Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a Master Class in How to Lead Change Wrong

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a Master Class in How to Lead Change Wrong

Leading Change

Looking for a master class in how to lead change poorly? You need look no further than Chicago. The city is embroiled in an old school management-labor dispute that threatens to keep schools closed for a long time.

It’s hard to disagree with the statement that we need to ensure that young people get a good education.  And I think most would agree that American education is failing that test. So, given that strong compelling need, you might assume that cities, educators, and other interested parties would roll-up-their-sleeves and work together to tackle the problem.

Welcome to Chicago. It is widely known that Mayor Rahm Emanuel used the f-word in a meeting with Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union. Even though he claims that they hugged at the end of the meeting, the story I heard from a Chicago City employee didn’t include the hug. Whether they hugged or not is inconsequential. The f-word story fits the image many have of the Mayor and that is the story that sticks.

Making matter worse, the Mayor backed a proposal that demanded that any vote for a strike would have to pass by 75 percent (up from 50 percent). As Dick Simpson, a former city council member, said of Emanuel, “He accomplished a major feat; he got 90 percent of the teachers to rally around and vote for a strike. What he’s managed to do is convince the teachers, to use the language of the kids, that he’s dissed them.” (quote from The Washington Post 9/11/12)

Reports are that Karen Lewis is the Mayor’s equal in brashness and toughness. Unlike others before her, she doesn’t fold. Right now parents seem to be siding with the teachers, but the strike is only a few days old. If it lasts even a couple of weeks longer, I expect that that sentiment will shift.

Although there are seldom easy answers to tough problems, now it is difficult to even find hard answers that might get teachers back to work – and begin to improve the quality of education in that great city.

If you are a leader or someone who advises leaders, you might do what I have been doing the past couple of days. Ask yourself, what could I have done if I were Karen Lewis or Rahm Emanuel to avoid this problem? And what would I do today to try to solve the problem if I were the Mayor or the head of CTU? And for bonus points, once teachers are back at work, what could I do to begin to build bridges so that we can create a great school system? People who think large need to consider the human elements of change before trying to insist that others follow them.

Interested in how I think about those three questions, take a look at The Magic List,
this free e-book the importance of “the list” and how to apply it. If I were advising either The Mayor or Ms. Lewis, I would want to know what was on their respective lists.

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