Patient change by incrementalism

  • Published
  • By Col. Brent S. McClenny
  • 374th Dental Squadron commander
My father, Lloyd McClenny, was the superintendent of schools in a rural county of Alabama during the time of racial desegregation of public schools. The leadership lessons I learned from my father as a result of that experience were "diversity is strength" and "do the right thing, regardless of the consequences."

During that time, my father's focus was on the "strategic transformation" of education in a resource constrained county. He found that leadership is sometimes most effective when it appears you are not leading at all, taking advantage of patient change by incrementalism.

The final phase of the racial desegregation of Coosa County schools occurred in 1972. Education funding gains that resulted from the decreased overhead of combining segregated schools were still inadequate to allow for science labs, foreign language, advanced math and upgraded vocational science curriculums in the three high schools that remained in the county.

Additionally, these schools were so small (my 1976 graduating class had 37 students) that individually they didn't have enough students to support advanced training. My father's long-term strategic solution was to create a centrally-located "mega" school from the three high schools that were less than 20 minutes apart. However, closing the schools to create one large school was unthinkable to the community.

My father knew the best solution was to introduce change gradually, and allow the students to arrive at the idea themselves and convince the parents. The voting parents would then convince the locally elected school board representatives.

To introduce the change, my father mapped out his plan in three main phases.

Phase 1: Identify a need and provide a solution consistent with a desired end. In 1980, he proposed an advanced training program of business office and secretarial skills, vocational trades and home economics to all three high schools at a central location - a sure-fire popular curriculum for the working class population to embrace. By 1982 a building was identified and prepped, and students were bussed in five and half days a week.

Phase 2: Wait patiently and provide positive feedback to others as they direct themselves toward the desire end. Over time, the students enjoyed the new friendships and advanced training. Soon, a "novel idea" was hatched by the students and voting parents. They suggested that more topics should be added in the form of a centrally located high school. In 1985, the idea was raised to the school board members and my father. With deep satisfaction and silent humility, my father told the parents that he and the school board would support the idea, which was secretly his next phase.

Phase 3: Seize upon the momentum of the people. The final campus of Central High School opened in 1988. It enjoyed large high school status and funding with advanced curricula and a university acceptance rate for graduating seniors that jumped from 30 percent in 1980 to almost 60 percent by 1995. Additionally, a sports program developed that is well known in state athletics. At the official opening of the school, the state superintendent of schools said that "never has a public school superintendent done so much with so little in such a short period of time." The state superintendent also marveled in silence as he was privy to my father's strategic planning from the start.

What does this story mean to us in the Air Force? Granted, the world is changing ever faster and leaders at all levels must often act quickly and decisively in numerous areas. However, we all might learn or re-learn a lesson in strategic thinking regarding the principles of patient incrementalism and the long-term importance of winning the hearts and minds of our people, starting at the unit level.

Sometimes the most effective leadership is silent. Create conditions where people can arrive at your desired end state by their own momentum. It involves risk that the conclusions may not fully resemble the leader's initial plans, but with the ingenuity and creativity of our people, the end state may exceed our expectations and strategy. Such was the case in Coosa County when my father led while appearing not to lead at all.