Archive | January 2015

Raising Powerful People


I had the talk with my daughter the other day, the one about using her powers for good and not evil. It was in the midst of the talk that I realized it was actually the fourth iteration, a common thread woven across each of my children’s formation.

While the talk has varied with the particular transgression under review, the plot line has remained largely the same.

It begins with me enumerating my child’s gifts and talents, articulating the qualities that make them uniquely special and precious to the world. I assure them that they will go on to do important things and acknowledge that they are clearly leaders, undeniably powerful. I provide evidence as to how their behavior makes a difference; how when they are at their best, they have a tangible impact on the people and situations around them.

At this point, they usually sense that we are circling back to their transgression, a realization that catalyzes a stream of excuses and accompanying tears. This is always the turning point in the talk; the place where I reaffirm my love and clarify that we always have choices, opportunities to add value and to do the right thing. Finally I offer a path forward, an opportunity to make things right and to reset intentions.

While I’m sure my children dread these talks, they always bring us closer. In the end, after the drama clears, there is a palpable sense of intimacy, a new bond that somehow tethers our souls more closely.

When I think of my own upbringing, I still remember the sting of disappointing my parents. But I also recall, and continue to cherish, the security that comes with their unconditional love and unyielding expectations that I will always do the right thing.

Of late as I have pondered the qualities of leadership, I have been accused of being overly romantic about all that we should expect. Courage, integrity, a commitment to doing what is right and true, and an ability to make strong decisions especially in the face of challenge or uncertainty. Aren’t these the very qualities that we expect of our own children, the qualities that we expect of ourselves and one another?

Although it is too early to predict whether my children- or any children- will go on to be great leaders or innovators, they are honing their powers every day, through their studies, their interactions, and their dreams. They are developing a sense of identity and place in the world, setting expectations for themselves and those around them.

The phrase, “for those to whom much is given much is expected” rings clear and loud in my inner voice. As a society it is our job to nurture and extol our children’s precious gifts, while setting high and clear expectations for their impacts.

The truth is that we simply cannot fulfill our potential without raising powerful people. And thankfully, with every new generation, we have another chance to finally get it right.

Because Words DO Matter

I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.

I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.

I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.

Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.

This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.

Who is that Leader in Buffalo, NY?

I hope you can help me.

I’m looking for the name of a specific community leader, the one with the courage, commitment, and most importantly the capacity to bring us all together.

I’m not talking about waterfront development, or tourism. We’ve got those areas covered, and I too am excited by the growth.

The leader I’m searching for is focused on human capital- someone who understands the complexities of politics and poverty, but is driven ultimately by the promise of untapped potential; someone who can see and work across systems and is not constrained by specific agendas or ideologies. The leader I am seeking is a facilitator, a designer, a navigator of complexity, someone with thick skin who can deflect the negativity and fickleness that so quickly emerge, someone exceptionally smart, and definitely kind.

We are certainly not lacking in community leaders.  But I don’t think they’re the ones I’m looking for. And I have been waiting for so very long.

My search began back in 2007 when I was working with former Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Williams, as liaison for higher education partnerships. When he would introduce me to leaders from various sectors of the city, I would pose the question in the most earnest and hopeful way, explaining that I was eager to offer my assistance once I could identify the right person.

Can you believe that in over eight years of asking the question, I haven’t gotten a single enthusiastic response- not one.

Since leaving my role with Superintendent Williams and returning to my work at the University at Buffalo, I have pulled back from the world of educational partnerships, waiting for the dust to settle so that I could identify the appropriate opportunity to reengage.  And throughout the years and months I have continued to ask my question.

Just recently I learned of Mr. Wilmer’s press event and grew excited that perhaps the time had finally come. If Mr. Wilmers, a leader for whom I have great respect and admiration, a leader who makes big things happen for our community and schools, if he was rallying the troops, then maybe we could finally get something accomplished.  But alas, I was told by numerous attendees that he was clearly not the one, that he had emphasized throughout his presentation that he was a banker and not an educator, and that the responsible community leaders needed to step up and find a way forward.

