Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freedom Writing

In 1999 a group of students at Wilson High School began writing journal entries at the insistence of their teacher, Erin Gruwell. These students later became known as The Freedom Writers and were immortalized in both the book and movie versions of The Freedom Writers Diary. Gruwell, a first year teacher from Newport Beach, California, had no previous experience dealing with the experiences many of her students in the Long Beach school would face on a daily basis. Many had to travel two to three hours on disorganized Los Angeles public transportation just to reach the school each day while Gruwell had led a life of privilege and ease.

When a cartoon was passed around the classroom mocking one of the students Gruwell exclaimed, “This is the kind of propaganda that the Nazis used during the Holocaust!” prompting one brave student to ask, “What is the holocaust?” Shocked, she questioned how many in the class knew what it was—no one raised their hand. She pressed further, “How many of you have been shot at?” Almost every hand in the room went up. She saw, then, that she must alter her strategy for working with these students, her methods were very obviously adapted to fit more clearly with the experiences and social backgrounds her students, her followers, were bringing to the classroom (Heifitz, Selznick).

They read several memoirs typical for high school students including Zlata’s Diary and the Diary of Anne Frank. They were fairly accessible for the students and Gruwell saw in them a way she could get through to her students. Writing regular diary entries about their lives and classroom forced the students to begin to know themselves and gave them a major role in deciding which direction their coursework went in. These are principle traits of servant leadership in which the leader, the teacher, worked toward raising their followers sense of self and devoting themselves to ensuring their emotional needs are met (Smith).

It is also an undeniable example of creative leadership. She was facing a challenge herself and turned it back onto her students, challenging them to take the skills and experiences they had and use them in an educational context (Amabile). She brought out all of the differences and similarities in her students by helping them get to know each other by sharing their entries, creating an environment where they were free to learn from one another and expand on each others previous experiences in a type of creative work-group (Amabile).

Gruwell had to determine some way to understand her students—she needed to empathize with them and using the diaries to learn about them was a great way to do so while still being entertaining. It also inspired and excited the students, as it was something they could truly understand and excel at (Choi). With the diaries the students grew to feel a sense of collective purpose and support for one another (Burns).

This type of creative leadership was undeniably effective and beneficial in Gruwell and numerous other teachers’ classrooms as it helped students to achieve things and take a pride in themselves they likely would have never experienced on their own. But, does such leadership cause us to ignore the smaller details? Sure, many of the students went on to do amazing things, including receive degrees from Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, but others did not do so well with this method of teaching. There were other valuable skills that were surely overlooked in the focus on writing.

The extent to which students exerted themselves in the English course undoubtedly led to less of a focus being paid on subjects such as the maths and sciences. This could be seen at an organizational level as well as a leader may go out of his way to assign creative and challenging tasks but forget to ensure that necessary paperwork gets filed or new supplies are ordered. Is there a time and place for creative leadership? Do those working in a creative environment just have to be more disciplined than the rest of us? Pouring their energies into revolutionary projects while still remembering to place an order for more post-it notes or work within a strict budget?

You Follow the Leader, Not the Power

While watching Gossip Girl on DVR last night, a particular scene reminded me of the concept of leadership and followers as well as the idea of leadership related to power and authority. Jenny Humphrey is a character that used to be an outcast in her school, but eventually turned things around through her perseverance and networking to end up as the “Queen Bee” of her preparatory school. Originally her character was sweet and innocent. She even came into the role of Queen Bee trying to change its position to be of the people and not over the people, but she quickly realized she either needed to lead and take power or someone else would.

In this episode in particular, Jenny was put in a position that was a power struggle. There is an area on a staircase that she and her “minions” claim as theirs and no one is supposed to sit above her on the steps. A former friend challenged her because he believed that she had changed into a person he could no longer follow. She originally asked him nicely to move down, but when he refused her minions poured the yogurt they purchased for Jenny on his head. When Jenny later apologized in a nonpublic setting and tried to explain how she had to appear powerful to continue respect she instead lost his respect.

This situation made me think of several theories including the idea of values and morals in leadership as well as followership and also theories in regards to authority and power. First, several theorists, believe that values are part of leadership. Heifitz (1994) mentions that “leadership has come to mean providing vision and influencing others to realize it through non-coercive means” (p. 15). Jenny and her followers did use coercive means to influence others behavior. While Jenny is at the “front of the flock of geese” as Heifitz describes as a way biology describes leadership, is she actually leading or influencing? Or is she actually the one being influenced by her “followers”?

According to Burns (1978), “the actual extent of the exercise of power is measured by the extent that intended results are realized” (p. 433). Jenny did eventually get the results of having the people move from the stairs, but was that her intention or her followers? While she has the title, which creates position power, the intentions and manner things are being handled show that she may not be the leader after all. She is not influencing others, but instead being influenced. She is not following her vision, but instead doing things to remain in power. She is following her followers, so her followers are actually more leaders than she is.

I believe this shows Jenny is not truly a leader in this situation. I found this episode to show that power and leadership do not necessarily go hand and hand, but influence and vision may be more indicators of strength in leadership.