The Monthly Recharge - December 2013
About the SFLC
  • We support creative and innovative school leadership at the individual and organizational level.     

  • We serve school leaders at all points in their careers - from teacher leaders to heads of school.   

  • We help schools design strategies for change, growth, and innovation.  

  • We bring creativity, collaboration & co-creation, empathy, a "yes, and..." mindset, and experiential learning to all of our work.
SFLC Board of Directors

Lee Burns
Head of School
Presbyterian Day School
Memphis, TN

Sandy Drew, President
Development Consultant
Sonoma, CA

Trudy Hall
Head of School, Emma Willard
Troy, NY
Barbara Kraus-Blackney
Executive Director, ADVIS
Philadelphia, PA 
Carla Robbins Silver (ex-oficio)
Executive Director, SFLC
Los Gatos, CA 

Mary Stockavas
Bosque School
Albuquerque, NM

Paul Wenninger
Interim Head of School
Currey Ingram Academy
Nashville, TN
The Mess of Leadership: Leaning into Wabi Sabi
Carla Robbins Silver, Executive Director

Dear Colleagues & Friends:


As my friend and colleague Ryan Burke likes to say, "Leadership  is messy." And as school leaders, you probably spend a lot of time trying to clean up the mess - of conflict, change, group dynamics, conversations gone awry, institutional tensions, and projects and processes that haven't gone the way you had planned.


Leadership, however, will never be clean, and if you are leading well, you are probably maintaining a "productive level of distress" in your community for a large part of your school year. Yes, it's that level of discomfort that keeps people growing and moving and addressing adaptive challenges and dilemmas in a meaningful way.  At the same time, it is completely human to want to fix things, make things pretty, and leaders, by nature are such earnest perfectionists.  


This month, we are dedicating the SFLC Recharge to 

Messy Leadership and giving you permission to lean into the mess and accept, and even appreciate, the ambiguity and the imperfection of your own leadership. The articles in this month's newsletter also offer some ways to manage these complicated, messy situations. 


Several weeks ago, I was reading the "Modern Love" column inin the Sunday New York Times, as I do each Sun

dayand not thinking one bit about leadership. At the end of the column, a line caught my attention.  "I thought of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, of finding the perfect in the imperfect."  This was something I had to learn more about. I went straight to Wikipedia to learn more.  Here's what I discovered.


"Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world

view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetryasperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes."


Wabi-sabi does not by any means suggest a lack of quality, but rather, that it is through the imperfections and the impermanence that beauty is achieved. We live in a culture that force feeds us images of perfection and it is hard not get sucked into it.  The unspoken pressure to have "Pottery Barn" houses and to excel in all of our personal and professional endeavors is inherently unhealthy and impossible.  And besides, looking at the list above, I would gladly take any of the items on the left over the right (well, I do love a sunny day), because they have texture and are so much more interesting and real.


I thought about all of the school leaders, of you, who all work so hard to be so much to all of the people that you serve.  I thought about all of the people I love and value - colleagues, friends, family and those random encounters with human beings that are marked by unexplained connection. It is so often those imperfections and flaws that are inherently so attractive and compelling.  It is our human-ness and our vulnerability as leaders that can make us so very authentic and effective.


So, as you head into the holidays and the new year and make New Year's Resolutions that often include aspirations of self-improvement, make one resolution that will include wabi-sabi and the promise to love yourself and others not in spite of their imperfections, but because of them. And to appreciate, and even basque in, the mess of leadership.


Cheers to a joyful and restorative holiday season (but perhaps not a perfect one).



Carla Silver

Executive Director 
Being Everything to Everybody: Leading Families that are Called Schools
Ryan Burke, Head of Middle School, Allendale Columbia School

Most days I watch as the sun goes down, and I find myself finishing up in my office after it has gotten dark.  It could be that I live Rochester, NY, and it gets darker earlier in upstate New York, or it could be that being a leader in school is a job that never feels finished.  As November rolls around for yet another round of parent/teacher conferences and odd three and four day weeks leading up to time off, I look forward to time with my own family.  It is a time of year ripe for reflection.  This year, I find myself thinking about how much 
A sure sign of  the messiness.
A sure sign of the messiness of the job.

my teachers, students and parents need from me.   I am struck by how many Kleenex boxes I have gone through in a just a few short months.  I am struck by the volume of traffic in my office, and if I am being honest, I am a little worried that many of the issues and problems I find myself in conversation about are not mine to solve.  I am struck that this leadership thing is messy. Messy and complicated.


