In his new book The Little BIG Things Tom Peters reiterates the importance of Managing By Wandering Around, a concept he first espoused in In Search of Excellence in 1982. In my life in schools one of the top practioners of MBWA was Gordon Clem. Gordon was the head of a small boarding school. Students were always amazed at Gordon’s ability to turn up at the most inopportune moments. His looming presence was in large part fact, in larger part myth. The facts were his attention to detail, his accessibility at all hours, his willingness to listen, his civility, and his insistence on doing things well. Most of all, he cared about the lives of the people he worked with and taught. The myth was fed by fact and hard work.
Unfortunately, Gordon Clem has been the exception in my experience. I think of other schools I’ve worked in, where administrators confine themselves to their office, are available only by appointment, look pained when one appears at their office door uninvited, and never venture out of their office to see what things are like in the school they are “managing.” I am taken aback by people who purport to lead schools, where the relationships among people ought to be paramount, who retreat into offices, avoid interpersonal contact and rely on memos, committees, meetings and pronouncements to get the job done. The people who should be the most open to the school community and what is going on there become the most shut off. And magically claim to know more about the place they run than anyone else. Can we get Tom Peters to teach a course in secondary school administration? It would probably be short. “Try MBWA. NOW!” Too bad Gordon Clem is retired. Prospective administrators could follow him around for a day. It would be a long day, but a rewarding one, assuming they had the stamina.