And then just this morning, a few brief minutes ago, I read of the upcoming Superintendent search and the School Board’s expectation that there must be a suitable internal candidate, a principal, who can step up and lead the District forward.

My heart aches as I ponder the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I continue to ask myself who is that leader, and I am hoping desperately that one of you knows.

Systems Calibration: How Boards Can Save our Most Challenged School Districts


Once we establish that our education system is complex, fragile, and precious (see earlier posts), the responsibility of leadership becomes one of calibration.

In we identified key points of fragility within school systems that can be tightened through  self-study or guided evaluation. They include internal organizational integrity, co-evolution of the system with its environment, and the vision toward which the system is moving. While these areas can be tweaked independently, the complexity of their interactions demands a highly strategic approach that addresses the system in its entirety, identifying key levers of change that can be manipulated toward greater functionality and optimization of outputs.

If we examine the education system, and more specifically our most challenged school districts through the lens of complex adaptive systems, we can begin to appreciate the urgent need for calibration. While urban districts are vastly complex, they are also dangerously out of alignment with their key facets (internal organization; co-evolution; and vision) functioning at cross-purposes, and little comprehensive control or oversight. Accordingly, even when the system tries to pivot or refocus on some new mandate or external expectation, there is no effective mechanism for doing so, with even the most well intentioned efforts throwing the system into greater misalignment and instability.

With that said, it is entirely possible to recalibrate our education systems, but it is clearly a design challenge. In doing so, we need to view individual components through the lens of the greater system and place them within their respective places. Teacher unions and contracts, state mandates and assessments, school-level operations and policies, these are all components or variables that are critical to the ultimate performance of our school systems. But none of them, individually, should be drivers, determining the functionality or vision of the entire system. When given disproportionate weight or power, any of these components can begin to lead, causing further misalignment and fragility, not to mention compromised performance, ultimately threatening the viability of the systems themselves. Put simply, our most challenged school districts have become so complex, fragile, and misaligned, that they are no longer viable or sustainable.

If we are serious about fixing our education system, and more specifically our failing school districts, we must begin to view leadership through the lens of calibration. Ultimately, our school boards are responsible for setting the vision and overseeing progress. And yet few boards fully accept this responsibility and have the competencies or support necessary for doing the work. Clearly, boards can not to do it alone. Consultants and accrediting bodies, along with community foundations and consortiums, should provide the frameworks and strategic support needed to guide them through the complex and important processes, helping them clarify the necessary steps and roles that need to be filled. Only when this design work is done effectively can superintendents and leadership staff be hired based on their ability to lead and execute the identified plans.  Only then can we begin to recalibrate our systems and achieve the results we seek not by chance, but by design.

Towards a Practical and Scalable Solution for Saving our Most Precious and Vulnerable Community Systems

If we accept the premise that non-profits are both highly precious and vulnerable, then the obvious question becomes how to save them. Based on responses to my last post,, the complex adaptive systems approach appears to be a useful paradigm that resonates for both the modeling and theoretical community, and those in the trenches involved directly with board governance.

Towards the goal of pushing this notion further, I offer a general analysis with recommendations that are both highly practical and scalable. And although this process should apply to any non-profit system, I will focus primarily on public education since it is particularly complex and urgent with regard to community health and sustainability.

Step 1: Identify the major points of system fragility that require our focused attention and support. A review of “A Mathematical Theory of Sustainability and Sustainable Development” by Ricardo Alvira (2014) suggests that the following might be particularly salient:

  1. Organization of the system– the interacting parts that distinguish the system from its environment

With regard to non-profits this refers to the organization’s programs, structures, and processes that together comprise its unique identity. Alvira notes that adaptive systems move toward dissolution over time, and while there is a need to adapt and change to respond to changes in the environment, systems must maintain some internal stability in order to evolve. How non-profits “hang together” in terms of their various components represents a particular area of concern since they tend to become increasingly complex and rigid over time, due largely to diversification of funding sources and associated expectations.

