One of the most powerful levers for leaders to use in trying to create change is through symbolism. Symbols give meaning to activities that would otherwise lack emotion or conviction. I was thinking about this when reading a recent Fast Company article on Michelle Rhee, recently appointed chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The article cites Kent McGuire, dean of Temple University’s education school as saying “An unfortunate reality about large urban districts is that they’re set up to satisfy the adults who work in them, not the kids they’re supposed to serve. Kids don’t vote.”
Rhee has turned this observation into something of a battle cry, with powerful symbolic effect. In response to criticism about having fired 15% of the central office staff, she said, “Children are losing their lives because we’re not educating htem well. But we’re concerned about the adults? I’m not firing people because I’m mean or heartless or don’t care about people. I’m just not willing to forsake the future of thousands of kids for the comfort of a few adults.” In a further powerful bit of symbolism, Rhee’s own children attend school in the district she is trying to reform.
Tackling large-scale change is never without controversy and it’s early days yet for the efforts to solve the intractable problems of a large district like DCPS. But as an example of powerful symbolism, it really works.