Get Wacky to Change and Survive


Here’s a wacky idea. It would be cool to apply it if you’re leading a family, an office team, a choir, etc.  I draw it from a school setting, so it would certainly apply there, but also to larger organizations – and most certainly to companies.

Steve Phelps crystallized it for me.  He is an amazing leader, the President of Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. The school wowed me from my first steps in; and the things that amazed me about it, nearly all bore Steve’s fingerprints.  There are two things I invite you to consider transplanting as you look at the place you run.

First, Steve has a relentless belief that what his students need and his families expect is CHANGING faster than anyone can keep up with. Take the most obvious example: Technology has changed work and life, so that it is vastly, vastly different than it was when I came into the professional world 25 years ago. The pace has doubled or tripled when it comes to learning, news cycles, competitive change, how relationships are built and social networks formed. Even family life is being transformed. In this time, teaching kids in 5 rows of 5 desks, with set curricula, multiple choice tests, even spaced periods, and 40-year veteran teachers is presumptively (though not irrefutably) crazy.  That’s why Steve has 30 international students, a professional musician who teaches digital music lab, every kid has a laptop, 10 classes (so far) are offered digitally, classes are 80 minutes long because students learn better that way. 20 minute breaks are designed for what we now know about the brain.  The changes just keep coming at O’Dowd.  Steve’s eyes are always open. He’s reading about marketing, about colleges, about leadership, and especially about technology to keep his eyes on the relevant changes.

It’s darned hard to change a school.  There are a lot of moving parts to keep a school machine oiled and engaged: in this case, 1200 students, 2000-some parents, 200-some staff, almost 60 teams and 50+ other clubs.  And, that’s the other big takeaway and the wacky idea for you:  Steve is expected and allowed to continually stress what IS at O’Dowd in order to make it become what it MUST become if it is to serve students well for this time. And Pam Shay the principal keeps the school running every day, as she works with Steve to implement a whole new future – to build a bridge as they’re walking across it.

So, who in your family has responsibility for the future – not doing things the way your parents did – but preparing your kids for a new world? Who is seeing the 8 year old daughter, but is fixed on seeing the 15 year old within her?  Who’s reading about online learning, online relationships, and organizations like Who in your choir is exploring the internet tools – from vocal warm-ups to musical meet-ups?  Who on your business team is not waiting for the CEO to say what’s going to be different at Acme Corp but is on their own team already stressing the current practices and structures to create more efficiency and more relevance?

If we’re going to embrace inevitable change and adapt and prosper within it, we’ve got to (a) create an inner mindset that is relentless about learning and change, and (b) charge some individuals with a special duty to look to the future and change.  Or like countless schools, companies, or other organizations we will wither; like countless teams we’ll be seen as inefficient, obsolete, or just not affordable.

How could you get wacky about driving change to

Lead with your best self?


  • Great food for thought, Dan. I think most of us are aware of constant change at the workplace, and this is a good principle to apply in the home, as well.

    There are two statements I’ve seen that might be useful at home, at work, or anywhere leadership is important, that might help us to not only adapt to change, but to implement it. One is Wayne Gretzky’s rule not to go after the puck where it is, but instead where it’s going to be. Another is a statement I saw on the back of a cross country runner’s shirt: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Taking more responsibility for what things will be like in 5, 10, or 20 years, rather than relying on others to make those sweeping changes, is in our own best interest.

  • Tony,
    OK, you wanna start a quotefest? 🙂 How about this related to the future, and especially your kids: “Believing is seeing.”
    They have NO IDEA that they’re going to emerge as really cool people, and they challenge your own faith, so you have to keep believing and let your belief show you what you see.
    Thanks for adding to the column today.

  • Good morning Dan. Bishop O’Dowd school and Steve Phelps – good for them. What about the children/students who do not fit between the railroad tracks of this system – those students with special needs, learning disabilities, and the like. I’d like to hear what new education systems are in place for these children.


    • Ray,
      O’Dowd actually does a great job of adding supportive services. One of the necessary and possible breakthroughs in education – if technology is used well – is that teachers don’t always have 25-35 students in front of them, passively waiting on their input. If you can get some online and engaged, then you free up time for individualized instruction. Likewise technology offers incredible diagnostic tools so that you can figure out where each child is very quickly. But, again, it takes an iconoclastic approach!

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