  1. Co-evolution with the environment. Since environments are also systems that change over time, interactions between the system and its ambient environment can have significant effects on efficacy and sustainability

For non-profits, changes in the environment have significant implications for the work that is done. With regard to education, mandates and programs required or incentivized by state and federal agencies and/or funding sources can have major effects on the operations of school districts and the associated student experiences. In fact, if powerful enough, such mandates can result in entire school systems reorganizing to respond to their changing expectations. How these systems interact and influence one another is a major source of fragility and concern.

  1. Directionality- Adaptive systems move toward some desired state

Although non-profits are influenced by changes in the environment to which they must respond, they are ultimately steered by some aspirational vision set by their leadership. On paper, boards are often responsible for setting the vision and stewarding movement toward the desired state. And yet many boards abdicate this responsibility and control to executive directors or other paid leaders. The relationship between the vision setting and implementation for non-profits is another critical point of fragility to consider and address.

Because these three components interact in complex and unpredictable ways, any meaningful support must address all aspects simultaneously, helping the system move toward an optimal state through which it can achieve stability, nimbleness, and directionality in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change.

Step 2: Identify existing frameworks and/or processes that can offer support related to these specified structural focus areas. Because complex adaptive systems are found across so many domains of study and application, and because we have developed specialized toolkits and frameworks within these individual fields, it stands to reason that usable framework already exist and can be adapted and brought to scale for our current purposes.

Based on my own experiences in higher education, I would suggest that self-study frameworks associated with program accreditation offer the type of support that we are seeking. Specifically, I would suggest that the original TEAC (Teacher Education Accrediting Council) framework represents a particularly robust and useful paradigm to be explored.

In general, self-study involves a comprehensive examination of system components to evaluate and improve overall efficacy and sustainability. While different professional programs and associated accrediting bodies call for specific learning standards and competencies, they all guide organizations in the self-study process, setting standards for evidence of programmatic efficacy and quality, and offering related support and assurances.

I am particularly drawn to the TEAC framework as it emphasizes the very aspects of complex adaptive systems that we have identified through our analysis. Although these relate specifically to education related programs (associated with teacher education and educational leadership), they seem to hold for non-profits in general and certainly the public education systems that we are addressing. Specifically, the framework examines:

  • Program rationale- how the program “hangs together” with regard to their various components, processes, and assessments. Programs are asked to provide a comprehensive cross-walk connecting all components both conceptually and statistically to demonstrate cohesion, stability, and relevance with regard to environmental contexts. In order to do this successfully, systems must make sense of their respective complexity, unifying programs around common philosophies, themes, and constructs toward greater clarity and stability.
  • Institutional capacity- whether there is sufficient institutional buy-in and support to sustain the program. TEAC auditors meet with institutional leaders to ensure that the vision and mission of the program is supported, and those who are responsible for stewarding and implementing the program have capacity to do so even in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change. This aspect of the process gets at the “directionality” of non-profit functioning, and could address whether boards have sufficient understanding and capacity to effectively steward these complex adaptive systems.
  • Quality control systems- TEAC requires that all programs have functioning quality control systems that allow them to ensure a high level of quality and consistency while effectively addressing any challenges or exceptions that should arise. A required audit forces programs to check the clarity and fidelity of their systems, identifying any issues and making appropriate changes. In the end, the quality control process cuts across all aspects of complexity that we have identified. Unless the system can consistently produce the outputs that it is designed to produce, regardless of the degree or type of variations that might occur, the system cannot ensure fidelity, efficacy, or sustainability.

As someone who has participated in the TEAC process at multiple levels, including co-leading an institutional self-study, participating in a program audit, and serving on the accreditation review process, I have witnessed the impact of the process on the organizations themselves. By simply going through the process, organizations change and tighten their programs and related functions. They become more cohesive, nimble, and effective and better positioned to select the right leaders and staff. If the process is clear with appropriate support mechanisms and staff, virtually any program or system can work through it with minimal cost and disruption, making it a highly practical solution for strengthening and ultimately saving our most complex and vulnerable non-profits.

Step 3: Identify mechanisms for bringing solution to scale.

