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Data: The Fallacy of Expertise

A critical component for understanding, managing, and leading schools in the modern era is data. Case in point: we offer data analytics as part of the Westlake subscription. However, our philosophy on data, insofar as managing and leading schools is concerned, might be surprising to some, given the unimaginable quantity of data available to leaders today.

In short, we subscribe to Albert Einstein’s assertion that “Imagination is more important than information.” What do we mean by that?

The availability of data continues at an unabated pace; it mushrooms daily into something larger than it was on the previous day. School leaders will never truly ‘catch up’ with all the data points that are available; such is the nature of the growth of data–it is a data deluge that shows no signs of slowing.

One unfortunate development we have noticed is that, by virtue of a leader having a large amount of data at their disposal (“we have systems for this, that, and the other”), they are often heralded as an expert, someone deeply wise. You’ll see them take the stage (or screen) as an ‘expert speaker,’ ‘expert panelist,’ and so forth. Let us be clear: just because that leader has an over-abundance of data at their fingertips does not make them wise, nor does it make them expert in something. What they do with what they have–how they interpret it and form strategy based on it–is of greater interest and meaning. Yet that is often (if not always) ignored.

Edwin Friedman (A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix) astutely observed that the data deluge “can only be harnessed to the extent that leaders can recognise that not all information is worth gathering, and also to the extent that they can develop criteria for discerning what information is important to leadership. It has been calculated that human beings exchange one hundred thousand bits of information every minute; but how much of that information is significant?” (96, italics ours).

We share Friedman’s concern that, in the face of the fire hose of data within the context of a perpetually anxious society obsessed with quick fixes, leaders will struggle to remain above the fray. Instead, that perpetually anxious society tends to render the leader more anxious about keeping up with all the data, paying attention the newest data point, and feeling less than leader-ly if they are unable to do so. Too frequently, their employment is terminated because the perpetually anxious governing board believes that the leader is not doing their job by keeping up with it all…nay, believes that the leader is not controlling it all perfectly. Understand that this isn’t just about digital data; it’s about data points from interpersonal relationships, as well as cognitively-biased data points, and much more.

What is required in managing and leading today’s schools, then, is a realisation that we need to allow and empower leaders to utilise the information they have available to them, sort it in ways that give sense and meaning in their immediate context, and evaluate it alongside other variables (politics, emotions, etc.). In other words, we must allow and empower leaders to be deeply human — to be data-informed, and not data-driven. And definitely not data-led. After all, what if the data are wrong, or have been crudely misinterpreted?

As we consider ‘leadership development,’ which is as much about developing the next generation of leaders as it is continuing to develop the current generation of leaders, our responsibility is to focus on building the capacity of leaders to distinguish what information is truly important, and to separate it from that which is unimportant (aka distracting). Such attention to leadership development is healthy, and will contribute to healthy school cultures. Emotional process, or the application of ‘being human’ to some great data-set, is what is lacking.

It is a fallacy, therefore, to believe that leaders will be made or un-made by means of data, rather than by means of the nature of their own being. Imagination, which is not produced by datasets or artificial intelligence, is more important than simply having (too much) information.

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