The Leader in Me and Compliance Culture

Is “synergize” a punchline in your workplace? 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. The Seven Habits, in its original form, has its charms and insights. I know people who like it. The Habits work for them. But, imposed culture is false culture. Culture must come up from the roots. We tech workers have our own ethos–one that prizes selecting our own tools. You can’t force culture.

A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results. Much of what bad managers do is assume their job is simply to find new things to jam and new places to jam them into, without ever believing they need to understand how the system—the system of people known as culture—works.

Source: Why Culture Always Wins

Culture always wins over tools and technologies, but most of the business world is tone deaf to understanding culture.

Source: FAQ about The Year Without Pants (with satisfying answers)

Now, business jargon (“business bullshit“) and false culture are in our schools thanks to The Leader in Me. The Seven Habits have been packaged for the big, unethical business of the deficit model and sold to education interests who invoke it upon our children. As an engineer and open source geek, hearing children–en masse–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.

Business bullshit can and should be challenged. This is a task each of us can take up by refusing to use empty management-speak. We can stop ourselves from being one more conduit in its circulation. Instead of just rolling our eyes and checking our emails, we should demand something more meaningful.

Clearly, our own individual efforts are not enough. Putting management-speak in its place is going to require a collective effort. What we need is an anti-bullshit movement. It would be made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language. It would question management twaddle in government, in popular culture, in the private sector, in education and in our private lives.

The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak. It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit. By cleaning out the bullshit, it might become possible to have much better functioning organisations and institutions and richer and fulfilling lives.

Source: From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over | News | The Guardian

It’s about COMMERCIALIZATION. It’s about making all education a shallow form of business education.

Source: Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains

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 STEAM kids and accommodate neurodiversity and the social model of disability, 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 in the automatron class 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 corporatist crony ware. Our children are being sold products 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 creative leaders of today understand hacker modes of social organization and “created serendipity” in “communication is oxygen” cultures. Choose what creatives are actually doing instead of the cargo cult, shrink wrap culture of Leader in Me.

The credentialist life script has been dying since peak centralization in the 70s. Grading systems and credentialist proxies lose their power when you can hire from anywhere in the world by audition. 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 hiringdistributed work, and life. Embrace passion-based maker learning, and choose agency over compliance. Be proactive.® Recognize when you’re doing deficit model busywork. Kick that distraction out of your life. Instead of painting the deficit model bikeshed, build an open-by-default culture of communication and collaboration. In such a culture, students might make the personal choice of incorporating the Seven Habits into their toolkit–the original Seven Habits, not the reverse-bowdlerized version injected with deficit model and compliance culture profanities.

Learn about our alternative to the compliance classroom at Stimpunks Foundation, a nonprofit by and for neurodivergent and disabled people.

25 thoughts on “The Leader in Me and Compliance Culture

  1. Thank you for writing this. Glad to see others that see the gross messaging in leader in me for what it is. Rewards the compliant group thinker, and punishes the creative individual. It’s much worse than just that. The kids are trained to be zombies. I can’t stand it.

    At our school, PBL is the same as leader in me. The menial roles and duties described in your article match the Engage! Learning Model precisely which is our schools version of project based learning.

  2. I have never heard of “The Leader In Me” until this year and until recently it was really just some words that seemed to always follow my daughters Elementary School name. The school’s website, their sign, their newsletter ….. ” #$@% ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, ( and in smaller font following or below the school name) – A Leader In Me School. ” This was something different from when I attaended the same school 25 years ago but it didn’t appear like a big deal. The word “Leader,” it sounds good, right? That is until I attended my first school assembly …… And Holy Shit! …… WTF?

  3. I couldn’t believe it. I was ready to shut the whole place down by whatever means nessesary but the thought that I was the insane one paralyzed me. A whole school gym full of teachers, parents, grandparents and kids ….. And I was the only one with a problem? That blew my mind and I restrained myself from forever embarrassing my daughter however much it should have been stopped. Long story short- I looked into this Leader Cult BS Program more and everything that Ryan has said pretty much has taken the words right out of my mouth. I’m not sure how to fight this when I saw first hand every teacher, kid, parent and grandparent singing or nodding along during the assembly in total sheep compliance, but I make sure to talk to my daughter about it and teach her how to be a leader like I was taught at her age. USE YOUR WHOLE BRAIN, APPLY COMMON SENSE. That advice from my grandma has worked for me for 30 years of “life” and I never had to synergize with anyone to solve a problem. I throw up a little in my mouth everytime I hear, read and evidently type that word. Thanks for reminding me I’d not alone Ryan. I think you are right on point. -And another creepy oddity, “#$@% ELEMENTARY SCHOOL –A Leader In Me School” is like “BS Inc. -A Subsidiary of The Big Profits Company” ….. or whatever names you want to use. I shouldn’t be so shocked, Every other part of the government has been turned from its original intended function into its own business. Capitolism …. That’s a comment for another article I suppose.

  4. I can’t stand Leader in Me. I seriously question whether or not a 1st grader knows what the hell they are talking about. But more importantly, do these 7 habits change over time? No? Why is it then that this program is foisted upon our PTA budget year after year for the tune of several thousand dollars?

  5. My children’s school district just approved a $1.8 million dollar 5 year contract. I’m desperate trying to get the program canceled before it even starts!!
    I’ve researched until I got a migraine from staring at the computer proving leader me is crap and something our district does not need. We are about a month and a half away from its start date…I don’t know what else to do. I can’t seem to get more parents or teachers to support my efforts. Help!!

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