Even if I could convince people of the value of guided self-study with regard to the stewardship of non-profits, the ultimate challenge is how to bring such frameworks to scale. To be honest, the primary (and perhaps only) reason higher education embraces these processes, is because they are mandated to do so in order to remain accredited or receive important designations that are tied to enrollments or growth. We would be delusional to think that non-profits will voluntarily embrace accreditation or self-study as a means of self-improvement. Nor should we look to regulatory bodies to mandate such processes, hoping that they will get it right and/or utilize these frameworks in an appropriate or idealized fashion.

Instead I recommend that we begin by making these frameworks available to those who naturally see the value, working with foundations that support board governance and community development and who understand the complexity and fragility associated with these areas of focus. By starting as a pilot, we can begin to study the impact of such frameworks on the efficacy of non-profits and the communities they serve.

When we are ready to bring participation to scale we can encourage the active endorsement by key funders, employers, and governmental agencies that offer resources and support on which the non-profits rely. Just as complex dynamic systems inherently re-organize to address changing environmental constraints and opportunities, so too will our community organizations as expectations for internal cohesion, nimbleness, and capacity for stewardship begin to increase.

Ultimately, we as communities and a collective society set the directionality and expectations for our non-profits. Only when we understand the inherent complexity and fragility of their work, and the preciousness of the communities they serve, can we begin to truly support and steward their potential through solutions that are both practical and scalable.

Why Stability Isn’t Always a Good Thing: Nonprofits as Complex Dynamic Systems


When it comes to the future of our communities, nonprofits should be of considerable interest and concern. Since we rely heavily on their associated outputs, especially for our most vulnerable communities and social sectors, we have a responsibility to ensure their continued viability and efficacy.

Our primary mechanism for monitoring and optimizing nonprofits is through board governance. Whether via boards of directors, trustees, school boards, or advisory committees, we expect these groups of highly qualified individuals (however measured) to ensure the continued effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of organizations, making necessary decisions, adjustments, and investments while monitoring the nonprofit’s health via ongoing assessment and evaluation.

By assembling what we perceive to be highly competent boards comprised of well-educated and/or respected individuals, we believe that our organizations are in good hands. And when it comes to assessing and monitoring their effectiveness, we assume that their efficacy is reflected largely by their ability to obtain funding and sustain their respective work. Since grants and direct contributions are the primary sources of funding for community organizations and nonprofits, they must continually make a case for their viability, complying with funder expectations and demonstrating the quality and need for their work via programmatic outputs and impacts. Accordingly, if an organization is able to thrive and continue to support its respective efforts, then it must be a doing a good job, and should be viewed as an important community asset worthy of ongoing support.

This thinking is both circular and dangerous, given the prominent role that nonprofits play in our communities and larger society. Clearly, fiscal stability is often an important indicator of organizational success. Yet when it comes to the world of nonprofits and social needs, organizational stability, in its traditional manifestations, can actually inhibit optimization of impact.

In order to explore this assertion, we must step into the fascinating world of complex dynamic systems, a field of inquiry that draws on insights from diverse fields of study including biological systems, computers, AI, cognitive science, and other domains towards the goal of understanding and modeling approaches that yield optimal performance and efficacy.

If you think of nonprofits as systems, with inputs, outputs, and internal programmatic functions, you might assume that they are largely self-regulating. If the organization is doing a good job and fulfills its purpose and mission, then it should thrive and remain relevant and robust. Conversely, if its mission and work are no longer effective or in alignment with the needs of the community, then its ability to sustain itself should be compromised, favoring emergent states of adaptation and nimbleness through sensitivity to both internal and external factors, and an ability to flex and pivot as needed.

However, rather than programmatic pivoting, organizations have a tendency to layer themselves in complexity. Even though they may start with a clear and simple mission, they tend to become increasingly complex over time. Because of their inherent need for self-funding, which is largely tied to specified programming, their ability to grow or sustain themselves often leads to new layers of programmatic and staffing complexity.

