The Power of Interdependent Thinking

Spring 2022

shutterstock_1901818201.jpgThis article appeared as “Constellation Culture” in the Spring 2022 issue of Independent School.

In my work with our schools throughout the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many heads and teachers about how their schools were surviving and thriving during this challenging and uncertain time. And despite how difficult it’s been, in so many of these conversations, I often heard about how schools have promoted creativity, resilience, and joy among their communities. I also heard a common thread among schools that seemed to be faring well that surprised me: They spoke of cultures that support empowerment, agency, and distributed leadership. They embrace the idea of trusting in their community and letting go. They value a culture grounded in faith and trust in others and can see how it transforms teams and communities. They trust and empower teachers, students, administrators, and parents to confront their complex challenges and live their mission. They deeply believe that they are better together. 
Amid these exploratory conversations, a friend recommended a book, The Power of Giving Away Power by Matthew Barzun. She said that it spoke directly to the idea that was emerging in my conversations with school leaders. And thanks to a conversation with another friend, a few weeks later I found myself on a Zoom call with Barzun. We immediately hit it off. And as it turns out, he went to an independent boarding school, has children enrolled in our schools, and serves on an independent school board. We’ve since had many conversations in which we’ve explored the impact culture can have on a school, the power of interdependence, and the challenges associated with letting go and giving agency. We haven’t approached our conversations as experts with answers but, instead, as walking and wondering together on a journey.
In this edited version of a recent conversation, we explore how our schools can build interdependent cultures, and how we can empower others, including staff and students, to lead.
Tim Fish: In your book, you describe Pyramid and Constellation mindsets, which expanded my concept of community and culture. Briefly, how do you describe these key concepts?
Matthew Barzun: The book is about two distinct ways of seeing, thinking, and behaving, especially as they play out in our professional lives. I use the design of the Great Seal of the United States as a visual metaphor to better understand pyramids and constellations, both images you can see on the back of the U.S. dollar bill.
On the left is a pyramid. It represents a mentality of top-down order, clear lines, and clear divisions. In the Pyramid mindset, we ask, “Who’s in charge?” “What’s the point?” and “Where do I fit in?” The best technical catch-all word is a hierarchy, but I like the pyramid better because it helps us understand the idea and the feeling of the weight and sharpness of it all at once.
On the right side of the dollar is the front of the Great Seal of the United States and the key element of it, the crest. The crest is the one image meant to express the essence of the whole thing. The one on the U.S. Seal looks like a fuzz ball, but it’s called the constellation and has 13 tiny stars in it. A slavery-hating Quaker founder named Charles Thomson spent seven years overseeing the process of choosing it. And it took longer to design than it did to win the war. Before a designer condensed it into that fuzz ball, it was an asymmetrical cluster of different-sized stars representing different-sized states meant to express the idea of free people voluntarily associating and coordinating without clear lines of authority.
What I call the Constellation mindset is something that the best of early America was really good at, as recognized by foreign observers. It remains with us in some incredibly successful organizations such as Visa, Airbnb, Wikipedia, Alcoholics Anonymous, and many others. In the Constellation mindset, we ask: “Who are you?” “How do we relate?” “What can we make together?” The best technical catch-all word is interdependence.
These are two very different ways of engaging with the world and each other. We’re all pretty good at the Pyramid mindset, but as a culture, we’ve gotten very rusty with the habits of Constellation thinking. Writing the book was an effort to revive them.
Fish: Once you see the concept of Pyramids and Constellations, you can’t unsee it. They are everywhere. As you say in the book, you’re not arguing for an all-or-nothing approach. There are times when we need pyramids and times when we need constellations. When COVID-19 first hit our schools, we needed to quickly build pyramids to ensure safety, clarity, consistency, and order. We didn’t have a choice. And, as our pandemic response required more creativity and collaboration over command and control, the need for constellations emerged. There came a time when a top-down approach didn’t work nearly as well. We quickly discovered that everyone was needed. We were better together. The best ideas came from everyone and anywhere. The most successful schools have a culture that can flex.
I was facilitating a board retreat recently, and we got to talking about Constellation thinking in learning design. One of the trustees asked if constellations “water down” academic excellence. She said that individual achievement has always been at the center of the school’s success and wondered how interdependence would ensure that all students would be prepared for the most demanding colleges and universities. Essentially, she was asking if Constellation thinking is all about “fluff.” How would you respond to that well-meaning trustee?
Barzun: I get this question a lot, and I get where it’s coming from. Teachers are more familiar than most with the hits and misses of collaboration. From our time as students, we all know the pain of a group project gone bad, with one person doing all the work and the rest getting a free ride. But where I think collaboration goes wrong is when we bring the Pyramid mindset to it, which we very often do. Collaboration just doesn’t work very well when your first question is “Who’s in charge?”
Collaboration needs different software, so to speak, to be effective. It needs the Constellation mindset. And that requires a real leap from being fixated on the point at the end of the line or roles or division of labor to being alive to the people around you and to the capabilities of a new entity that might be called the you-and-me. Great coaches in team sports like soccer, volleyball, and basketball often understand this intuitively. When the mind is in its interdependent mode to elicit every small strength and talent, then the points come. When the mind is on winning, the flow stops.
