Dear Mr. President: Just Go With the Flow

A day after Landon Donovan's dramatic game-winner in the World Cup, I find myself thinking about the unpredictable beauty of soccer -- and the work I do in public education -- in a different way.

The goal came, for me, on the heels of a remarkable two days in Las Vegas, during which I attended the Worldblu 2010 Conference of the world's most democratic companies, and visited the offices of one of those companies, the rapidly growing online retailer, Zappos.

At the conference, Worldblu CEO Traci Fenton welcomed everyone by summoning us to join forces in bringing about a revolution in the workplace. "The command-and-control model of leadership is a relic of the past," she said. "It lacks accountability, integrity, and transparency. The universal modern cause is to create environments based on freedom, not fear." Fenton was followed to the stage by a chorus of business leaders, each of whom shared their particular strategy for facilitating an environment that awakens the greatness of people. As Blake Jones, CEO of Namaste Solar, put it, "We have structure, but no hierarchy. And that has made all the difference."

The next day, a small group of us toured the headquarters of Zappos, a company that just surpassed $1 billion in sales (in case you were wondering if operating democratically was relevant to the bottom line), and a place where CEO Tony Hsieh -- whose new book is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list -- says organizational culture is his company's top priority.

Hsieh's logic is that if people are happy where they work, they'll be more motivated to do well in work and in life. And Hsieh doesn't leave the notion of "happiness" loosely defined -- he bases it on research that breaks happiness down to four qualities: perceived control, perceived progress, a sense of connectedness, and a sense of meaning and purpose. "At Zappos, we don't believe great performance can be purchased," said our tour guide. "We want people who are passionate about the work -- not the payoff."

So what does any of this have to do with the World Cup, and with our public schools?

If you've been watching the action in South Africa, you see why soccer is known around the world as the "beautiful game." It's a game of improvisation, and real-time adjustments, and unquantifiable synchronization between individuals. Broadcasters reflect this in the language they use to describe the players, using such elusive terms as "pace," "rhythm," and "flow."

These are unfamiliar words to the average American sports fan, but they're the proper words for a World Cup match because the action unfolding is both planned and unplanned -- it is the result of years of skill development, discipline, and preparation -- and the precise way it unfolds in the flow of the game cannot be linearly predicted, planned, and directed.

Tony Hsieh gets this. He realizes the worst thing you can do, in an organizational context, is constrain people by micromanaging their activities. In the same way a soccer manager would look ridiculous by attempting to control the game from the sidelines -- his work is largely done by the time the game starts, and the rest is up to the players -- a business CEO must know what shared structures, and what individual freedoms, are essential.

At Zappos, this structure comes from the company's core values -- all 10 of which guide and inform every aspect of the company, from hiring to evaluations to interactions with customers. Because of this clarity, employees are largely free to determine how their day unfolds -- and the company's call-center employees don't operate off scripts; they are trusted to represent the Zappos way in a fashion that also incorporates their own unique voice and method of self-expression.

Why is such simple, powerful wisdom so absent from our current conversations about public education? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that the learning process is, like a soccer match, more dependent on simple structures, improvisation, and freedom than it is on complex structures, standardization, and fear? And why do we think the best way to improve school cultures is by incentivizing behavior with financial rewards, when scores of leading voices in the business world know that such a strategy is fool's gold?

I don't know if President Obama is watching the World Cup. But if he is I wish he would heed some simple advice: when it comes to improving our schools, abandon the command-and-control mentality of the past, invest in freedom, not fear - and just go with the flow.