The Power of One and Many

Today’s blog is a reflection on the power of one and the power of many in education institutions. It’s something I see in my work all the time. However, it’s not a topic that is often directly discussed.

When I talk about one, I’m not referring to the “all-powerful” senior leaders with the many being everybody else. Yes, formal leaders make a huge difference in shaping the culture, systems, processes, and outcomes of an educational institution. Quality presidents, chancellors, deans, superintendents, and principals are essential ingredients in the educational excellence mix. I’ve written about educational leaders at length here and elsewhere—see the Catalyzing Positive Change in Education post for just one example. However, there are many others beyond formal leaders that have a powerful impact in our education institutions. Indeed, sometimes individuals completely outside of the formal leadership structure can empower or destroy an institution. These individuals have embraced the power of one.

While any institution’s organizational culture has a unique flavor and form, it is often these key individuals in the cultural community that spice and shape it. Sometimes it’s a longstanding patriarch or matriarch who is asked to bless or berate change initiatives. Sometimes it’s a newcomer, whose voice and verve compel the community in new directions. Other times, previously quiet members are inspired to step forward and take leadership in driving a dialogue. New purpose or passion ignites their efforts, and the fire soon catches.

Most institutions have several of these archetypes in play at any given time—a number of “ones,” if you will—wielding different levels of power. Some use their influence to move the institution in positive and progressive directions. To them, any innovation that might improve the institution is worth a good look and thoughtful exploration. However, there are also times when proposed changes could be harmful. Most of us have seen educational institutions pushed by authoritarians or over-the-top advocates to accept extreme action and large-scale initiatives without involvement or understanding. During these times, the positive power-of-one player is willing to civilly confront the change agents and call for dialogue and more careful consideration. The authoritarian or extremist will quickly label this person a trouble maker. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether playing the advocate or protector role, these positive and progressive folks are usually motivated by service—service to students, learning, the institution, the community, or all of the above. Most important, almost everyone in the culture knows that these individuals make the school, college, or university a better place.

Other times, however, there are powerful players determined to protect turf, settle personal scores, and stop anything that might make them have to learn something new. A friend of mine calls these folks CAVE people—Colleagues Against Virtually Everything. Their mere presence in conversations gives rise to bullying tactics and uncivil discourse. Everything and everyone is fair game in their quest to maintain the status quo. They play out their personal issues—fear, insecurity, or ego—on the institution like it’s a bad episode of Dr. Phil. Unlike the positive and progressive voices, their core motivation is most often service to self. Their root question is: How will this change impact me? They convincingly cloak their self interest in compelling arguments. But those who can see through their often-impressive rhetoric understand the real intention. Deep down, almost everyone in the organization knows that these negative players make the institution a worse place to be—except, ironically, for the negative player themselves. They revel in the attention and influence.

You truly see the impact of these individuals when a culture turns—usually in times of stress, transition, or opportunity. In some cases, a previously positive culture allows negative, cynical, caustic, self-interested and influential voices to take the stage and drive the conversation. With these voices left unchallenged and given focus—often for fear of confrontation—a once dynamic school or college is soon mired in mediocrity and wrapped in conversations that are full of sound and fury, but lead to nothing.

Other times, however, either through luck (a person leaves) or choice (a negative person is marginalized or a positive person embraced), you see a move in a positive direction. You watch a culture literally cleanse itself of the influence of negative players; or, you see the culture begin to embrace the opportunity offered by another voice. They are inspired, however slightly, to move and take positive action. Sometimes a negative voice, once marginalized, finds their way out of the organization. They just don’t fit anymore. Other times, they realize the energy is going in the other direction, and respond in surprising ways. Indeed, the best outcome is when a previous problem person becomes a cultural symbol of positive change.

Regardless of the outcome—progressive or regressive—the impact of these key individuals is undeniable. However, don’t give these “ones” the keys to the kingdom just yet. In my experience, it is the power of the many that really holds the key. It is the many that either give or deny power. As the Buddhist saying goes, “it is what we pay attention to that grows.” An academic community can literally change the channel. It can finally decide it wants to watch a different program, hear a different voice, one that is more likely to make the school, college, or university a better place for everyone. The focus of the many—or the lack thereof—is the secret behind the power of one.

Given this relationship, the best question for the many of our educational institutions might be “which ones?” Who are the informal leaders that bring a positive and productive voice to the community? Who are the power players we should unplug? When one of these individuals gets attention, does it feel like this place is getting better, or worse? More important, do we feel enough resonance to add our own voice, so we feel like together we are making this a better place for ourselves and our students? And, for some in the many group, the most important question might be: “is it time for me to lead, to add my voice to the mix?”

You’ll have to be the one to answer that question.

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