Tony Gurr

The End of the HIGHWAY…

In Educational Leadership, The Paradigm Debate on 07/03/2011 at 11:08 am


In my 25 years in the world of TEACHing and LEARNing, I have come across many managers / supervisors that have graduated from the “my-way-or-the-highway” school of thought. Many of you will also know I frequently discuss ideas from the “walk-your-talk” school of leadership.

Now, I know we are warned (by Obi-Wan) that “Only the Sith deal in absolutes” – but I thought it might be useful to compare these two perspectives and look at which form of “educational leadership” might be best suited for a 21st Century Learning Organisation.

Besides, even a Jedi has to look to the dark side now and again.


In the brave, new world of 21st Century education, success now depends not only on an institution’s ability to adapt, but also being able to adapt quickly. If our schools, colleges and universities are to make headway and evolve to meet the new challenges we are facing, they must make LEARNing a central element of their cultural capital.

Tony, that’s just silly”!

I hear a few of you mumble.


“Surely, our schools, colleges and universities are all about LEARNing…aren’t they”?

Sadly, this is not the case.


Many of our schools are “teaching schools” (not LEARNing schools). The majority of higher educational institutions remain institutions of “instruction and research”.

They have all evolved in a culture that prides itself on being “learnED” and many simply fail to acknowledge that “houses of LEARNing” need to be built on a stronger foundation – a culture of LEARNing.


Schein defines culture as the sum of solutions to yesterday’s problems and views an organisation’s culture as the collective behaviours, intentions, and values that people develop over time to make sense of the world. He is right – who am I to disagree with the Jedi Master of organisational leadership?

But, the purpose of culture is to “teach” people how to “see” the world (Bodnarczuk). As our world is changing so fast, we need to look at the type of culture that is required.


A new vision of “next practice” in organisational culture has been emerging over the past few years. This vision is radically different to the type of culture many of us “grew up” in – it is radically different to the views of many educational managers and supervisors who “learned” us (and are still “learning” us today):

Many of the notions and concepts upon which this new vision is based are more “human” and more “organic” than the more mechanistic views of the Taylorist bureaucrats of our world.


The centrality of “LEARNing” in this new paradigm of cultural capital cannot be overstated.

In the face of ever-changing conditions and uncertainty, more and more educators are beginning to see that real change will not come from curriculum renewal or professional development programmes alone (they would be great, too) – it needs to begin at the level of culture and LEARNing is the key.

The “my-way-or-the-highway” educational manager often just does not “get” this – (s)he lives in the past, (s)he has a specific world view that conditions the decisions (s)he takes and the ways in which (s)he interacts with those around (or “under”) him or her.

Don’t get me wrong…I am not saying these people are “evil Sith Lords” (but see Peter’s quote below). Many of them work hard, many of them have the interests of students close to their hearts, many of them care deeply about moving from “good” to “great”.

The issue is that their worldviews have developed in an “unconscious manner” and they also believe that they are “walking-their-talk” – indeed, most of them are. The challenge is that these worldviews, like the cultures that created them, are the sum of solutions to yesterday’s problems.

And, we need to talk more about “tomorrow”!

Most “walk-your-talk” educational leaders “hear” this message. Many have listened to the great advice of Stephen Covey and other organisational thinkers – a large number of them are great listeners themselves, great motivators and great “care-givers”.

But, are they all effective?


Walking-your-talk implies that you know your talk, you are conscious of it – and, more importantly that you “live” it.

We all know that it is not cool for a teacher to walk around advocating constructivist ideas and humanistic approaches to learning – but rely on “serial drilling” and screams for “order, discipline and respect” behind closed classroom doors.

For educational leaders, it’s no good saying “I believe in collaborative decision-making” and then repeatedly go against the conventional wisdom of your “followers” (I do not like this word but needed to use it here – you get it, right?)…


There is a very thin line between “walk-your-talk” educational leaders and “my-way-or-the-highway” educational leaders.

We often forget this.

Now, you know why I love Star Wars so much…


The biggest problem in looking at these two perspectives in absolute terms is that both the “walk-the-talk” and the “my-way-or-the-highway” school of thought believe their own talk and that their way is “right”.

However, just because we believe we are “right” – does not “right” make. Human beings are social animals – we live, breathe and grow together. However, the rate at which we grow differs – and this means even ideas that appear “right” cannot (and should not) be “forced” on others.

As Mevlana reminds us, “ne kadar bilirsen bil, söylediklerin karşındakinin anlayabildiği kadardır” – now, you are going to ask for a translation of this, aren’t you?


Furthermore, even if you are a graduate of the “walk-your-talk” school of leadership, you also have to be prepared to LEARN, change your talk and walk a different walk from time to time.

The question remains, however, if we are racing into the 21st Century and if this century requires a new paradigm of cultural capital and a new breed of educational leader – which school of thought is better equipped to deliver?

I’m going to put my money on “Jedi Master Schein” when he tells us we all need to “activate the learning gene in the DNA of organisational culture”.


So, if you are an educational leader or aspire to be one:

  • REMEMBER leaders are responsible for their organisations, their teams and the culture these teams live and breathe each day. Leaders cannot blame others, cannot blame the past – they have to assume responsibility to create a “new future”.


  • KNOW THYSELF and how far your “shadow” reaches

The best advice is to:

  • TREAD softly and bear in mind that stomping on the dreams of educators is the best way to harm student learning – and your learning results
  • REFLECT and look in the “mirror” every day before you go work
  • LEARN and re-create yourself every day


My thanks to my “muse”, the best “natural counsellor” I have ever had the pleasure to be married to. I am also deeply indebted to Peter Koestenbaum – a man who gave a “stranger” 2 hours on his 80th birthday just to “chat” on Skype – showed that stranger that he was walking the “right path” and led me to one of his quotes:

“To destroy the dignity of a human being is evil. To be indifferent to the feelings of others is evil. Not to support people’s sense of self-respect is evil”.


And, who can forget George Lucaswho taught me all about “good and evil”!


  1. Reblogged this on allthingslearning and commented:

    And, the final re-blog of the night – this one was very popular (esp. with people who, shall we say, have less than the “caring, sharing and effective bosses” we all need 😉 Enjoy…

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