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School Leadership Lessons From the Sea

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In the current issue of WoodenBoat magazine, probably not adding to the clutter on many readers' desks, there is an extraordinary article on the sinking of the Bounty replica ship during Hurricane Sandy. The facts: the 50-year-old wooden sailing vessel (with an engine and several large powered pumps) set off from Connecticut for Florida as Sandy was headed up the coast toward New England. The experienced captain's plan was to avoid the storm or ride it out at sea. Conditions deteriorated, pumps failed, and the ship sank with the loss of two crewmembers, including the captain. Heroic Coast Guard helicopter rescue crews plucked fourteen survivors from life rafts in horrific conditions.

The article, by Captain G. Anderson Chase, a professor of marine transportation at Maine Maritime Academy, is both a detailed debrief on the tragedy and a meditation, taking advantage of hindsight, on certain leadership and management questions raised by the Bounty's loss.

The sea has endless lessons to teach us, and I've been fascinated by just about everything to do with bodies of water all my life. In the interests of full disclosure, a few years ago WoodenBoat Publishing even published a book of mine on the lessons that we, and particularly our children, can learn being in, on, and around water--my little contribution to the literature of kids and nature.

Captain Chase's expert dissection of the Bounty tragedy strikes me as being a powerful lesson for school leaders, in particular building-level principals and independent school heads. The sinking was above all a failure, or rather an insufficiency, of comprehensive, "systems"-type thinking and planning. As school budgets tighten and demographics weaken, the traditional approaches to school management that once looked very much like traditional models of maritime command are being re-thought; the Bounty's misadventure was a high-stakes drama, with life and limb at stake, but in their ways schools are pretty high-stakes, too.

Fundamental to the loss of the Bounty, as Chase sees it, was an initial failure of command structure and mission planning. Prior to sailing, there was no systematic, hard-nosed assessment of vessel and crew fitness, what the U. S. Coast Guard has designated their "Risk Assessment Model." Done well, this assessment brings all of the ship's function leaders (officers and engineers) together to present area status reports, with issues clearly noted and taken into consideration. As Chase writes, "everyone sees their own issues in the context of other issues they may not have been aware of." In a sense, this assessment creates a kind of dashboard of the readiness of the entire ship-and-crew system to carry out its planned mission.

Chase writes about this pre-action planning as being part of a contemporary concept in command called Bridge Resource Management. Rather than having a single mind considering all factors and making all decisions, BRM involves keeping the captain abreast of the specific situations and perspectives of all function leaders. Even if the captain is ultimately responsible for operational decisions, BRM means that the collective, collaborative thinking and experience of other key personnel is taken into account. Knowledge, even if not actual command, is shared.

Moby-Dick provides us with a clear, if possibly extreme, model of the "old" way. Ahab moves in a circle of one (although he occasionally admits exotic counterparts like Pip and Fedallah into this circle in limited ways); the Pequod's mates are essentially there only to carry out his orders. Even first mate Starbuck, skeptical as he is of Ahab's motivations, is limited in the input he is permitted to offer--Ahab is more likely to refer to Starbuck's misgivings than is Starbuck himself. As for the rest of the crew, it might have been aptly written "theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."

We've encountered better models of command, of course, whether it's Captain Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series or Jack Aubrey in Patrick O'Brian's novels of the Napoleonic wars at sea. Unlike the Bounty tragedy of October 2013, however, these are fictions created by idealists, instructive mainly as glimmers of a more satisfying world.

A week or so ago I suggested here that any independent schools unlikely to survive beyond our era will be likely to have failed in moving beyond the most conventional thinking about who they are and what they do. Schools like this, I suspect, may be very much driven by structural values like those Chase describes as out of date: leadership highly concentrated, dissent or skepticism unheard and unconsidered, no honest appraisal of current conditions or visible dashboard of actual institutional strengths and weaknesses--a sleepy board, stifled administrators. Planning is entirely a board function, focusing on goals that are repetitive or disconnected from actual institutional needs and realities. Marketing is built around arrogance and self-reverence, like the old parody automobile ad for the "Caballero" in which a faux-Ricardo Montalbán murmurs "Caballero! Caballero is the car for the man who knows who I am!"

The conclusion I draw from Chase's article is that the Bounty should never have set sail for the open sea. Schools, however, are already very much under weigh, planning at least to be open and to serve students in 2013-14 and beyond. Having spent time in a place--thriving, incidentally--where this does take place I'd like very much to imagine a world in which all schools practiced their own version of Bridge Resource Management, and I'd urge every school to make a schoolified version of the Risk Assessment Model part of its annual, if not even more frequent, practice.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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