Google is committed to the team concept and conducted a famously rigorous study to find out what separated the highest-achieving teams from the rest. They thought it might be the strongest leader or highest combined IQ, but it was nothing like that. What characterized the best teams was termed “psychological safety.” It was an environment that allowed for people to be real, make mistakes, and try out weird ideas. Those team members are seen, known, and needed. Psychological safety allows for the leap to a Constellation mindset.
Fish: At our most recent NAIS Leadership Through Partnership workshop, board chairs and school heads came together to build their capacity to lead the school together. NAIS President Donna Orem asked the group to reflect on some of the challenges that were most directly impacting their ability to lead the board and the community. Polarization and lack of trust emerged as hot issues for the majority of participants. In your work as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom and Sweden, you certainly sat through your share of complex negotiations where trust was challenged. In the book, you talk about the concept of “freedom together.” What do you mean by that—and how do you think heads and board members can use your insights to navigate the polarization in their communities?
Barzun: This gets right to the core of so much frustration we all experience these days. Of course, there’s no “one weird trick” to solve it, but I like to do a quick thought exercise to help us see it in maybe a slightly different way.
Imagine you’re pulling into a parking lot at the supermarket. You see a spot between two cars, and each has a one-word bumper sticker. Your job is to guess to which political party each driver belongs. The sticker on one car says, “Freedom!” The sticker on the other says, “Together!” Readers won’t need time to get the answer. For better or worse, everybody gets this answer correct. Now comes the thought part of the exercise.
We all know too well how to choose one of these sides, but what I think we all really want and what we really need is “freedom together.” This is the thing that much of America used to be really good at, yet it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around those days. The habits for freedom together are the habits those community and board members want to relearn.
Something that pervades all of these habits is what you might put simply as “making” versus “fixing.” That is to say, when we are working with a diversity of people and ideas, we take on a much more productive mindset when we’re asked to make something new together.
This is often scary for leaders because they worry that this will encourage unrealistic expectations or a revolutionary fervor. But this is usually solved by making sure the leader is one of many equals in the exercise. It is the chance to model a pattern and tone of uncertainty, curiosity, possibility with no set destination or goal. Remember you are not fixing. You are not “bringing a solution back to the group.” What you make may not be of instant use, although parts of it probably will be, but the process will help transform debates into discussions.
Fish: We’ve talked about how Constellation thinking can shape culture and unlock the potential of adults in the community. But what about the students? In one of our early conversations, you talked about how constellations ensure that everyone is seen, known, and needed. In my opinion, constellations are everywhere in our schools—our schools pride themselves on their commitment to climb into the messiness of students’ lives to ensure that each student is seen and known. It’s at the heart of the student-teacher relationship that so many of our schools place at the center of their value proposition.
And yet, I’m not sure that we have designed our schools to ensure that all students feel needed every day. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely seen it—in the robotics lab two weeks before a competition, on the stage during Tech Week, when the cast of a school performance is days away from their opening performance, as student groups work together at the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference. But what about in the classroom? How do we ensure that students feel needed in math or history class? What would that look like? What do teachers need to do to make it happen? How does being needed increase belonging? How does being needed impact culture?
Barzun: Your observation is interesting. And my first answer will be one of my favorites because it usually sets a good tone when it’s time to embark on making something new together: I don’t know. Arriving at a model worth trying would need the wonderful educators reading this to come together around a table and make it.
Many are familiar with the dynamics of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It was founded by a group of people who recognized that they couldn’t be healed unless they were also contributing to the healing of others. AA is for healing together. So, for the sake of exploring your great question, let’s imagine swapping “understanding” in place of “healing.” So, let’s imagine a big banner in the back reminding us what that classroom is for: “Understanding Together.” This might begin to change the way energy flows in that room.
My grandfather was a professor and university administrator and wrote a great short pamphlet at the end of his long life (he died at age 104) called “What is a School?” In it, he makes the point that there are fewer born teachers than born poets. He wrote that it is incredibly hard to teach because you have to imagine what it is like not to know something you already know. The effort can be exhausting, which all teachers know too well, but the payoff is so much more than transactional. It can be transcendent. How exciting to imagine a classroom all about that.
Fish: As I reflect on this conversation and all of our conversations to date, I keep coming back to a fundamental question—how can our schools build constellation cultures? How can we let go more, empower others more, and believe in the power of the staff and students to lead? What is standing in our way?
I hope our schools will keep this conversation going, within their communities and within the larger independent school community by asking and exploring these questions and working to understand together.