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Misdiagnose Reality at Your Own Risk

When I arrived at Duke School the attrition rate was exceptionally high, pushing 20%. Having to replace ⅕ of your student body each year was taxing on the admissions director as well as teachers. Bringing that rate down was of paramount importance. 

However, the leadership team put forth many reasons why the rate was so high:

  • Durham is a transient community; people are always moving.

  • PS--8 schools always have high attrition; parents are looking early for high school placements.

  • The school was on two campuses. Attrition is high in schools with two campuses.

One of my favorite leadership quotations comes from a great little book, Leadership as an Art by Max Depree. He starts the book by stating, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader must be a servant and a debtor.” 

As the leader, I felt the leadership team was not defining reality (or at least not realistically.) I did the work of researching the attrition rate for local schools--Duke School was higher than most. I also researched PS--8’s and two campus schools--Duke School’s attrition was higher than the mean. The reality which I was able to define was that our attrition rate was an internal issue that we needed to fix. 

In an earlier blog, I mentioned how the team came together to reduce attrition. The point of this blog is not to repeat the strategies but rather to emphasize that a leader’s primary responsibility is to understand the actual, not the desired, reality and paint that reality for her team. 

Identifying what is actually happening is substantially harder than it seems at first blush. We are all influenced by confirmatory bias (perceiving evidence as supporting our pre-existing beliefs), availability heuristic (seeing reality based on how easy it is to find an example), anchoring bias (relying too much on the first bit of information presented) among others.  

Leaders must work to understand and then (as much as possible) sidestep these biases. A reality ill-defined leads to an ill-fated strategy. 

Once reality is defined, leaders must be servants--serve the people who are doing the day-to-day work--and a debtor--realize the debt owed to the people doing the work. Finally, after the work is done, a leader must thank those who changed the reality for the better. 

This summer, with its slower pace, make time to deeply study your workplace realities and be able to present the good, the bad and the ugly to your team. Then give them the space and resources to make tomorrow’s reality better than today’s. 


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