Culture of “Nice” vs Culture of “Honesty” #suptchat

“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is for you”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In terms of organizational culture, many (Drucker & others) are clear that culture “eats strategy for breakfast”. Meaning – focus on culture or you’ll have nothing on which to focus! Culture is not just important – it’s everything! I write about culture a lot, folks a lot smarter than I (Fullan, Marzano, and others) write and research a lot about culture too! So … if we know how important it is to create it, measure it, build it and sustain it (in education especially) … why are we so “nice” instead of “honest” in the context of leading and managing change?

So this year in the Deerfield Public Schools District 109, two more of our six schools earned the highest education award in our nation – the National Blue Ribbon Award. They join two other of our six schools who earned this distinction last year.

In two years four out of our six schools earned the highest honors. Leadership, Culture, Focus, Excellence, and Joy define the experiences for children and adults at these schools. What are the leaders doing with respect to culture at these schools that it making the difference?

Are these leaders confronting brutal questions? Are these leaders acknowledging when good is good and when good is not enough? Are these leaders honestly and respectfully addressing that which needs to be addressed even when it ruffles feathers? “You bet they are!”

In education many of us have been faced with “niceness” and an aversion to “critical review” for whatever reason – we don’t know why – “that’s the way we have always done it” (TWADDI). In conversations, training workshops, conversations, discussions etc. with school leaders, I have discovered many report that the toughest part of supervision/evaluation/coaching is giving honest, direct feedback. 

Often the “culture of nice” supersedes the “culture of honest”. With this post I’m hoping to highlight how the culture of honest impacts the organization in measureable and powerful ways. The culture of honest is pervasive in the Deerfield Public Schools!

If you’re reading this blog and you are wondering why your particular organization is not changing or is not making progress – perhaps you should check your culture and communication.

Is everything in our district’s culture perfect? – NO – of course not; but we as a matter of leadership assess, measure, and lead with respect to culture and dimensions of culture every year. Our school principals are held accountable for their school’s culture. We expect increases in dimensions especially when action plans are centered around growth, acknowledgement and honesty. This year 93.81% of all employees report that they are highly engaged and highly satisfied with their work in our district!

2017 Organizational Culture Results – DPS109














In In 2013 the average “dream box” (top right) score was 61.90% from a database of more than 10,000 education employees in the USA. Our district’s “dream box” score in 2013 was 85.75%. See below for a look at the past five years’ worth of dream box organizational culture for the Deerfield Public Schools:



In our district we are far from perfect – highly successful but never satisfied!

We are on a journey toward excellence with a focus on continuous improvement. Over the past two years we have had a failure in the execution of middle school standards based learning. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the reasons was the “culture of nice” superseding the culture of honesty; and our deliberate decisions to “compromise” in the spirit of cooperation (compromise with the best of intentions – but it was really appeasement).

Students of history remember what happened when Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolph Hitler … well – appeasement doesn’t work so well in leadership

honesty and courage work. Granted I’m oversimplifying a really complex and life and death time in history with the day to day leadership of a school system … you get the point.

Strong, direct, honest, dignified, respectful conversations and coaching are required – are imperative – are expected – are to become the norm when success is desired. With honest, direct, clear communication people know what the shared vision is – what the direction is and to what they’ll be held accountable. The three goals shown above reflect the current strategic goals in our district; clear, concise, coherent.

Five years ago the principals in our district began a process of becoming honest and clear culture leaders. They started to address student growth, teacher performance, stretch goals, limitless opportunities for ALL as well as innovative, future focused leadership. As a result, we have four of our six schools honored with the nation’s highest educational honor, we have administrators with regional honors, and we have shared the DPS109 story around the USA. Is it easy to lead in a culture of honesty? No – but I don’t go to work for an easy time … I go to work for a meaningful, impactful time!

I would love to hear your thoughts about culture – “nice vs honest” and leadership overall! If your leaders are too focused on management and not on leadership – excellence will be out of reach! Those who can manage and lead with courage, power, honesty, and in line with the shared vision – those leaders will be successful!

Sharing Part 2 of a 3 part series of Podcast Interviews #suptchat #unlearn

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”

― Alvin Toffler

Link to Perspectives in Education Website/Archives

S01 Episode 6 Part 2: Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Poylak: Superintendents, #suptchat hosts, and authors.

Episode 6 Part 2: Superintendents, #suptchat hosts, and authors.

Our guests for our 3 part mini series of episode 6 are Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Polyak.

Michael Lubelfeld, Ed.D. currently serves as the superintendent of schools in the Deerfield, IL Public Schools (District 109). He is the co-moderator of #suptchat – the superintendent educational chat on Twitter.

Nick Polyak, Ed.D. is the proud superintendent of the award-winning Leyden Community High School District 212. He is the co-moderator of #suptchat – the superintendent educational chat on Twitter.