More and more, parents in my school are stressed to the point of compromising their own internal sense of right and wrong.  My teachers are more likely to be defensive and resistant when challenged, having been burned one too many times by situations in which their opinion was either not solicited or not respected.  In this space, they forget they are learners first and they lose their intrinsic curiosity, and with it, their ability to creatively solve problems.  My students are worried that the grades they earn in 7th grade will follow them beyond their kitchen table, most likely because their parents are telling them that exact thing at the kitchen table. What do all of these people and experiences have in common?  They all have good intentions, and they all end up in my office.


As an educational leader, I am being asked to play a different role than my job description describes.  In my written job description, there is talk of managing curricular change, overseeing teacher growth and development and thinking deeply about teaching and learning.  Those are all wonderful things, and I find myself doing some of those items from time to time, however, I would suggest that today's school leader may need a different skill set to meet the needs of changing constituencies. This skill set should prepare school leaders to manage the messiness.   


When I was in my late twenties, I decided I wanted to get my master's degree, and I was worried that if I went back to school for education, I would just be repeating and re-learning much of the same content I had already studied.  Instead, I found a program that was experiential and trained me in the field of Family Therapy.  What seemed like a stretch then, now seems like one of the best professional decisions I have ever made. Today, in my work as a Principal, I have found my training as a therapist to be far more helpful than any education class in my school career.  Parents, teachers and students need a lot more support than I was told when I was being trained as an educator. They need to cry, get angry, complain, control, freak out, and that is just the adults.  


Most school administrators that I know are asked to be everything to everybody, and we are largely underprepared for this messy job.


This job calls for skills like:


  • The ability to listen without responding (this includes in our heads)
  • Remaining calm and able to access our own pre-frontal cortex while being attacked verbally
  • Telling other people that the impact of their behavior does not match their intent... and that their intent does not matter in the same way that their impact does
  • Training others to be more confident in themselves, respect themselves, and live up to their potential, speak their truth and accept responsibility for their impact on others
  • Thinking strategically and proactively while also reacting to and managing day to day interactions and issues  
  • Helping others get along, manage conflict, tell one another the truth and be forward focused
  • Building cultures of innovation, change, failure and ultimately growth
  • Boldly speaking the truth in the face of resistance, criticism and projection   
  • Being firm and holding boundaries while also being flexible and building relationships
  • Changing one's mind
  • Apologizing as an act of leadership
  • Holding multiple versions of reality as true at the same time and remaining curious

This skill set is not what they teach in education classes, and we need to help each other create opportunities to learn these new skills. They are wicked hard skills to learn, and even harder skills to find the time or space to practice and receive feedback about. At the Santa Fe Leadership Center, we ask ourselves how we can offer experiences that allow leaders to connect with each other and learn and practice these skills together. Much like the field of teaching, the field of leadership is changing. People are more professionally connected than they ever have been, yet they are more in need of human connection than ever before. School families need leaders to have these skills, and I look forward to finding ways to practice, learn, and re-learn with my colleagues in 2014.   

Jonathan E. Martin, SFLC Consultant

Each month, Jonathan Martin shares his top picks for some of the most thought provoking articles, books or other media he has uncovered. More of his work can be found online at and @JonathanEMartin.


 How strongly we are attracted to the straight lines and simple solutions "rationality" seems to promise, and yet how rarely the exercise of orderly leadership turns out to be easy:  "clean" leadership is probably an oxymoron.  


Harvard Ed. School Prof Jal Mehta captures this conundrum and determines "clean" solutions to be anything but in his excellent 2013 book, .   Part detailed history, going back to the Progressive Era; part theoretical analysis, using sociology to explain the cause of major schooling shifts; and part prescription, this book takes as its thesis the argument that "rationalizing" school leadership-by "Taylorism" in management or by Defense Department/Rand Corp "systems analysis"- has swept across American education thrice in a century, and each time has had only very limited success.  "The quest to rationalize schools has taken us as far as it can take us."


"Squeezing out humanistic priorities... reformers have repeatedly claimed that by setting standards, using tests to measure progress toward those standards, and holding teachers accountable, student achievement would improve...  The core of the problem is that we have been trying to solve a problem of professional practice by bureaucratic means." 


