Is “synergy” a punchline in your industry? It is in the ones I’ve inhabited. I did a few stints in corporate America. I endured several management fads. The 90s were something. I remember the Seven Habits and its kin descending upon the engineering ranks and being promptly rejected. We brought in open source and our own culture, and life was better. Now, business jargon and false culture is in our schools thanks to The Leader in Me. What can no longer be sold so easily to corporations is now sold to education interests who invoke it upon our children. As an engineer and open source geek, hearing children use hack corporatist jargon is more alarming than hearing them swear. At least swearing is authentic. Teaching children to think and communicate in business jargon, in terms owned and licensed by a corporation, is tasteless and creepy. This language should not be used without irony and full knowledge of its history.
I associate the language of Leader in Me with empty suits, bad management, and conformity. This is an impoverished vocabulary. If we hope to cultivate STEM kids and accommodate neurodiversity, Leader in Me feels very much like the wrong way to go. Leader in Me promotes cardboard conformity in an environment of already dwindling imagination. In a system marked by too much testing and too much homework, Leader in Me feels like a whip for programming children to take their tests, do their homework, and hope for a soulless job that won’t cover their unforgivable student debt. The Leader in Me program, from the language in the book to the creepy videos of children singing praise to a corporation, evokes a conformist Dear Leader mentality. We’re making tools, not leaders.
Here is what our young leaders are writing. These are presented without evident irony or shame in the hallways of our elementary school.
- I’m a leader because I sit quietly.
- I’m a leader because I do what the teacher tells me.
- I am a leader because I always follow the rules.
- I am a leader because I always follow the rules, and my teacher likes me, and parents like me.
- Being proactive means doing your homework right after school.
The rote postulation “I’m a leader because” is indictment enough.
Periodically, we parents go to school for Leader in Me events where our kids walk us through their leadership notebooks and check off boxes. Trying to engage our kids authentically outside the scripted rituals of Leader in Me creates anxiety and fear of doing something off-script and off-message. The experience is phony. I see rote, rule-bound regurgitation driven by anxiety.
Lack of perspectives allows these programs in the door. I’m trying to offer the perspective of an engineer, geek, neurodivergent, digital native, and open source contributor. My mother-in-law offers another perspective. While navigating tremendous bureaucratic hurdles and very real danger, she and her daughter left the Soviet Union in the 70s and made their way to the US. She recently witnessed the expression of Leader in Me at an event at our elementary school, which my youngest attends. After beholding this spectacle of Dear Leader conformity, she offered her perspective to administrators.
Today I went to my grandson’s school to take a look at their “leadership” presentation. What I saw shook me up to the very core of my being. This “leadership” program is the most blatant and horrific example of brainwashing I ever came across. And believe me, I saw plenty of ideological manipulation in my life in the Soviet Union. Even in the Soviet Union, the brainwashing was not as in-your-face and unapologetic as in my grandson’s school. What I saw was a deliberate transformation of young children into obedient and thoughtless slaves.
What was the intent of this travesty? Who measures the outcome and by which criteria?
What did these young children take away from the indoctrination, because that is what it is – indoctrination in its ugliest form? On hallway walls I read numerous little essays. The brainless uniformity of these essays is frightening. One child wrote, “I am a leader because I sit very quietly”. Another, “I am a leader because I always follow the rules”. And another, “I am a leader because I always follow the rules, and my teacher likes me, and parents like me”.
We were escorted into a classroom in which each child was “a leader”. A trash can leader, a clean floor leader. Children neither understood nor comprehended the irony of humiliation and dehumanization.
I was not intimidated by the KGB and the whole Soviet Apparat of oppression and fear. I emigrated from a country behind the Iron Curtain despite terrible personal suffering and loss. I brought my daughter to this country to be free and to be an individual, as unique and incomparable as she possibly can. I came here to have my grandchildren be free, to think for themselves and develop into creative thinkers. To see institutionalized dumbing of my precious grandchildren, the intentional brainwashing and belittling of their potential and individuality will not be tolerated.
I wonder, was this brainwashing intentional or is it the result of thoughtless and careless initiative by thoughtless and shortsighted people?
As someone who has mentored and hired developers and designers, Leader in Me is not what I’m looking for. This language and framing is a liability in creative cultures. Do not teach children how to think and communicate in language owned and licensed by a corporation. Consult the creative commons and stop buying crony ware. Our children are being sold a product and a philosophy that some of us parents have rejected in our professional lives. I don’t associate products such as Leader in Me with good business ethics or with good cultural fits. The worldview that belies Leader in Me is too narrow and straight to accommodate the diversity of minds and thought that make modernity.
A deep irony is that our school district is attempting something brave and bold and a decade overdue. They are embracing project-based learning and the Most Likely to Succeed narrative. Not everyone involved has read the book yet. Once they do, perhaps they’ll recognize that Leader in Me is incompatible with MLTS. Leader in Me is of the system and culture MLTS warns against, yet we still have it in our elementary school. Eject Leader in Me. Build instead a culture compatible with project-based learning and modern work. Build a culture of agency, not compliance. Seek inspiration from The MIT Media Lab principles for work in the modern world.
- Resilience over strength
- Systems over objects
- Disobedience over compliance
- Pull over push
- Compasses over maps
- Emergence over authority
- Risk over safety
- Practice over theory
- Learning over education
The credentialist life script started dying in the 70s and has been in the ground for a decade. To quote from Breaking Smart…
Software-driven transformations directly disrupt the middle-class life script, upon which the entire industrial social order is based. In its typical aspirational form, the traditional script is based on 12 years of regimented industrial schooling, an additional 4 years devoted to economic specialization, lifetime employment with predictable seniority-based promotions, and middle-class lifestyles. Though this script began to unravel as early as the 1970s, even for the minority (white, male, straight, abled, native-born) who actually enjoyed it, the social order of our world is still based on it. Instead of software, the traditional script runs on what we might call paperware: bureaucratic processes constructed from the older soft technologies of writing and money. Instead of the hacker ethos of flexible and creative improvisation, it is based on the credentialist ethos of degrees, certifications, licenses and regulations. Instead of being based on achieving financial autonomy early, it is based on taking on significant debt (for college and home ownership) early.
and Most Likely to Succeed…
Students who only know how to perform well in today’s education system—get good grades and test scores, and earn degrees—will no longer be those who are most likely to succeed. Thriving in the twenty-first century will require real competencies, far more than academic credentials.
Prepare our kids for project-based hiring, distributed work, and life. Embrace project-based learning, and choose agency over compliance.