On a systems level, we rarely see parameter setting for the number or diversity of concurrent programs. In other words, the notion that adding new programs inherently necessitates the cessation of existing programs is rare at the policy or leadership levels. Instead, the assumption is that existing programs are important and necessary, and should be maintained if at all possible. Accordingly, the need to self-sustain and grow becomes the functional focus of the system, with leaders and boards selected and maintained based on their ability to meet this expectation.

By definition, as organizations become more complex from an infrastructure and programmatic standpoint, they become more opaque and less sensitive to internal and external changes. This in turn can make them more rigid and unable to adapt. Although when viewed through the lens of community needs, this tendency should trigger concern and a sense of vulnerability, it is not necessarily perceived or treated as such. Because we have not developed sensitivities to these types of metrics or systems-level fragilities, notions of stability and fiscal health remain our proxies for efficacy. As long as our systems are able to feed and sustain themselves, we can enjoy a false sense of security associated with this notion of stability.

In the end, organizational leaders and the boards that sustain and steward them are ultimately responsible for the future of our community organizations and nonprofits. Perhaps by adopting new levels of programmatic discipline and restraint we can force our organizations to be more nimble and responsive, and less susceptible to the dangers of layered complexity.


The state of being stuck is depleting. When we are unable to move, to stretch our talents and actualize our potential, we become frustrated and demoralized. Like car wheels spinning in the snow, our ruts grow ever deeper as we exhaust our resources  yearning for change.

If our individual stuckness is a condition, then our collective paralysis is epidemic. As individuals we may feel restless and underutilized, but as we expand our lens outward, the implications become even more profound. When people are underutilized their talents go untapped. But when the systems that are designed to develop, support, and connect talent to the bigger world, are themselves stuck and out of alignment, our communities become dangerously compromised. And since the world and surrounding contexts in which we live and work continue to change at an accelerating rate,  vulnerabilities become further strained, necessitating increasingly more resources to hold it all together.

Despite what we tell ourselves, stuckness is not an inherently temporary state. Instead, it becomes its own point of stability, making our lack of movement increasingly difficult to budge. Because it exists across so many levels and systems from micro to macro, change does not automatically transfer or morph into larger areas. And as we become increasingly frustrated with our state of stuckness, anger and emotion can exacerbate our patterns, resulting in polarization of perspectives and further deepening our collective dysfunction.

But the good news is that change is within reach. The very condition of being stuck offers directionality for getting unstuck.  And the fact that our condition manifests itself at so many levels, translates into multiple access points and lenses through which we can redesign. At the individual level we can identify points of fragility and leverage, re-engineering our approaches for greater movement and alignment. Or instead, we can begin by envisioning a more nimble and actualized version of ourselves, then working backwards to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. Or conversely, we can begin with our larger systems or social infrastructures, imagining fully functioning communities and societies and identifying the associated processes and structures that would allow us to thrive and contribute.

This exercise of mapping upwards and downwards, from macro to micro, will lead us through multiple paradigms and domains. From education to healthcare, to workforce and social support structures, all systems interconnect and weave to create the communities we seek to build, and the individuals who will live in and support them. Since our stuckness does not exist in isolation, but instead permeates virtually every facet of society, we need to be maximally flexible in our solutions. Luckily, there are so many toolkits and paradigms from which to choose. From engineering and architecture, to technology and computers, cognitive science, business and strategic planning, and even spiritual realms, each offers a unique perspective and agenda.  But collectively they all embrace the idea of shaping and redesigning structures and processes to actualize goals and potential. And through the mere act of broadening our lens to look at stuckness in its entirety, we gain access to the full range of design metaphors. Let’s face it, we can no longer rely on the art of specialization for our future viability.  Instead, we need to knit these frameworks together toward a maximally robust and powerful approach.

Clearly, it’s hard work ahead, but do not be daunted. The benefits of nimbleness and flexibility are far greater than we could ever imagine. Whether you are focused on your own professional growth, or building healthier businesses or communities, we all have a part to play in a much bigger system- either one that is strong and robust or deeply dysfunctional.  And as we ready ourselves for the year ahead, we should ask what the world- our world- would look like if we were all unstuck, moving within our full range of motion, with not a drop of talent wasted or untapped.