Both are co-authors of a book called The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s School Today

In this episode we discuss:

  • The definition of an Unlearning Leader

  • Modeling – have to practice what you preach!

  • Ways to connect school to your community

  • College ready, career ready, and life ready

  • SUPT

    • Stop

    • Understand

    • Plan

    • Think

Please share and comment!  Would love to get feedback and suggestions.  If you are interested in sharing your story, please reach out to us!

Unlearning Leadership Planning – Article in IL ASCD Journal Summer 2017

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Alvin Toffler


In this blog post I’m sharing an article published in the Illinois Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ILASCD): The Unlearning Leader’s Guide to Strategic Planning, Summer 2017, Volume 63, Number 1, pp. 8-16

The Unlearning Leader – Book Coming out in March 2017 – #suptchat

“I always wanted to be honest with myself and to those who had faith in me.”
– Rafael Nadal 


Have you ever had to “unlearn” something? Do you think Yield Signs are still yellow (as you may have learned), or do you know that they are red?


What about the planets? Do you still remember the mnemonic device “My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Pluto)”? Or do you know that Pluto is no longer a planet (due to scientific discoveries between 1992-2000).

Have you ever had to unlearn a concept like leadership or professional learning? Well, Nick Polyak and I have a book coming out in March 2017 with the following title: The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today, with the following chapter titles:

Chapter 1: Unlearning Connection
Chapter 2: Unlearning Planning and the Change Process
Chapter 3: Unlearning “That’s the Way We Have Always Done it”
Chapter 4: Unlearning Fear of Social Media
Chapter 5: Unlearning Professional Development
Chapter 6: Unlearning Leadership

In our book (available for pre-order now and in print in March 2017) we bring the concept of Unlearning to our leadership and influence in education. As part of our writing and discovery, we were recently interviewed by leadership expert Doug Eadie. With permission, I’m reprinting Doug’s blogpost and sharing his podcast where we are interviewed about the upcoming book. As always comments are welcomed and encouraged!

Reprinted with permission from the Board Savvy Superintendent Blog

Board Savvy Superintendent

Superintendents Michael Lubelfeld and Nicholas Polyak Talk About “The Unlearning Leader”

November 30, 2016

In today’s always changing environment – technologically, culturally, demographically, etc. – an organization’s capacity to innovate and change is the key to long-term success – to thriving and sometimes even surviving. Not systematically innovating and changing are a sure-fire path to failure.  So leading innovation and change is one of the highest priority – and one of the most challenging – functions of nonprofit and public chief executives, including superintendents.  Wearing their “Innovator-in-Chief” hat, superintendents must not only put in place and lead board members and staff through well-designed process for generating innovation initiatives, they’ve also got to play the leading role in overcoming the inevitable and very understandable human resistance to changing in important ways.

In my work with nonprofit and public organizations over the years, I’ve found that people’s resistance to change – even of the most sensible and well-conceived innovation initiatives – can be quite ferocious, principally because of that old demon fear: fear of failing, of being embarrassed, of losing status or ego satisfaction.  And this fear can be an especially insidious enemy of change when a person isn’t consciously aware of it.  I recently witnessed a classic case of unconscious fear at work.  I was facilitating a superintendent’s cabinet work session at which we were batting around the idea of transforming school board members into major league ambassadors of the district, who would be “booked” to speak on behalf of the district in key forums in the community, such as the county commission.  An associate superintendent – a thirty-year veteran who handled the district public relations portfolio – began to raise a number of questions about a variety of things that might go wrong if board members were sent out as district ambassadors, such as a board member veering off topic during a presentation, or getting facts wrong, or expressing personal opinions at odds with other board members, or……..on and on and on.  After sitting through this monologue for fifteen minutes I realized that I was once again hearing from a self-proclaimed devil’s advocate who, although no doubt well-meaning, was engaged in what I call “killing change with a thousand sensible questions.”  I have absolutely no doubt that she was fearful of losing control and status, albeit unconsciously.

In light of the tremendous importance of systematic innovation in the K-12 sector, Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Polyak’s forthcoming book, The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today (due out from Roman and Littlefield in spring 2017) is a welcome addition to the K-12 leadership literature.  The unifying theme of their book is that in order for significant innovation to take place in a district, board members, executives, and staff must engage in unlearning traditional assumptions and practices in all functional areas, clearing the way for essential new learning to take place.  Looking over Mike and Nick’s manuscript, I was pleased to see that they pay close attention to a subject that this blog has addressed in recent articles:  the innovation planning process.  Observing that traditional five-year strategic planning is a largely ineffective district tool in these changing times, Mike and Nick go on to discuss how plans can be turned into action, the key role of mission and vision as drivers of change, and the human resource dimension of implementing planned change.


The podcast that Mike and Nick have recorded for www.boardsavvysuperintendent.comprovides a great introduction to a powerful new book that you’ll want to add to your leadership library.