It's Not Personal. It's Organizational.

Spring 2014

By Debbie Freed

‚ÄčAs an organizational consultant, I hear the complaints weekly.

"She is not a team player."

"This department is a mess. The teachers complain all of the time about each other and the parents."

"He is so controlling and not open to listen to other people's ideas."

"This trustee doesn't have any boundaries and is difficult to rein in."

"We have lost yet another development director. Why can't we find the right person?"

It is easy to think that, if people only behaved differently, or got more professional support, or were more collaborative, or worked on their executive functioning skills, or learned to communicate better, then all would be fine and everyone could get on with the real work of the school without distraction. Indeed, some of my clients view the consulting work I do as "organizational psychology," focused somehow on "fixing people." The reality is that because I have training in education and family systems counseling, as well as in organization and leadership development, I have come to learn that most issues that show up as people problems in organizations are really systemic confusions and misalignments. They are all symptoms of deeper cultural and organizational breakdowns.

Today, you can read any number of books and articles or view online videos on change leadership in education — much of it focused on the need for new pedagogy for a new century, the integration of technology into learning, and the necessity of instilling a global perspective in the curriculum. At the end of the day, however, a well-functioning school is one in which the school leadership — especially the head of school — is able to manage the complex network of people focused on a shared mission — whatever it may be.

There are ways for heads of school to lead school communities full of diverse people with varied personalities and styles, beliefs, political views, and cultural backgrounds. To help leaders understand and manage just about any problem that arises as a relationship issue, I have developed what I call a Systems Lens Model. It is designed to help leaders understand the source of any community conflict, and then work toward a solution. The model aims to reframe any problem not only to create more empathy and build connection among adults in the school community, but also to recognize where systemic issues need to be addressed in order to inform long-lasting personal and organizational change and growth.

A Word About Fractals

Once when visiting a K–8 school, I came out of the girls' bathroom and met up with a child no older than six. With assertiveness and respect, she said to me, "That's the girls' bathroom. It's not for adults." In an instant, I experienced the culture of this school — and was put on notice.

This moment was a fractal of the organization's culture.

Fractals are self-replicating patterns that, when examined, mirror the larger system. This mathematical term, used primarily in chaos theory and for understanding the nature of the infinite, has application in strengthening leadership and organizational culture. Although "chaos" suggests a random disorder, there is actually predictability in chaos — a pattern that can be understood and, therefore, managed.

If I were a photographer, at any given moment in a school's day, I could take a "snapshot" of any activity — photo-freeze the moment — and later analyze and make sense of it through a systems lens. In so doing, we could "connect the dots" and trace the activity's roots back to the school's mission, its core values and beliefs, processes and structures, and its all-important historical-cultural antecedents. In this way, we can demonstrate where things are working and not working.

This is true for every single activity — even the moment when a little girl chastises an adult for using the girls' bathroom. That moment — that fractal — reflected the organization's values. As it turns out, this particular school is a highly regarded progressive school that believes in the voice of children, that respects the relationship between adults and children. In confronting me directly, this little girl was modeling the school's mission perfectly.

All of the situations listed at the beginning of this article can be viewed as fractals, the micro reflecting the macro.

The Systems Lens Model

Taking snapshots of school life is easy. The challenge comes in making sense of these moments and leveraging them for the benefit of the community. This is where the Systems Lens Model comes in. It offers school leaders a way to solve problems and strengthen the community. It can do this because it helps leaders clarify and affirm the school's mission and vision — and everyone's relationship to it.

The Systems Lens Model actually contains five interrelated lenses1 — three on a vertical axis and two on a horizontal axis. On the vertical axis are the school's shared purpose and processes that support the mission and vision, as well as the people who are attracted to and ideally share the values that shape the mission and vision. Purpose, process, and people, of course, do not operate in a vacuum. They all function within the school's (and the world's) history and culture — the horizontal axis. In every action, gathering, meeting, communication, decision, artifact, ritual, tradition, structure, curricular and co-curricular program, pedagogical practice, policy and procedure, evaluation, and use of time, technology, and space, you can see the history and culture of the school. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Organizations are the lengthened shadow of their founders." There is always a backstory or context to everything that occurs in the life of a school, planned or unplanned.

