Purpose trumps convenience

In today’s society, convenience often trumps purpose, or meaningfulness.  

There are many examples of this phenomenon all around us.  The rise of multinational retailers such as Amazon at the expense of locally owned, employment-generating stores is one example.  Another is the rise of home delivered food or other purchases which save the time it takes to travel to shops, even though travelling to shops provides interaction with other people (however superficial) that psychologists say is important for our mental health.  As another example, people in Western societies prefer to drive than take public transport to save time despite the considerably higher financial and environmental costs of doing so.  The widespread use of mobile phones to skim news articles and reduce analysis to brief social media posts provides still further evidence.

Yes, the fast road to convenience seems to be winning the battle against the longer, winding, more slippery roadway towards meaningfulness.  It should not be that way, especially in schools.

A section of the Transfăgărăşan Road, or Route 7C, in Romania.

Many school boards are prone to adopt society’s widespread embrace of convenience, even though it may come at the cost of purpose.  In some ways this is understandable given that most members of school boards are well-meaning, highly motivated but time-impoverished volunteers who are squeezing their board service into their otherwise very full and busy lives, careers and families.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that authentic leadership means giving your best in order to inspire other people to do their best too, getting them to care as much as you do about the things that matter.  Leadership involves defining and articulating a purpose that has meaning rather than simple convenience. 

Convenience might not seem to be the prevailing priority when board members are sitting through a four-hour long meeting late into the night.  However, these are the precise types of occasions when board members should resist any temptation to take short cuts for the sake of convenience, because the consequence will almost certainly be decisions that dilute purpose and meaningfulness.

Every school exists for an inherently noble purpose, a purpose which is hopefully articulated publicly and frequently through the school’s mission statement (its statement of enduring purpose).  This explicitly articulated, noble purpose should form the foundation of every decision the board makes – after all, what could be more important than steering the school towards achieving its enduring purpose in a clear, intentional manner?  

Therefore, the priority of seeking meaning and purpose over convenience applies in every area of board operations and policy setting, especially where fiduciary and other duties are concerned.  For example (and obviously), it is important to take the time and consider alternatives when recruiting a new Principal, undertaking a risk audit and analysis of the school, in policy development and review, when undertaking performance reviews of senior and middle managers (and of the board itself), and when considering financial reports, analyses and projections.  Due diligence demands that the board takes whatever time is necessary to consider such matters fully and work to enhance the school’s purpose and meaningfulness.  Short cuts for convenience are not an option.

Similarly, when a school embarks on a process of strategic planning, a risk arises that convenience may overtake significance.  Of course, this is not necessarily a deliberate decision by board members, but is more likely a consequence of board members who are in a hurry accepting our society’s prevailing, uncritiqued assumption that speed and convenience are inherently good.

It is easy to appreciate the passionate discussions that take place among board members when they focus on the best way to achieve the school’s mission.  However, having decided on the priorities (or vision) for a new strategic plan, dangers arise as soon as the vision is written down.  One initial danger is that the vision risks becoming a diluted, pale reflection of the passionate insights that underpin it simply because a long and passionate discussion has been reduced to a brief sentence or two.  Subsequent dangers arise when a poorly articulated vision statement becomes hijacked by those in the school community who may have a different agenda to that of the board, leading to a process of white-anting or well-poisoning.

If a strategic plan is to communicate the board’s passion effectively and inspire an entire school community to support it, then the words that are chosen and the visual presentation become critically important.  The task of communicating a strategic plan lies well beyond wordsmithing.  It requires communication skills of the highest order as the strategic plan will be called upon to define the school’s future direction and priorities for the entire school community, prospective clients and the general public.

In public documents such as strategic plans, over-simplification, lack of clarity, poor illustrations, ambiguity, weak expression or just a few words out of place can cause so much confusion that the entire document could easily become an ineffective embarrassment.

A section of the Transfăgărăşan Road, or Route 7C, in Romania.

The real test of a strategic plan is this – does it articulate a genuinely meaningful pathway towards positive transformation, or is it just a convenient means of ticking a bureaucratic box?

And the way to answer that question is this – is the strategic plan an integral component of the school’s day-to-day planning, decision-making, budgeting and direction setting, or does it simply sit on the bookshelf gathering dust?

Sadly, studies have shown that more than 70% of strategic plans in schools are simply dust collectors within a month or two of their completion.  Such strategic plans lack both convenience and, much more importantly, meaningfulness.

In everything that a school board does, therefore, purpose and meaningfulness must trump convenience.  

Clarity of purpose is essential for boards and school leaders to educate and motivate people so they feel compelled to respond to an invitation to help build the school’s future.  The mission – the school’s enduring purpose – must be central to every decision made by the board and its senior leaders, and it must underpin (implicitly or explicitly) every public statement or promise that is made on behalf of the school.

These days, people (and especially younger people) rightly expect meaning and purpose.  They openly ask questions like “what do you value?”, “what is your purpose?” and “how do you bring your values to life?”.  Embracing meaningfulness and purpose is thus the antidote for disengagement because it allows tiny flames of interest to grow into raging fires of enthusiasm and positive action.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We help schools in almost every area that adds meaningfulness to board operations and school leadership, including policy development and review, crisis resolution, performance reviews of senior and middle managers, board evaluations, strategic planning, senior recruitment, mentoring, and other specific tasks such as full policy reviews, risk audits, etc.

We also offer SMART, an original ground-breaking assessment tool that authentically evaluates a school’s effectiveness in achieving its mission, vision and values.  Contact us by e-mail for more details or to discuss specific needs.

Further information on effective school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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