The world has gone crazy. Or at least our expectations of the world. We are now officially teaching the idea that others fail us, we don’t fail ourselves. Yes, you read that correctly. In a recent conversation with a grade seven and eight teacher, I learned that the position of our local school board is that students don’t fail, teachers fail.
Yet again, our society is sending the message that it isn’t your fault if you fail, it is the fault of someone else. This conveniently ignores the fact that learning is a complex process. Teaching is only one part of learning. Students bring their innate intelligence, their implicit beliefs about intelligence (see Carol Dweck et. al.), their intrinsic motivation, their cultural beliefs, their family context, their personal effort, persistence, resilience and a whole pile of other traits, behaviours and beliefs to the classroom. As a teacher, I can influence very little with respect to a student. I cannot control their innate ability, their motivation, whether or not they complete homework. I can’t control whether they listen to instruction, whether they incorporate feedback into their work. All I can do is teach using methods that have been shown to be more effective to generate learning, and to coach and support students to encourage their learning. While teachers have some accountability for the success or failure of a student, students (and their parents) still have to be responsible for their own learning. If not, we teach them that they are not accountable for their own behaviours and beliefs, and that their personal work outcomes are not their own responsibility. Not a great message for future success.
As leaders, either in a one on one relationship, or within a larger group or organization, we need to move past the cultural norm that leaders are going to solve all of our problems. The fact is that we get the leaders we want. We elect the politicians who tell us what we want to hear. Leaders have very little actual impact on outcomes. According to a classic 1985 study by James Meindl, while people attribute about 50% of the outcome of big successes or failures to the leader, in fact only about 15% of the outcome could be attributed to the actions and decisions taken by the leader. Leaders cannot magically solve our problems by waving a wand. Followers, (that’s most of us), must still do the work. Barrack Obama cannot magically improve the economy if companies do not create jobs and people do not save money, or look for jobs, or focus on productivity.
While I don’t believe that we should go back to the 1960s version of education, which we know wasn’t particularly effective for many people, I’m also not sure that we should be blaming others for the failures of ourselves (or especially our children). Perhaps we need to think more about the idea of self-leadership. Until we can take responsibility for our own behaviours, how can we expect to lead others?