Monday, August 20, 2012

The Surgical Leader

I was driving down the road the other day, listening to the Message on Sirius XM, and I heard a song by 10th Avenue about how God breaks us to bind us. The song talked about how he uses our pain to heal us, and it made me think of what a surgeon does to heal his patients.

A surgeon is a great healer. He is extremely knowledgeable about the human body. He is able to use information to decide what is causing the pain or illness, and then he makes a plan to go in and perform a surgical procedure to remedy the problem. This procedure invariably causes much pain to the patient, but it is necessary so that the patient doesn't continue to ail or worse, end up dead. Last, the surgeon schedules follow up appointments to ensure that the surgery was effective and if it wasn't effective, he repeats the cycle all over again. In essence, he breaks his patient to bind him.

Leaders must have the same surgical skills to be effective at solving problems that ail people, teams, systems and the school as a whole.


Knowledge of the Body

In order for the leader to have surgical precision, he must have a great knowledge base about the body or the school and its systems. Knowledge of curriculum, instruction, assessments and interventions are critical. The leader must know in specific detail how the organization must run to be effective and efficient. Last the surgical leader must know the people within the organization and the strengths and weaknesses that each brings to the organization.  Knowledge of the people in the organization guides the leader to design how they must work together to keep the organization healthy.

Gather Information to Diagnose

Leaders must know the pulse of the organization and gather data to chart progress of the school. Data can't be just limited to tests or benchmarks. Standards-Based Rubrics as well as teachers' perceptions are invaluable data that the surgical leader can use to pinpoint the source of the problem within the organization. Constant communication with the staff will also help the leader decide what is actually causing the system to hemorrage.

Pre-Operation Plan and Surgery

Now that the leader is able to diagnose the source of the problem, it is time to make a plan for surgery.  The leader must decide what changes need to be made but more importantly must know what the anticipated results of the surgery will be.  How the organization will respond must be predicted and that can only happen if the leader has a close relationship with the staff.

Surgery requires conflict, difficult conversations, institutional change, philosophical change in the staff and ultimately a whole lot of discomfort to the part of the system that is being operated on.  Leaders, like surgeons, do their best to minimize the effects of the surgery (change) so as not to disrupt other organs or areas of the system.  Surgeons use tools that are most effective in the surgery and don't cause unnecessary problems with the patient.  Leaders use different tools to make the change as painless as possible.  Having emotional intelligence and situational awareness are the two most effective tools that the leader uses to perform surgery.

Post-Operation Appointment

After the surgery, the surgeon will always see the patient to conduct some follow-up tests and talk with the patient about how they are doing.  Leaders often leave this part out.  The staff or group that went through the surgery must have time to reflect and evaluate with one another and with the leader.  The staff will always reflect with one another because they are the ones going through the surgery.  The leader must monitor and evaluate how the change has affected the organization and if things are not going well, the leader must be self actualized to know that the change did not produce the intended results; therefore more surgery or a different procedure may be required.

No one looks forward to going through the pain of surgery, but everyone looks forward to the long term effects that benefit the patient in the end. That is because the surgeon communicates to the patient what he can expect as far as the pain from surgery and the recovery time.  He goes even further to always communicates the benefits from the operation and the surgeon's guarantee to make it happen. Leaders must do the same before operating on their organization.


  1. I like this, John. You're great at writing metaphors, that's for sure.

    Maybe a bit of pushback: I'm not sure I see you talk anywhere in here about the importance of the role that surgeons play in communicating with the family members of their patients.

    They have to have a good "bedside manner," right -- helping to comfort and assure families, especially those whose loved ones went through significant surgeries and are facing a long and difficult recovery?

    How would that play a role in your metaphor? Are the same behaviors essential for school leaders too?

    I'm also interested in the notion of whether a school leader is more of a surgeon or more of a primary care physician.

    Good thinking with you,

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for the push back. I need my analogies challenged. As I see things, the teacher is a specialty surgeon, and the campus leader is more of a general surgeon. Both have to be able to perform all the things I listed above. To me leaders must be able to perform surgery rather than recommend surgery. That is metaphorically speaking walking the talk.

    The bedside manner you referred to is very important, but it usually comes at the end of surgery and rarely at other times. Communication skills for this interaction with the patient's family must be direct, clear and supportive. This also includes active listening, of course.

    I really appreciate the feedback and the challenge. You do a great job stretching my thinking.