Everything you need to know to run an organization you can learn by watching a great kindergarten teacher.
Early in September The Economist published an article by Schumpeter entitled “Montessori management” (sic) using Montessori and “progressive” education as a straw man to bemoan the loss of authority in “child-centered” schools and democratic organizations. As virtually all the comments indicated, dichotomizing authority and democracy is shockingly “so last millennium,” and using Montessori as an example is just plain ignorant. In the last 70 years the history of organizations, schools and nations shows that the question: “Should we be authoritarian or democratic (or some balance)?” is archaic.
This new generation of leaders is working on a more sophisticated question: “How to exercise authority democratically.” True, there are places around the world where the either-or question is still alive and the best practices of democracy are driven underground by violence. In this country there are politicians and journalists who seem not to have moved on from the old dualistic question. Many of our school systems are still organized in a 19th century hierarchical factory model. However, great schools around the world give us some of our best models of what a great organization and a great democracy can look like. A mere glance at them exposes the core principles of a true democracy.
In a Montessori classroom, for instance, the teacher’s authority is unquestioned. And yet, when you observe a Montessori class, you see all 20 to 30 students increasing their own authority in mathematics, literacy, geography, biology and the disciplines of being a responsible member of a community. They are working hard, but no one is making them! How do they do that? Great teachers are leaders, not managers.
Montessori teachers teach their curriculum through materials that they prepared ahead of time. When the materials do the teaching, the students maximize their learning because their internal motivation and individual decision-making are high. The students take on challenges that are right for their mental, emotional, social and physical age, because the boss is not “holding them accountable,” but creating the right conditions.
All great leaders from General Eisenhower to our best managers, principals and teachers, know that the best measure of quality management is: when you are absent, the work continues with no loss of energy and enthusiasm. If the mice play when you are away, you are doing something wrong.
All great teachers use the academic curriculum as the vehicle for teaching the real core competencies of communicating, collaborating, creating and contributing, and the students practice them all day long every day mostly on their own. This is possible because great teachers know that children naturally gravitate toward these basic inclinations of the human species, that humans were designed to communicate, collaborate, create and contribute, that children reveal these inclinations by the first 18 months of life, and that the main adult role is to be with them as they demonstrate their progress in activities of ever-increasing complexity.
Leaders know that making democracy work is a matter of each person playing his or her position in partnership with others. Yes, learning from each other, differentiated responsibilities, individual responsibility, collective ownership, open discussion, consultation, communication, 360 degree evaluation, setting limits and enforcing boundaries are all required for an organization to be successful: all of the above, not pick and choose depending on your inclinations.
It was nice for me to be reminded—especially reading the comments to Schumpeter’s article—that in my lifetime we have made great progress toward democracy. My children’s age-peers are so much more sophisticated at exercising leadership in such a way that it brings out the leadership in others.
Today it is obvious to most of us that good corporate decision-making includes some unilateral decision-making along with open-dialogue and consensus-building. Great schools provide some of our best examples and Montessori classrooms model the disciplines of exercising authority in ways that bring out the authority of followers.
These are principles that all great kindergarten teachers have always known. When you take responsibility for the education of 25 squirmy five-year-olds, you come face to face with the reality that your control is limited and that the only way of making it through the year is to design things so that they increasingly own their own control. Maybe we should have a workshop for all CEO’s and world leaders lead by great kindergarten teachers.
(I post no link to the Economist article, because it’s no longer on the web. Were they embarrassed? That would be more evidence that I am right—the world is moving inexorably toward a more perfect union.)