Resilience is the ability to hold onto what is core to the identity and character of an institution while also nurturing an ability to react to changes in the ecosystem of the community in which the institution exists. Like so many things, institutional resilience deepens when it is a BOTH/AND. It is BOTH keenly aware of what to preserve at all costs, AND it is willing to make changes, at times bold ones, in order to adjust to and thrive within a fast evolving operational and cultural context. The extent to which this polarity balances between the need to preserve and the demand to change defines resilience for educational, non-profit, and for-profit enterprises.
When institutions go astray in a fast-moving environment, it is likely a result of tilting too far in one direction or the other. When the preservationists dominate, an institution may become particularly brittle and thus vulnerable to outside threats—it is simply not able to adjust to or respond to challenges. When the soldiers of change dominate, corrosion is likely to occur from within as the core identity of the institution presses back against what it perceives as an existential challenge. Equilibrium is the therefor the key to institutional resilience.
Creating, and then sustaining, a Progress Culture is increasingly imperative in all sectors to achieve the institutional resilience necessary not only to survive but to maintain the potential to thrive in our world where the needles on our data dashboards are swinging back and forth with increasing drama and speed. What follows is a description of Progress Culture:
When we talk about creating a transformative moment, the goal is to move institutional operations and culture to a new place. What is misleading about this kind of talk is that it sounds as if the place where the institution lands will represent a new stationary normal. But in fact the goal is to transform into a culture in which normal will include the ongoing ability to reflect on and respond to a changing world.
If we are to help create institutions that can both withstand and excel within a forever choppy socio-economic context, we must be open to reimagining the means by which we strive to accomplish that our goals.
So many of our schools, non-profits and businesses are repositories for the way we used to do things in the larger culture. For instance, the academic schedules we use are by and large artifacts of the assembly line and the industrial revolution. Place the daily schedule of a student in 1910 against the one most of our sons and daughters navigated last week and you will be startled by the similarity. The goal of the schedule from the early part of the twentieth century was to deliver content. The emphasis was rarely on trying to help students become critical thinkers—the focus was centered obsessively with rote memorization. In the non-profits and for-profit worlds similar examples are surely easy to spot.
What we are trying to accomplish or perhaps better, the means by which we would best accomplish it, has changed dramatically, yet the cultural and operational approaches we take have too often remained almost completely intact, leaving us trying to get to the moon in a Singer Sewing Machine.
A progress-culture will:
- Always make what is best for our strategic success the alpha and omega of the conversation.
- Ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision.
- Be resolute in building in the best answers to those questions into the fabric of the institution.
- Be thoughtful in defining what progress is. In other words, keep a keen eye on what should never change. For example, a school should not take steps that would diminish the ability to do prepare students for college well. In fact, part of our motivation should be to improve the way we prepare students for college and for the college admissions process.
- Continually invest in the employee community so that it will be strong enough to implement the best ways forward.
- Recognize the importance of inclusive and consistent communication with all constituents. Part of the goal here is to make such a compelling case to our constituents about the need to create a progress-culture that they hold us explicitly accountable for our steps to create and maintain one.
Ross Peters is a Senior Consultant for AAL: The Academy for Advancing Leadership. He focuses on Independent Schools and their national and regional associations in the areas of strategic planning, change management, board practice, and curriculum development. His extensive background in these areas also prepares him to serve in higher educational and professional educational settings as well. Prior to his role at AAL, Ross had a number of titles: Head Tennis Coach, Mountaineering Staff Member, Department Chair, Dean of Faculty, Assistant Head for Academic Affairs, Upper School Head, and Head of School. He derived his understanding of how a school should work and what leadership should look like from the classroom out, building his understanding of a school one) from the powerful relationships built with students in classrooms where high expectations and nurture are symbiotic and two) from the example of extraordinary school leaders who modeled servant leadership molded to the demanding environment of an independent school. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Ross was a thirteen-year graduate of St. Christopher’s School. From there he went to Sewanee: The University of the South (B.A., English), followed, after six years teaching at Providence Day School, with an M.Ed from the University of Georgia. While deeply appreciative of the remarkable gift of education he received at every level, his best learning has resulted from being an educator working with students whether as a classroom teacher or as a school leader. At the core of his belief in the value of an independent school is this idea: in order to create the education our students need and deserve, schools must mirror the qualities we demand of those we teach; thus, our learning curve should remain steep and our dedication to holding up the values we name as most important should be unwavering. This commitment to match the expectations we have for students in the way we think, act, work together as an institution guides his work in leadership, and it has allowed him to play a significant and lasting role in several outstanding schools. Since his eight years at Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC, he has made an impact as a teacher and administrator in a fascinating range of schools. From founding an integrated Humanities Department to establishing an Honor System at a small, hundred-year-old boarding school (Asheville School), and from reinventing the use of time to creating an urban campus in two schools ready for significant innovation (Hawken School and The Westminster Schools), Ross has had the chance to immerse himself in strategic and aligned school cultures to a degree that has allowed him to help those remarkable places move forward within the context of their mission and culture. At St. George’s Independent School, he mobilized that experience to help a younger school maintain the forward-thinking qualities that make it unique in Memphis. Ross is active in the Memphis Community and beyond. He currently serves on two Boards—the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, and the National Association of Independent Schools. He is a former Board member of Bridges USA, which operates from the belief that “great leaders, regardless of age, must appreciate diversity, lean into courageous conversations, and build bridges across deep philosophical and physical divides.” He and his wife Katie also serve as members of the Family Partners Council at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital where their daughter, Eleanor was first diagnosed as a Type I Diabetic. Katie (Ph.D., Emory University, Religious Studies) teaches at Rhodes College. His interests include hiking, travel, photography, and mediocre guitar picking. A widely published poet, he has completed work on a collection of poetry entitled, The Flood is Not the River, and he has provided the foreword and over one hundred photographs for a book entitled, Sacred Views: St. Francis and the Sacro Monte di Orta due out in the next year from Punctum Press. You can find his thoughts on education, as well as anything else he might be thinking about, on his blog—Ross All Over the Map. A long time ago he had hair: