Generative Thinking: The Most Important Work a Board Can Do

For several years, I have pushed every board I encounter to read the book, Governance as Leadership. It is not only an insightful read for best practices regarding governance, but it is particularly important because it also provides much needed historical context for how boards have become so complacent and ineffective over time. There are great questions and exercises included in the text which push boards to consider their purpose, effectiveness, and decision making processes. The author, Richard Chait, advocates for what he calls, “tri-modal governance.” The three modes of governance are called fiduciary, strategic, and generative.

The fiduciary mode is in view when the board exercises its legal responsibilities of oversight and stewardship. The second is the strategic mode, in which the board makes major decisions about resources, programs, and services. The third, and most important, is the “generative” mode, in which the board engages in deeper inquiry, exploring root causes, contemplating values, considering principled options, and weighing new ideas in the view of the school’s mission.

Chait argues that the fiduciary and strategic modes are largely what boards spend their time doing, but alone, are incomplete. They are necessary, but not sufficient because they leave out expressive aspects of the organization. The issues schools face need values and insights; questions need to be framed around the right, mission-focused principles. For this, a board needs to engage in the generative mode.

Chait says generative work needs to shape the fiduciary and strategic work of the board. Before boards “use various forms of managerial expertise to solve problems, organizations need to figure out which problems need solving. Before they figure out the best strategy for getting from the present to a preferred future, organizations need to figure out what that preferred future is.”

Here is one quick example: many boards contemplate the kind of financial aid system that would be most effective and appropriate for their school. However, instead of beginning with the fundamental philosophical question of why there is a financial aid program in the first place, what often happens is a committee is formed and a host of possible options are drawn up for consideration. Instead of asking how the mission of the school would be impacted by various means of financial aid options, the options are considered with no meaningful conversation about the most important question of all: why do we do financial aid at all and how will changes either help us advance the mission or obscure it?

Generative governance is most important because it focuses the board’s attention on the most important questions. In this sense, it provides the best use of the board’s talent, helps the Head think in a mission-focused way, and generates the need for decisions to be made. According to Chait, “Generative work conveys the gift of helping executives see things better, improving their perception and perspective so that they are in a better position to invent new goals, to discard old goals, to better see problems and to discard problems that really are not that important in the long run.” 

To focus on what matters most, ask yourself whether your board is engaged in ongoing, meaningful generative conversations.

Why Read the Classics?

Four Reasons Why We Should Read and Discuss the Classics:

1. Reading and discussing the classics make us better human beings.

Classical educators have always touted liberal learning as inherently humanizing. The ultimate purpose of education is to make us better people, to cultivate wisdom and virtue, not simply provide career preparation.  The ancients referred to classical education as liberal and humane, emphasizing virtuous participation in a free society. By living a wise and virtuous life, one is able to fulfill the purpose of his humanity (thus the term, humane).  As H.I. Marrou said, “Classical education aimed at developing men as men, not as cogs in a political machine or bees in a hive.”  Similarly, John Stuart Mill said, “Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians.” The goal of education is not utilitarian; it is humane.

The content, the means by which this humanizing occurs, is the liberal arts, rooted in the classics.  The classic texts “not only exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.”  They portray life as complex and multi-faceted, illustrating human glory and tragedy, beautifully depicting the drama of man’s most significant struggles.  The classics uproot our assumptions and display epic human struggles. They compel us to examine our own lives and contemplate what is good, true, and beautiful.  The impact on the reader is transformative.

In Werner Jaeger’s summary of Socrates’ teaching, he states, “Education is not the cultivation of certain branches of knowledge… The real essence of education is that it enables men to reach the true aim of their lives.”  The classics provide an education that indeed requires us to struggle with the true aim of our lives. By doing so, they make us better men. 

2. Reading the classics keeps us from acting as Cyclops. 

Immanuel Kant, the dense and controversial 18th century German philosopher, railed his students for being Cyclops.  “What constitutes them as Cyclops is not their strength,” as Fredeirich Paulsen points out, “but the fact that they only have one eye; they see things only from a single standpoint, that of their own specialty.”  The task of philosophy and learning, according to Kant, is to furnish us a second eye.  According to Kant, “The second eye is the self-knowledge of human reason, without which we can have no proper estimate of the extent of our knowledge.” While we may argue with Kant concerning the identity of the second eye, or what it should be, his point that education broadens one’s perspective is indisputable. 

The classics “lift the readers out of narrowness and provincialism into a wider vision of humanity.”  They help us see our lives, our vocations, and our culture through a broad lens.  Polymaths such as Plato, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Milton, and Jefferson were able to draw from a sea of ideas found in the ancients.  They studied math, science, history, economics, theology, philosophy, literature, and virtually everything else.  From their broadly informed perspectives, the great thinkers of the West were able to make incredible contributions to society and move from one subject to another with ease and enjoyment.  Their immersion in and facility with the classics provided a liberating, expansive, two-eyed vision that enriched their understanding and mitigated the narrow short-sightedness of specialization. 

3. Reading the classics compels us to ask the most important questions of life.

Hegel referred to a classic as “a question, an address to the responsive breast, a call to the mind and the spirit.” Think of the enduring questions that have emerged from the great texts of Western civilization: Is man free? Does God exist? What is the nature of the universe? How do we know truth? Does man have a soul? What type of government is best? 

The classics provide enduring questions of a transcendent quality.  That is, they ask questions that continue to be asked again and again, despite ages and sages.  The classics present questions that are profound, or even very simple, that exceed human comprehension, yet if not asked, detract from our humanity.  Enduring questions are ones that challenge the greatest minds and intrigue the simplest ones (i.e., children). They make life engaging and interesting.  Enduring questions lead to more questions and to thoughtful, soul-searching reflection about great ideas. The classics ask these questions like no other texts we encounter.

The classics compel us to ask who we are, why we are here, what is true, and what is good.  We are obliged to struggle with Hamlet’s gut-wrenching turmoil over whether to seek retribution and justice.  We are faced with Achilles’ dilemma, when he proclaims:

I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death.

Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,

My return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;

But if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,

The excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me

And my end in death will not come to me quickly. (Iliad)

These kinds of texts prompt weighty questions.  How do we respond to feelings of retribution?  What do we value as our legacy? For what are we willing to die? Thus, the classics ask us the most penetrating and humanizing questions in ways that capture our imaginations and emotions.  Andrew Kern, President of the CiRCE Institute, once asserted, “The quality of your life depends upon the quality of the questions you ask.” If he is right, we ought to read the classics.

4. Why Christians should read and discuss the classics.

Robert Lundin claimed, “The Christian student of culture would never wish to confuse the power of the classic with the authority of the Scriptures. The Bible is the Word of God while the greatest classics are only supreme embodiments of human insight.” Nevertheless, we would be wrong to dismiss them simply because they are not authoritative in the same way as Scripture. The most influential Christian thinkers in church history read and engaged the classics. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, and many others understood classical languages and literature, having been educated in the liberal arts tradition.

They recognized the value of conversing with the great ideas of the West even while “taking every thought captive for Christ.”  They grasped the controversies with which the church struggled and were able to both think carefully and speak persuasively about truth in their own age.  These men of God possessed the ability to think biblically, and in Pauline fashion, could plunder the pagans.  They could employ apologetic skill by thinking thoroughly and carefully about the opposing philosophies of their time. These scholars could empathize with their detractors and yet speak boldly from an informed understanding. While there have certainly been those, like Tertullian, who would condemn any association between Athens and Jerusalem, there are many more, such as Basil, who saw the value of young Christians stimulated to exercise their discernment through a wise engagement with pagan literature.

Ultimately, if classical education (reading the classics) is about who we are as human beings and not what we do for a living (our vocation); if it is about who we become and not what skill we can perform, we must have an ideal for what, or rather whom, we should be like. Jesus is the full expression of what it means to be human and thus is the ultimate aim of education. He is Truth and Wisdom incarnate. In Christ, the apostle Paul declares, are “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:8). He embodies truth and virtue. Therefore, we must seek to conform our lives to knowing Him and being like Him. In our pursuit toward becoming better human beings, we must keep the Incarnate Christ, the perfect human being, as our standard. Understanding this truth provides a rich and unique approach to the humanities by examining the enduring questions of man in light of God’s revelation through His Son.

Thanksgiving as Recognition

A few years ago, I read the following about gratitude from Thomas Merton:

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us–and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” 

Merton makes a compelling insight about gratitude. It is an emotion and an act that comes from seeing, remembering, and acknowledging what is already there. When we are able to see the good before us, it elicits a response. In fact, Merton says it always brings about a response. The most important aspect of gratitude then is re-cognizing, or knowing again – recalling, the good. Our encounters with our Lord and Scripture always call us to do just this – to see God’s provision, faithfulness, promises, and His grace. Yet, we are a people who forget! 

I once preached to a very small congregation from Psalm 50. It is seared in my memory forever! Every person in attendance was over 70. I had no idea who or how many people would be there or what kind of response I would receive. I was a young man and naive about what I was doing. I should have chosen something safe and simple…but I didn’t. The primary verse I was prepared to preach on was Psalm 50:22, which says, “Mark this, then, you who forget me, or I will tear you apart, and there will be none to deliver.” When I finished reading the text, I looked up and all but one or two of the congregants were in a deep sleep. What now, young preacher? It is funny now, but it was not funny then. 

Whether we are elderly or or not, we all have the proclivity to forget and miss what is right in front of us. We get petty and see problems rather than provision. David Brooks says we do this because “expectations structure our moods and emotions.” Instead of recognizing the good, we have come to expect things and circumstances to transpire in a favorable way. And if they don’t, we can quickly resort to grumbling. 

Anne Steele, in her beautiful hymn, Father of Mercies, In Thy Word, reminds us that God’s Spirit and Word is what allows us to see beyond the ephemeral and reset our expectations. She beautifully links seeing as the basis of savoring (thanksgiving and praise). 

1 Father of mercies, in Thy word,

What endless glory shines!

Forever be Thy name adored

For these celestial lines.

2 Here may the blind and hungry come

And light and food receive;

Here shall the lowliest guest have room

And taste and see and live.

3 Here, the fair tree of knowledge grows

And yields a free repast

Sublimer sweets than nature knows

Invite the longing taste.

4 Here the Redeemer’s welcome voice

Spreads heavenly peace around,

And life and everlasting joys

Attend the blissful sound.

5 Oh, may these heavenly pages be

My ever dear delight;

And still new beauties may I see

And still increasing light!

6 Divine Instructor, gracious Lord,

Be Thou forever near;

Teach me to love Thy sacred Word

And view my Savior here.

Christian people, of all people, are those who have experienced infinite, undeserved kindness. As we remember and recall God’s provision and grace, let’s remember to give thanks in all things. 

To close, I want to give a special thanks to God for my exceptional team at SCL. So much of the work we do is unseen and never gets acknowledged. Many long hours have been committed to serve the classical Christian school movement and provide support to our schools. This could never happen without the SCL leadership and staff!

I am also very grateful for the many schools and school leaders I have enjoyed the privilege of working with over the last decade or more. God is good and there is abundant evidence of His grace towards our schools, families, students, and leaders. 

Thank you!

Eric Cook

President

Exceptional Feedback

14 Tips for Mastering “Crucial Conversations”

Leaders should be exceptional at giving and receiving feedback. The problem is, leaders aren’t trained or coached in how to do it. It is one of those areas, though essential to the role, that is just assumed and expected. Here are 14 observations on feedback from my experience as a consultant and Head of School:

Resisting Feedback

  1. Feedback is too narrowly framed around fault finding. That is why it is generally thought of as negative, painful, and something to be endured in schools. Expanding the conversation around why we do it is critical. Why do we do it? To grow in wisdom. We receive feedback because we cannot grow in wisdom without listening to and learning from people who are wiser than we are. We give feedback to help others become wise. Start with why.
  2. Giving and receiving feedback must be normalized in your culture (at all levels). At my school, we called it “warm and cool feedback.” Give your people a why and then give them the tools and language to do it well.
  3. Americans are bad at feedback. Generally speaking, so are Christians. We fumble all over ourselves, qualifying everything and apologizing profusely; we over talk and fragilize people. We have to work on it in order to be effective. Prioritizing feedback should be critical to your aim as a learning community.

Understanding the Nature of Feedback

  1. Giving and receiving feedback is tied to a host of other skills and dispositions we are not trained in (such as really careful, thoughtful listening). People bring suitcases full of assumptions and experiences into conflict and conversations about their character and performance. Let’s be patient and empathetic. The results you have in mind may take much longer than you think. However, that does not mean you have to tolerate poor performance. Sometimes we think we are being gracious when we really are being indecisive or fearful about what needs to be done.
  2. As it turns out, teachers engage in feedback every single day in their work with students. So, investing time to get it right will not be time wasted. In fact, being on the receiving side of feedback is very instructive and formative when it comes to giving it.
  3. Feedback is much more about relational wisdom than it is skill. Can the person hear what you are saying? Do they feel cared for, understood, and part of the process? Are you listening and adapting as you discern what is happening in the conversation?
  4. As mentioned above, we talk too much when it’s time to give feedback. We take too long to say what needs to be said. That makes it confusing for someone to walk away with clarity – the one thing they need to actually improve. In delivering feedback, you talk too much because you’re uncomfortable, not because you are profound. Pay attention to what is happening in your body when you are in these situations so you are not overly influenced by emotions. Learn to manage what is going on so you can focus on the right things, not just making yourself or the other person feel less awkward.
  5. You may be one of those tell-it-like-it-is people who congratulate themselves for saying what no one else will. These folks are equally uncomfortable with conflict, they just displace the discomfort with vibrato instead of sheepishness. People in this category come across as obnoxious and emotionally tone deaf to others. Such a leader is the last person anyone wants to confront, only reinforcing their false beliefs.
  6. What you believe about people in general (and the person you are giving feedback to specifically), has a profound influence on how truly invested you are in their growth. For example, Maxwell says, “believing the best in people usually brings the best out of people.” But, some of us have a hard time “believing the best in people.” We only see the things we are concerned about and then we look for those things to show up.

Listen, Listen, Listen

  1. More on listening – one man said, “Being heard is so close to being loved, that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Listening will give you almost everything you need to provide meaningful feedback and to help the person invest in their own growth. “Caring for people must precede confronting people.” (Maxwell).
  2. Likely, the thing keeping you from being proficient at feedback has nothing to do with feedback itself. If you’ve been in a situation where feedback has gone wrong, which is all of us, you are probably overcorrecting. Just look at your own parenting. There are many character-related issues embedded in feedback. Knowing yourself well will keep you and others from blind spots.

Becoming a Student of Feedback

  1. Ask yourself hard questions: Do I avoid feedback? How do I deflect it? Do I know why? When are the times it has gone well? Why? Be a student of feedback.
  2. Like everything else, you need a feedback loop about your feedback skills. After you do it, ask for honest input. Model how you want the person to receive feedback as you listen.
  3. Is feedback helpful if 80% of it is inaccurate? Can you grow from the 20%? Or, if 80% is delivered with a bad tone? Yes, if you have the maturity and humility to receive it.

Most of the areas in which you want to see growth are anchored in one’s character, not merely competence. Seek wisdom to become exceptional at feedback.

The Talent Landscape

Chris Hornsby

Coaching Call Info

December 9, 2022, 11:00 am EST

Finding the right leader can transform a school. Yet, finding the right leader is not easy at all. The number of qualified Heads and other executive level administrators is shockingly low. What happens when, not if, your school comes in need of top leadership at your school? Even though leadership changes and transitions are inevitable, many schools are unprepared to lose any of their key administrators. Eric Cook, SCL President, will be joined by Mr. Chris Hornsby, partner with Carter Baldwin Executive Search, to discuss how schools can position themselves to attract and retain the very best talent. Eric and Chris will also discuss the need for leadership development and succession. 


About our Speaker

Chris Hornsby, Carter Baldwin Executive Search

Chris leads Carter Baldwin’s faith-based K-12 education practice, where he conducts Superintendent, Head of School, and President searches for independent Christian schools, both traditional and Classical, educational ministries of churches, and university-model Christian schools. He has developed a broad network of professionals and gained a deep understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities their organizations face. With this industry insight, Chris is able to ask the right questions, identify the right candidates, and provide the right counsel to clients through all phases of a leadership transition.

Not So Fast

Prudence and patience are inseparable. This is not good news for people like me, but it is true. Here are a few reasons why these virtues are inextricably linked:

  • Prudence is doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. Timing and telos matter. It takes a remarkable amount of restraint and self-control to let a weighty decision come to you as a leader without scurrying rushedly towards an outcome. And yet, that is the one thing we want to do!
  • Josef Pieper says that “prudence includes above all, the ability to be still in order to attain objective perception of reality.” Practicing thoughtful deliberation and giving due consideration to the issue at hand – being still – requires patience.
  • Virtually every vice Solomon contrasts to prudence in Proverbs is linked to impatience: impulsivity, hastiness, vengeance, etc. We are far more inclined to act foolishly when we are operating on a false deadline and an amplified emotion.
  • Prudence and patience, biblically, are both acquired by a careful consideration of creation (Psalm 1). This may seem odd, but as William Dyrness points out, we “are born into a world and a narrative” that we “did not begin and we will not complete.” Adjusting our lives to this reality is “a condition of maturity.”
  • All of these points mean that our perception – what we see when we face complex decisions and situations – is a function of our heart and character. We must constantly be reorienting ourselves to the truth of things and make our decisions accordingly. I think this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” 

Hope and prayer will recalibrate our perspective and give us patience. Good decisions will follow.

The Prudent Leader

This past weekend at the SCL Arete Retreat, our time together focused on prudent leadership. As leaders, being skilled and knowledgeable will only get you so far. The heart of leadership is being able to exercise thoughtful judgment in ambiguous, complex situations. However, the temptation for leaders is to minimize complexity by taking shortcuts, imposing rules or policies, or approaching issues in a reductionistic way. We would often rather hack our way to a solution rather than do the work that prudence requires.

The art of practical wisdom (prudence or phronesis), is doing the right thing in the right way for the right reason. A phronetic approach to leading and living gives full weight to the ethical tensions, past experiences, emotions, intuition, context, and relational dynamics at play in any given scenario. Prudent leaders do not apply overly rationalistic analyses to problems that are not conducive to formulaic solutions. 

The best leaders have what Kahneman calls a “heuristic gift” – the ability to first intuitively assess a situation and immediately discern the most salient issues involved. They can then imaginatively deliberate and find a path that is wise and prudent. In fact, some researchers argue the ability to synthesize Level 1 (intuitive, “fast”) with Level 2 (deliberative, “slow”) thinking is what comprises the essence of emotional intelligence.

Aristotle said, “Virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” Prudent leaders are more like jazz musicians and less like brick layers. They know what they are aiming for, have the requisite skills to play the technical elements they encounter, but more importantly, they possess the sensibilities to adapt to a dynamic environment. This is prudent leadership.

Musing on G.K. Chesterton

In his famous article, All Things Considered, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Chesterton’s life was an adventure, rightly considered. He did not see life as an accident or an inconvenience, but an immeasurable gift. Because he lived his life with a profound gratitude, Chesterton knew how to laugh and engage the world with a humility and grace.

Ian Ker wrote, “The unfailing humor that was so significant an aspect of Chesterton’s personal life has its parallels in the enormous importance he attached in his writings to humor as a medium for comprehending and interpreting life… One can, without exaggeration, find in Chesterton a mini-philosophy, not to say a mini-theology, of laughter.” If you have read him at all, you know that his humor is a natural and winsome part of his personality. Our world is in desperate need of those who can imitate his example. We need to be able to take ideas seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

A few insights and quips…
Chesterton said, “An art school is a place where about three people work with feverish energy and everybody else idles to a degree that I should have conceived unattainable by human nature.”

In regards to his size (6’4, 320 lbs.)
“I suppose I enjoy myself more than most other people, because there’s such a lot of me having a good time.”

Once, when walking down the street during WWI, Chesterton was confronted by a patriot who inquired as to why he was not out at the front. He wittily replied, “ma’m, if you will come around this way, you will see that I am.”

Question at a lecture:
“What are your thoughts on hell?” He quipped, “I regard it as a thing to be avoided.”

Other funny quotes:
“The modern world is a crowd of very rapid-racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.”

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

“A woman uses her intelligence to find reasons to support her intuition.”

“Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know.”

Liberal Arts – What Does the Term Mean?

Coaching Call Info

Join SCL President, Eric Cook, as he discusses creating a workable definition of the liberal arts with Christopher Schlect, Ph.D., a long-time expert in classical education.

The term liberal arts is widely used but seldom defined. What are its distinctions? Join us as we discuss:

  • What is an art?
  • How are arts different from sciences?
  • How are liberal arts different from other arts?
  • How are liberal arts different from humanities?

About our Speaker

Christopher Schlect, New Saint Andrews College

Christopher Schlect, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of History at New Saint Andrews College, where he also serves as Chair of Humanities and Director of the Classical and Christian Studies graduate program. He has worked in classical and Christian education for 30 years.


Shepherding a Successful Leadership Transition


Coaching Call Info

All school leaders, every one of them, will serve in their roles for a finite period of time. Is your school prepared for this reality? Do you have a plan in place that ensures a successful transition of your Head of School? Division Heads? McKinsey consultant Scott Keller reports that “studies show that two years after executive transitions, anywhere between 27 and 46 percent of them are regarded as failures or disappointments.” However, when transitions are well planned, not only can it go well, but there can be an increase in morale, execution, and even employee retention. Every school can take some simple and practical steps to prepare for the inevitable reality of leadership transitions and do so with wisdom. This coaching call explored these topics and addressed attendees’ questions about leadership transition.  

Download PowerPoint Slides


About our Speaker

Eric Cook, President of SCL
Eric previous served as the Executive Director and Board Chair, Eric has been formally associated with SCL for over a decade, and he will soon transition full-time in his role as SCL President. Eric has served for 12 years as the Head of School at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth, TX. Prior to Covenant, Eric served as the Head of Upper School at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, VA.

A Lexington, KY native, Eric earned a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Social Studies Education from Transylvania University and a master’s degree in Instructional Leadership from Northern Kentucky University. Eric worked in schools in Ohio and Virginia before joining Covenant in 2009. He has taught history, political science, psychology, and philosophy in public schools, and served as an assistant principal for several years.

In 2006, Eric felt called to join the classical Christian school movement and became the Middle and Upper School Head at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to his leadership roles, Eric has taught apologetics, theology, philosophy of religion, and served as a thesis director. Eric and his wife, Liz, have six children. Eric enjoys reading a good book and playing a round of golf in his free time.