18 October 2012

Dea Cox and the "people strategy"

Back in September, I wrote about a book that affected me powerfully, Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People. Whether or not the author intended it, this book seems to me to be one of the most evangelistic I've seen in a long time.

Today I wanted to mention another book that also has a sort of evangelistic quality—again, probably not by authors' intention: The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence: Lessons from a Transformational Leader

The two books are very different: Sarah Ruden wrote about early Christian history, while Relentless Pursuit authors Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey wrote about an Oregon educator who is still alive and active. They wrote a secular book for a secular audience, but they are clear that this educator, Dea Cox, and the philosophy behind his successful leadership in the school district they describe, are grounded in Quaker faith.

Right from the start, the authors make it clear that Dea Cox didn't pursue a model that is sometimes fashionable today in the high-stakes world of school superintendents—namely the charismatic authoritarian. Nor did he begin his 14-year tenure in the West Linn-Wilsonville school district with a sure-fire set of formulas or educational doctrines that could be replicated by someone else with the right instruction book or guru close at hand. Instead, he pursued and implemented a "people strategy" that became part of the culture of that school district to this day.

Dea summed up his strategy this way: "The secret of being a successful school administrator is to spend your energy and resources attracting and retaining good staff." It's a deceptively simple statement with deep implications, and the book spends most of its pages describing the implementation of this "secret" in recruiting and interviewing new educators, decisions about tenure, budgeting, superintendent-staff relations, relations with students and parents, drawing school boundaries, adopting new technologies, and other areas of educational administration--all of which are loaded with opportunities for conflict and fragmentation. In all of these areas, the three core values of the people strategy are immediately relevant:
  1. No person has a monopoly on wisdom.
  2. We all have things to learn.
  3. Wiser decisions are made when we consider multiple perspectives.
Each chapter of the book is a case study, or set of cases, showing in practical terms how these values are applied. I particularly loved the description of how Dea and his colleagues handled the process of deciding what computer system to use for the district.

Other values important to Quakers are also recurring themes in this book, particularly truth and trustworthiness. The authors show how being truthful, instead of giving in to the constant organizational temptation to "feign certainty," had at least two very practical benefits: credibility with parents, and resistance to complacency within the organization.

Dea and Lois Cox have been a blessing to our meeting, Reedwood Friends Church, and to us personally. Over the years, we've heard Dea describe the values (and some of the wonderfully illustrative incidents) recorded in The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence. Thanks to Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey, these rich insights have been thoughtfully organized and made accessible in this short, fascinating book.

"This is Dea Cox" (1921-2023)

According to their Facebook page, there are living spaces available at Beacon Hill Friends House, Boston.

"How to pray for justice."

Nursery of Truth: "We think the future of Friends depends on whether we can explain and translate the core of Quakerism to a new century and to those outside our standard constituencies. We won’t be able to do this if we can’t talk to each other, or talk about faith at all." Background story.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, here's an interactive online documentary. (Thanks to Open Culture.) And on the Friends Committee on National Legislation site, this post by Rachel Kent.

Sherman Robertson "Out of Sight Out Of Mind" at KUHT 2-11-03 from Douglas Robertson on Vimeo.

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