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Before Swimming, Think Upstream


Two friends were picnicking by the side of a river. The sun was shining, the day warm. After lunch they were feeling the torpidness of a warm day and a satiated belly. At that moment, they heard a yell from the river and saw a child struggling to stay afloat. Adrenaline kicked in and both friends jumped into the river; fortunately, they were able to save the child.


Just as they were drying the rescued child, they heard another child crying in the river. They saved this child as well. Ten minutes after that, another thrashing child floated by. This time, one friend jumped into the river while the other sprinted upstream. “Where are you going?” yelled the rescuer. “We may have more children to save.” His friend replied, “I am going upriver to stop whoever is throwing the kids into the water.”


This story neatly captures one of the truisms of leadership. It is easy to focus on fixing the symptoms of an issue rather than focusing on the underlying causes of the problem. If you identify and fix the cause of the "upriver" problem, the "down river manifestations of it disappear.


Here is an example from my career. Midway through my time at Duke School, we realized that families of color were leaving the school at a much higher rate than white families. For a long time, we tried to solve that problem by speaking to families of color about their experiences, and if we heard they were thinking of leaving by meeting with them to try to convince them to stay. This strategy had mixed success. Finally, we faced the reality that families of color were leaving because they did not feel welcomed at Duke School. In order to address the underlying problem, the school had to take a hard look at its practices.


We hired consultants who helped us uncover examples of unconscious bias and systemic racism in our processes. We educated ourselves about how to be a more equitable and just school and eventually hired a Director of Equity and Justice to keep our eyes on the diversity ball. Eventually as these initiatives took hold, we saw the percentage of students of color grow and the attrition rates of families of color came down. We had to deal with the underlying cause of the issue and not just look at the problem itself.


Often recurring problems have a cause that might not be immediately obvious. A good leader will look to identify and rectify the causes. Treat the disease, not the symptoms.


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