The full historical treatment, 200 pages in length, can only be moderately recommended to the busy school-leader, but the bookends are entirely worthwhile.    Mehta provides a very fine prescription for school improvement, drawing upon the best practices of internationally high performing nations.   He explains that the right package is not "thin" as most reform initiatives are, but "thick:" "attending to all the elements of the system, working from the needs of the practice outward." 


It isn't easy to summarize his program-it is too thick and messy for that-but this comes close: "Successful systems... choose their teachers from among their most talented students; they train them extensively, they provide opportunities for them to collaborate within and across schools to improve their practice; and they provide the external supports [including data for skillful data-driven instruction] to do this work well." 


At the risk of sounding derogatory, I refer you to two "thick and messy" (in all the best ways) blogging school-leaders.  Chris Lehmann is founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia and writer of an eloquent, passionate, and grounded blog, Practical Theory.    


In a recent post, Lehmann wrote about "twatching" his students on Twitter: " The kids love to tease me that I'm twatching them, but at its best, doing a quick skim read of what kids are thinking and feeling allows me to care for them and approach them when they don't even know they need it. And what always humbles me and makes me smile is when students are willing to tell us - social media or face to face - that those moments matter to them as much as they matter to me." Lehmann also has a pair of TEDX talks worth viewing; in "Education is Broken" he asks what school is for anyway: "If nothing else, school should teach us how to learn."  


On the other side of the planet, Anne Knock is Director of the research and innovation unit at Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney and a writer for her eponymous blog. Her writing indulges in the textured complexity of schooling and the variegated daily life of leading learning: in one recent post, "Silence is Golden?," she writes "Educators need to become comfortable with noise as a condition for learning - When education was teacher-centric, there would be silence for the words of the oracle to heard and digested. But today, when students are exploring and challenging concepts, when they are developing passion projects noise is necessary."


Embracing the Mess: The Chaos of Entrepreneurship

Kevin Ruth, Assistant Head of School for Strategic Initiatives, Tower Hill School

As I look back at 2013, I'm thankful for messiness, and, as I contemplate what 2014 might promise, the entrepreneurial spirit in me hopes that there is a fair degree of messiness. In truth, I have an issue with the word messiness; I much prefer the term chaos, as chaos is tremendously helpful to the entrepreneur. You'll see why in a moment.


It has been my experience that independent schools struggle with

messiness, whether it manifests itself as middle schoolers' backpacks strewn about a hallway or an academic dean encouraging experiential education as a pedagogical model. For many, messiness equals discomfort.


Yet so many schools appear to be smitten with the notion of student entrepreneurship. Hmmm...


It should be no surprise, then, that schools beginning to institute student entrepreneurship courses (let alone a full-blown program) spend so much time figuring out how to make entrepreneurship less messy. What do I mean? As academics, we tend to act in ways that promote order over chaos. When we consider how to offer entrepreneurship, we immediately set about creating a course in traditional academic fashion: let's offer an introduction to what entrepreneurship is, teach kids how to create a business plan, teach them finance, and so forth. Suddenly, we have lessons and units! In other words, we revert to our comfort zone of academic structure and teaching. We avoid the messiness that comes with bona fide entrepreneurship, which is experiential by nature. Experience--good old messy experience--is the teacher of the entrepreneur, so to "teach" (traditional, structured sense) entrepreneurship is to act in a manner that is contradictory to the ontology of entrepreneurship.


I find that so curious. Why? It has to do with how we in schools treat the notion of chaos.


Chaos, as a term, is bandied about somewhat lightly in general usage: it is taken to mean that things are entirely without order, that all is running helter-skelter. However, in chaos theory, chaos refers to an apparent lack of order in a system that nevertheless obeys particular laws or rules. As such, then, chaos is not a lack of order, but rather a higher order. (Yes, you read that correctly...)


Entrepreneurship, in many ways, is a chaotic system (no, that's not an oxymoron). It may appear to be messy, even quite random. Consider what many call "the art of the pivot," an expression that signifies a decision point for the entrepreneur: a development/discovery has occurred that forces him/her either to continue on the same path despite the development or discovery (damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!) or to turn in a new direction and re-interpret the product/service relative to a changed set of variables. Talk about messy and uncomfortable...and exactly the kinds of skills our students need! However, beneath the seemingly random behavior of "the pivot" is a sense of order and pattern; it's how learning occurs in an experiential system.


