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Posted by on Sep 27, 2010

“My Brain Doesn’t Work That Way”

Michelle Rhee, the D.C. Schools Chancellor, has been one of the most controversial, polarizing figures in educational reform in years. She was pictured on the cover of Time magazine with a broom in hand, symbolizing the clean sweep she would make of the much-criticized D.C. school system. She has consistently forged a take-no-prisoners style in her decision making and communication, shrugging off growing criticism of her leadership style.

This blog post is not about the politics or merits of what she has done, or not done. Instead, it is about a fascinating quotation contained in today’s Washington Post, in a column by Courtland Milloy.

Milloy referenced a line Rhee delivered to an interviewer when she was asked about how her approach was being perceived in different parts of the city.

“That’s not how my brain works,” she said. “I don’t spend a ton of time thinking about the what-ifs. I’m a much better thinker when it’s, ‘Here’s the situation, now what?’ ”

One thing you cannot fault Rhee for is her unflinching honesty. Saying “That’s not how my brain works,” is much more straightforward than many other officials would have said.

Still, it leaves a nagging question: Are leaders just a product of how their brains work, or can they adapt, flex, change or grow in response to events and reactions? (The smart money, by the way, is on Rhee being out of a job with D.C.’s new mayor.) If you can excuse any perceived weaknesses with “That’s not how my brain works,” then you’re off the hook for any potential adaptation. People sometimes complain about assessment instruments, such as MBTI, or Disc, that they “put me in a box.” Saying your brain only works one way is a real, no-kidding box.

Beyond this, almost everyone in organizational life can relate to the law of unintended consequences, or how culture creates pushback on unpopular initiatives. Saying one does not explore what-ifs or perceptions of actions is cognitively limited and culturally naïve, respectively.

The what-ifs are often the stuff of organizational change. Not exploring those is a set-up for failure. The “if’s” have a real track record of becoming “is’s,” even by surprise.

Finally, there may be an argument for crisis leadership here. The D.C. schools were at the bottom of the barrel, and one could legitimately make the case that bold actions were required. But Rhee may be discovering the hard way that bold action works better when thought through for long-term and sometimes surprising consequences, and when supported by others.

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