The purpose of this model is to support everyone involved with the school to more fully grasp the school's big picture, their role in it, and the rules of engagement. Everyone is accountable to the big picture — the mission — and everyone needs leadership's ongoing support to serve the mission in his or her designated way. And for leaders, this support must be a regular and conscious activity. Managing the interrelationships of people is never simple. Because they are so highly personal, schools are complex institutions, unique in the field of management. The Systems Lens Model is designed to help heads of school lead this highly charged environment so it can spotlight its ideals, surface its values, and accomplish its mission.

Open Inquiry

At the heart of the Systems Lens Model is open inquiry. This is a wonderful tool to employ in making sense of a moment. Look again at the questions at the start of this article. To complain about a coworker — saying, "She is not a team player" — is to raise central questions about the relationships in the workplace. What is meant by "team player"? What is meant by a team? Who defines the goals of the team? Is there a team captain? Do people know their roles and the rules on the team? Do players tell each other how they feel about the team? How do they know when they've done a good job?

If a teacher complains, "This department is a mess," what criteria is he or she using to define "a mess"? Why is someone leveling this judgment now? Are there underlying issues that have been brewing for a while? What has occurred in the past to give rise to these comments? What is the role of the department chair? How are the students doing in department classes? Do the teachers discuss not only departmental problems, but also why the department exists in the first place? Do they understand how the department reflects the school's mission, and where it fits into the rest of the school structure?

If someone complains that a particular trustee "has no boundaries," does this trustee — do all trustees — understand the school's mission and the purpose and role of a board in supporting the mission? Is this trustee unique in crossing boundaries? What makes this particular trustee difficult? What were his expectations when joining the board and what was he told? What kind of board orientation and ongoing board development is there? How effective is the board chair in his or her role? Does the committee on trustees have clear criteria in selecting and supporting trustees in their work? Does everyone on the board know the rules of engagement, and are they called out when they cross lines, even when they mean well? Does the board discuss these matters?2

The point here is for school leaders to slow down and evaluate every problem through the Systems Lens — the school's purpose, processes, and people viewed in a historical-cultural context. When someone acts out, when someone crosses boundaries, when a position in school has a high turnover rate, there is almost always a disconnect somewhere — a misunderstanding of the school's big picture and one's role in it. They are acting out on assumptions and expectations that, when surfaced, reveal a lack of clarity about one's work. They reveal, in other words, a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. The work is not to "fix" people, but fix the system.

Through inquiry, in all situations, you'll notice important unifying questions keep emerging — all seeking clarity about the big picture and one's role in it:

Freed's Ground Rules for Effective Communication and Engagement™ 
  1. Show Up (on time, stay the whole time)
  2. Pay Attention (to heart and meaning)
  3. Be Honest (Is it right? Is it fair? Is it necessary?)
  4. Don't Be Attached to the Outcome (suspend judgment in the moment; be open to another's perspective)
  5. Speak from Your Experience ("I" messages)
  6. Check Out Your Assumptions ("What am I thinking and feeling? What are you thinking and feeling?")
  7. Assume Goodwill and Value (everyone wants to be valued, heard, and respected)
  8. Right to Pass/Stay the Course (timing is everything)
  9. Define and Honor Confidentiality (no assumptions!)
  10. Do What You Say You Will Do! (integrity in practice)
  • What is going on? Why now?
  • Who are we? Whom do we serve? How do we measure success? Are we all on the same page?
  • What is our role and authority? Who is in charge? How do we make decisions?
  • How do we manage time, turf, and resources? What are the rules of engagement?
  • How are we supported and held accountable to our goals?
  • How do we talk about difficult moments?
When I work with schools to unpack a problematic situation, I start with these kinds of systems questions. In essence, through confidential interviews or surveys, I listen deeply to hear each person's perspective on a given situation. This way, in almost every instance, person by person, the systemic breakdowns are revealed to me. And when I tee up an intervention process or a conversation with the group, I can name the "big picture and my role in it" confusion — and use that as the orienting focus of the work to follow.

In most cases, this process makes sense to those involved. They view it as a positive and accurate way to reframe the "presenting" problems and, in so doing, repair relationships and strengthen the culture.

