My colleague Heather Staker wrote a recent blog titled “Vote for who will get your job done.” She does a great job summarizing the Tools of Governance framework that we write about in Chapter 9 of the revised edition of Disrupting Class and lays out what it means for how voters should vote depending on their concerns.

I’m sympathetic to her point about voting for politicians who will use power tools and stand up to entrenched interests that get in the way of allowing educators and entrepreneurs the flexibility and autonomy to try radical, new, student-centric approaches given the circumstances in which our public education system is, even as it’s not my own natural leadership style. But the recent resignation of Michelle Rhee gives me pause if this is really a plausible course to achieving lasting change.

Although the theory does say that power tools are the only tools that will be effective when no one agrees about what to do or how to do it, we live in a democracy that fundamentally does not allow for power tools to be deployed easily. While Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Adrian Fenty seized control of their respective city’s schools and appointed Chancellor Joel Klein (who just stepped down) and Michelle Rhee to deploy power tools in essence, ultimately, as Fenty’s defeat and Rhee’s subsequent resignation shows, they are still beholden to the voters and thus what we call culture tools, which includes democracy.

And this was something the founding fathers of this country established on purpose. There is much value in the American democratic process that prevents leaders from plowing through ambitious changes without broad consent from various factions after long and considered—sometimes even tedious—debate. This was the brilliance behind much of what James Madison constructed in the Constitution and what he called the “auxiliary precautions” of American government.

So where does this leave us if the tools that can bring about the needed changes are not available to us? This is a question Stacey Childress, formerly a professor at the Harvard Business School and now at the Gates Foundation, used to ask in her class on entrepreneurship in education reform. I wonder about the value of instead turning to leaders that can pull off the juggling act and not offend the existing and entrenched interests while at the same time making room for disruptive innovations to emerge (sometimes actively promoting them whereas other times keeping public policy and attention purposely away from them). These leaders would need to balance running the current system in the way it’s always been run (and oversee sustaining innovations to it) while at the same deploying the tool of separation to create space and manage potential disruptive innovations that do not threaten the existing system at the outset and for some time until those that are successful and gain traction begin to grow organically and rapidly.

Of course maybe those leaders would get too much flak from people unsatisfied with the status quo—including people like myself perhaps—and wouldn’t last either. I don’t know.

With the understanding of how these tools of governance work and what leadership tools will be successful in what circumstance, what do others think as we try to understand the right lessons here?


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.