Entrepreneurial ventures, whether student- or adult-generated, are deterministic chaotic systems, meaning that they have something determining their "messy" behavior. A very slight change can lead to enormously different outcomes, meaning that pivots are to be expected, as they're a natural part of the entrepreneurial system. Is there any better learning than this kind? As the Heath brothers would agree, it's "sticky." Shouldn't we embrace the notion that small deviations can lead to large deviations? After all, to be messy is to be human, and, as such, entrepreneurship is an exercise in the art of being human. 




Six Social Scientists 

Richard Kassissieh, Academic Dean, University Prep, Seattle, WA
Our brains contain 80-100 billion brain cells, or about as many stars as are in the Milky Way galaxy. [1] We do not yet understand, or can simulate, consciousness, never mind thought. How, then, could it be even remotely possible for us to scientifically understand human behavior, learning, and the complex system of people that we call "school?"

Federal and state education policies reduce the analysis to an attractively simple principle. Administer student standardized tests about three times per year, in reading, writing, and math, and evaluate schools based on student performance. Standardized tests provide the illusion of scientific rigor, as tests may produce reliable, but certainly not valid, measurements of what kids know and can do. Absent leadership that is mindful of the human condition, this strategy leads to narrow curriculum, reductive teaching methods, and loss of enthusiasm for learning.


Over many decades, academia has developed a far wider range of social science practices than testing, to learn what we can about messy, human behaviors. Instead of reducing to the simplest principles, social scientists first look at the products of human behavior: the artifacts we produce, rituals we follow, and ideas we express. This approach assumes that people behave in complex ways and asks what patterns we can discern that may have validity and inform our practice.


Tom Kelley offers his Ten Faces of Innovation. [2] Edward de Bono has Six Thinking Hats. [3] I humbly offer you my "Six Social Scientists." The next time you study an issue in your school, assume one of these social science roles and see whether it changes your perspective.


The Historian

The popular press would have you believe that education today is completely unique, unlike anything ever experienced before. Some education theorists would argue the opposite: that education has not changed at all in a hundred years. We know that neither is entirely true. Some education practices have changed little, and others have changed dramatically. Larry Cuban and David Tyack eloquently explain this in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform [4]and Tyack's The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. [5]


A historical lens helps us better understand contemporary education debates. For example, 21st century education builds on progressive education of the 1950's. School architects have walled off classrooms, opened them up, and brought walls back again.


The Anthropologist

Anthropology is the study of culture, and culture is defined as the beliefs and behaviors of a group of people. Schools develop strong cultures, including the cultures of the individuals within them. Ignore culture at your own risk. Anthropologists Mimi Ito and danah boyd, among many others, help us understand students' beliefs and behaviors. Design thinking emphasizes anthropological methods, particularly techniques of observation to gain insight into subjects' experiences and needs.


The Sociologist

Sociologists ask big questions about people and education. Contemporary topics include socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender identity, and social networking. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Youth Project have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of youth uses of electronic media.


The Psychologist

The field of psychology has contributed to our understanding of the process of learning, memory, intelligence, learning disabilities, and self-esteem, among others. From Piaget's theory of cognitive development to Michael Thompson's work on boys [6], psychology continues to fundamentally influence our educational practices.


The Communications Scholar

The arts of persuasion, explanation, and storytelling find expression through print, web, and video media. Skilled communication is vital in this era of social media and instantaneous news dissemination. School leaders keep their constituents informed. Boards set the vision and strategic direction of the school. Teachers keep students and parents abreast of the essential questions and accomplishments of the class.


The Education Scholar

Let us not forget that education is a social science to itself. While making explicit connections to all of the other social sciences, education also has its unique domains, such as pedagogy, curriculum development, supervision and evaluation, professional development, educational leadership, and teacher training. Make sure that you have a few education graduates in your faculty and administration!




1. "Simulating 1 Second of Human Brain Activity Takes 82,944 Processors." ExtremeTech. ExtremeTech, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.


2. Kelley, Tom, and Jonathan Littman. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Beating the Devil's Advocate & Driving Creativity throughout Your Organization. New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2005. Print.


3. De, Bono Edward. Six Thinking Hats. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Print.


4. Tyack, David B., and Larry Cuban. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.


5. Tyack, David B. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974. Print.


6. "Michael Thompson, Ph.D." Michael Thompson, Ph.D. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.


Carla Robbins SIlver
Executive Director


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