Clarity of Purpose and Role

Purpose is large scale (the mission) and small scale (your daily work).

The goal of an intervention is to have all agree about what they are trying to achieve together and ways to best do so. What does an eighth-grade graduate look like? What do kindergarten children need to know? What do we mean by diversity? How does the P.E. program reflect our core beliefs? Where does a development director truly fit into the picture? What are our expectations of how people treat one another? These are overarching questions that emanate from a shared mission and vision.

Focusing on the school's mission is a positive rallying exercise that gives the players involved a chance to step back and explain why each has chosen this school and what his or her beliefs and practices are regarding working with children in this environment. These exercises also give leaders the opportunity to be clear with everyone about the "givens" and stakes in the ground, per mission, role, and authority; and to be clear about where each has voice in shaping culture and mission. In so doing, everyone not only has the opportunity to be more known and valued among colleagues, but also to realize much of their disconnect relates to the confusion they have about their shared work.

Since people have been bumping up against one another for a while without this clarity, the intervention process is supported by shared ground rules (see sidebar on page 107). When a group has clear norms for conversation and engagement, it can quickly get to core issues, surface problems that have been brewing for a while, and work toward a solution. In the end, this kind of communication is powerful, energizing, and connective. Conflicts and crises become moments to discover and rediscover who you are and how things are working, and what needs to be done next.

Systems work takes time and focus, but when practiced and used proactively, it can actually save time and energy. As a systems consultant, I find the best way to be mindful and committed to this way of thinking and behaving is for school heads to regularly apply the Systems Lens with all of their constituent leaders and their teams, from the boardroom to the classroom.

Systems thinking does not preclude the reality that some people indeed have personal or professional challenges, or are not aligned with the mission, and would be better served elsewhere. However, through a systems analysis, it is possible to give all people a chance to "get with the program," to truly know their roles in the organization, and to have the opportunity to adapt and grow.

In many cases, through this process, people feel relief, connection, gratitude, and hope for the future. Through this sense of renewal, they may then develop personal/professional action plans that make them more successful in the roles they play in the school.

Sustaining and Enhancing Culture

In almost every phone call I receive from a distressed school head or leader, underneath the presenting issues is a call for clarity, alignment, and accountability — in other words, a desire for the school community to shine. To this end, the Systems Lens Model is designed not just to uncover things that are not working, but also to enhance and sustain culture. It is a tool for positive, proactive leadership.

It can help leaders reinforce all the good qualities that people bring to the table — the trustee who gives of her time, talent, and treasure in a meaningful, dignified way; the faculty and staff members who give their hearts and souls to the school and transform the lives of children; the parents who chose your school because they want the best for their children and believe in your mission; and, of course, the students who show up every day giving all they have to learn and grow.

The Systems Lens Model is also valuable in helping leaders make better decisions and be more transparent in these processes — e.g., establish effective accountability and professional development systems, create a new initiative or program, restructure and reorganize, develop a strategic plan, or start a capital and/or marketing campaign. Indeed, in an era of great change and shifting priorities for schools — when talk of leadership is really about talk of transformational leadership — this model is a great guide for decision making writ large.

There's an interesting irony embedded here. For the head of school, understanding and employing the systems model is an excellent way to understand oneself. Yes, it helps you establish rules of the game, how decisions are made, the norms for communication, how resources, time, and space are allotted within the school, and so on. But it also helps you, as head of school, gain clarity about your intentions, what motivates you, how you align with your own school culture, how you relate best to others, and how you can be the sort of leader you imagine.

In other words, by staying focused on the ways in which purpose, processes, and people intersect and react with school history and culture, you will find more people interested, engaged, and delighted to be part of your community. In a time when change seems to be the norm, such support is more than comforting; it makes the important ongoing work of education achievable as well as life affirming.


1. See my article "Shaking Up the System: Have We Lost Our Way?" Independent School, Winter 2000.

2. If boards are not clear about the big picture and their role in it, all bets are off for the rest of the organization!
Debbie Freed

Debbie Freed is a leadership and organizational consultant based in Mill Valley, California, who works with independent schools. She has led the San Francisco Bay Area Head’s Dialogue Groups since 1992 and is developing online dialogue groups for heads across the globe. Contact her at [email protected].