may just be that they wish to avoid taking responsibility for anything: hiring outside “experts” means that the blame for dreadfully bad appointments can be placed on the outsiders, not on the insiders who ought to know better.