Lead Like an Education Punk Rocker

Author: Michael Niehoff

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This post originally appeared on Changing Is Learning on January 28, 2016.

(Inspired by and dedicated to #LeadWild, David Theriault, David Culberhouse, Jon Corippo, Dr. Brad Gustafson, Tom Whitford, Ken Durham, The Ramones, Bad Religion, The Clash, X and many others.)

“PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.” - Greg Graffin, Bad Religion

“The thread of culture that runs through the entire history of punk is also a dedication to challenging the authoritarian.” - Greg Graffin, Bad Religion

You can’t peruse social media, even for a minute, without coming across another book, blog post or quote about LEADERSHIP. But, here I go anyway. Leadership, and leadership theory, are applicable to all industries, endeavors and human interactions. And no doubt that leadership, and our leaders, are going through major transformations as our entire global society questions traditional approaches and yearns for more meaningful and empowering ones.

With that in mind, here is my take on where leaders could turn for both inspiration and pedagogy: PUNK ROCK.

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That’s right…..PUNK ROCK. Everything that punk rock stood for/stands for, embodies and personifies, could easily translate into an operational bible for today’s leaders. I care about educational leaders most, but this idea is really applicable for any and all leaders.

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Questioning Everything: Authority, The Status Quo and Tradition

Punk rock was a lot more than music. It was a social movement focused on change, disruption and consciousness. It tapped into the frustration of youth and gave it a place to live and thrive. But it was not just angry for angry sake. It was about questioning the establishment. Punk was there when young people began to see and realize the corruption, the hypocrisy and the deceit associated with those in power and position. Punk new that the truth and the pursuit of justice were noble causes that could only be realized when the the status quo was questioned and those attached to it were pushed.

Whether it’s business, education, social change or any other human endeavor….true innovation and growth only occur when systems of status quo and authority are disrupted and often replaced.  New technologies create new industries. New philosophies create new movements. Power shifts, disruption occurs and the foundations of the status quo are shaken.

Ironically, educators constantly say they crave more critical thinkers. However, the challenge will be what to do with them once they are enlightened. Once truly educated and able to think/see critically, the faults and injustices of our system(s) will be exposed. Punk rock exposes. Leadership exposes. Leaders who do not question the establishment, status quo or traditions will never innovate and transform anything.

Today’s systems - educational, political, social, economic - are less and less relevant and effective for everyone, but especially our young people. That’s why so many are not following the traditional avenues of success in business and education, but rather carving their own, new and unchartered path. That is PUNK ROCK and that is what all of our systems are demanding.

Social Commentary/Substance vs. Surface/Show

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(Lyrics from “London Calling” by the Clash)

I think much of what we know as education is like 80’s hair metal. We know it’s crappy, but we acknowledge its dominance. Let me try even harder. In musical terms, think about what is generally popular, radio friendly and danceable (as middle school girls say). We all recognize that what’s popular is not usually the best. Naturally, there are exceptions in that some legends and superstars also offered substance. But most of our pop music heroes are not trying to change the world. But true educational leaders and reformers are trying to change the world. Therefore, they naturally need to look beyond.

Punk rock at its core was trying to change the world. Maybe the music was simple, but the message was intense. Punk was not immune to trends and style, but the true punk pioneers realized what was important was not what they played, but rather what they said, what they stood for and ultimately what action they got others to take. Our leaders really need to embrace this and do the same thing. Whether it’s education or politics or other, so many of our leaders and their programs lack real substance. We put on shows, but have no intention of doing the actual work for real change. All of our leaders could learn from the honesty and sincerity that was real punk rock. Forget the flash and go for substantive change.

Stripped Down: Be Hard Core About the Core

What made Punk Rock special was its minimalism. Some hated it for it’s three chord progression approach and repetition. But instead of fancy chord changes, orchestral instruments or overblown production, punk rock embraced the basics. It was guitar, bass, drums and vocals. And the emphasis was on straightforward, primal music with a bigger emphasis on what they were saying vs. the next big guitar solo. Education can learn a lot from this. How many of us would agree that schools are often trying to do too many things? Honestly, could most schools boil their core mission down to one or two things? We often try, but they come off as generic and meaningless. Meanwhile, our programs, websites and days are filled with hundreds of initiatives, reforms and goals. What if we paired down the number of things, but did those better? You have to admire many charter schools who don’t try to do it all. They hone their core programs down and make them kick ass. That’s punk rock. Meanwhile, the rest of our schools trudge through with too many keyboards, synthesizers, overdubs and production tricks. And it all gets lost in the process.

It’s Participatory - The Audience Should Be Involved

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One of the many punk foundations was that the audience was not listening or watching passively. And more than just singing or bopping along, they were moved. Whether it was to violence, social action or intense physical release, punk was as much about who was in the audience vs. who was on stage.

For schools, what if we embraced the voices of the audience (the students) vs. the voices of those performing the show (teachers, administrators, policy makers, board members, etc.)? I think most of us would agree that this is what politics, politicians and our governmental systems have completely forgotten at times in so many ways. Punk could teach all of us, especially leaders a few things.

Punk Rock - As Well As Real Learning/Leading - Is Disruptive

Learning, and leading, implies change, questioning and forging anew. Like punk rock, any real leadership or learning is disruptive in nature. Real leadership forces those around one another to question - to question everything from tradition to foundation. Just like punk rock, true leadership asks the question WHY. Why does something have to be that way and why can’t it be done this way? And just like punk rock, it makes people feel uncomfortable. Real substantive change will make us feel uncomfortable. We are attached to traditions, often for tradition sake, but also know that something better awaits if we take the risk. Punk rock was risky. Leadership - real leadership - is risky. Real leaders, at least ones that make significant, meaningful and transformational change, disrupt the status quo. They are not afraid and they inherently know that nothing will change unless disruption occurs. They embrace this process. Leadership and punk rock are therefore synonymous.

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Michael Niehoff is a Career Technical Education Manager at the College of the Sequoias and was the founding principal of Minarets High School. Follow Michael on Twitter @mwniehoff.

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