Michelle Rhee wielding power tools

By:

Sep 15, 2008

There are a lot of features right now about Michelle Rhee, the D.C. school chancellor, as she enters her second year at the helm. Everyone from PBS to the Washington Post to CNN is writing about her. Her leadership is providing an interesting case study for Chapter 8 of Disrupting Class. Take a look at the Washington Post article, “Better or Worse, it’s Rhee’s School System Now” to see why.

In our book Disrupting Class, we describe how the only way for managers to create change in an environment where there is disagreement on both what their goals are and how the world works is to use the tools of power. And to do that, they have to accumulate enough power to wield them. In a democracy, that generally isn’t possible.

But Rhee seems to be doing her best to do just this so that she can create real and lasting change (for better or for worse, as the article headline reminds us – what do others think?). Just consider some of the lines from the article:

1) “Rhee was able to move so quickly because of the unilateral power granted her by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has staked his political future on fixing the schools, which he won control over in June 2007. Fenty (D) has given her political cover by warning agency heads that they risk losing their jobs if they tell her no.

Under the new governance system, Rhee reports only to Fenty, not a school board.”

2) ““It’s like ushering in a scary era where we don’t have a say in what’s going on,” said Jones, who chaired the Burroughs restructuring team, a panel that advises the principal. “It just feels like the people are losing their voice . . . that we’re losing a grip on democracy.””

3) “Some critics say she operates the $1 billion system like the private nonprofit she founded before taking the chancellor job — with little accountability to the public.

As she has consolidated power, she has weakened the authority of principals and instructional superintendents, administrators who oversee clusters of schools, and diminished school-based decision-making.

Asked recently by a PBS reporter whether she considers herself a benevolent dictator, she said: “If by dictator, you mean somebody who, at the end of the day, is fully comfortable being held accountable for, you know, the results and is going to be incredibly decisive about the direction that we’re heading in, then, yes.””

Now that is power.
– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.