When one leader succeeds another leader the former is tempted to supplant the latter. Not merely to replace him or her, to step in where he or she left off, but to wipe the slate clean, to supersede by undoing, literally, what his or her predecessor accomplished. I had this once happen to me: what I had managed to put in place was nearly entirely dismantled by the person who succeeded me.
The issue came to mind while reading a recent piece in the New York Times about how New York City’s schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, had already rolled back more or less entirely the educational policies established over a twelve year period by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.* According to the Times this was not a nip and a tuck here and there. Rather it was a wholesale reversal of what Bloomberg’s chancellors had decided was in the best interest of New York City’s schools.
I am not smart enough to know whether it is Bloomberg or de Blasio who has the better approach to public education, or the better talent to manage the city’s schools. What I am smart enough to know, however, is that undoing on a massive scale what your predecessor has put in place is not usually good leadership. Three reasons that apply in this case:
- The likelihood that Bloomberg’s data driven approach to making decisions about the city’s public schools was idiotic altogether is low. Bloomberg may not have been sufficiently sensitive to other criteria, and his numbers were by no means always politically persuasive. But entirely to supplant his method of managing the system with another that is as vague as it is unproven cannot reasonably be justified.
- Though there has been big change at the top of the system, there has not been the equivalent change in the middle of the system or at the bottom. In other words, though the chancellor is new, most of the others in the system are not new. They are holdovers from previous administrations, who are now being told that earlier measures of their successes and failures were invalid or, at least, not sufficiently valid to merit their maintenance. This complete lack of continuity is not good either for teachers or staff – not to speak of students.
- The message sent by discontinuity is that neither leaders nor managers know what they’re doing. What is Farina saying about her predecessors – Joel Klein, for example, and Dennis Walcott – when she reverses their policies? For that matter, what will her successor be saying about her when he or she rolls back the policies that she put in place? The messages being sent are 1) that New York City’s public schools are being run according to style (or ideology) rather than substance; and 2) that there is no such thing as some educational policies being demonstrably superior to other educational policies.
I get that leaders have personal and political stakes in putting their stamps on their systems. But the likelihood is strong that those who came before them had at least something sensible to contribute – which is why throwing the baby out with the bathwater is much more likely to be bad leadership than good leadership.