The (DC) Odyssey

Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

(NOTE: This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)
A decade ago this month, I taught The Odyssey to a 9th grade classroom for the last time.  Today, I’m reminded of Homer’s central lessons – now nearly 3,000 years old – as I watch Adrian Fenty’s tenure as DC mayor speed towards a potentially spectacular, and tragic, end.
I mean ‘tragic’ the ways the Greeks did – as a form of art based on human suffering in which some people find pleasure, but all people find wisdom and insight. And although the election is still a week away, no doubt political scientists are already scrambling to understand why a young leader who, just four years ago, began a presumptively-lengthy reign of the nation’s capitol by winning every single precinct, may now soon be out of work.

“He would have evaded his doom if in his blind folly he had not talked so arrogantly.”

As befits a Greek tragedy, most of the mayor’s wounds are self-inflicted – chief among them his decision, in a multiracial city, to replace black leaders with non-black replacements in four of the city’s highest-profile jobs within the first six months of taking office. Of those replacements, only one is known both locally and nationally – DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. And of those replacements, only one has chosen to hitch her fate so directly to the mayor’s, and to next week’s primary election.
“Only a fool would challenge the friend who is entertaining him in a strange country.”

From the start, Fenty and Rhee have behaved as strangers in a strange land. In Fenty’s case, it was by turning a tin ear to many of the core supporters who had been most essential to his victory in 2006. With Rhee, it was by repeatedly making public comments that demonized the group most essential to her efforts – the city’s teachers.
“We came to grief through our own senseless stupidity.”
The lesson here – both today and in Homer’s day – is not that conciliation and collaboration are all that is needed to change a calcified system filled with entrenched interests, habits and resistance. Real change is complex and evasive, and part of the tragedy in DC stems from Fenty’s and Rhee’s potential to succeed where so many others have failed. There is still hope that they will, and that a dramatic victory coupled with deep reflection on past missteps will awaken in them a greater awareness of the long-term promise of collective capacity, as opposed to the short-term power of individual glory. But time is running out.

It may also be, as Andy Rotherham wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post, that the very system thought to be so essential to their success – mayoral control – helped assure their undoing. “It decreases the political demands on the leader of the schools,” Rotherham writes, “but it does not decrease the political challenges of running a school system . . . As we’re seeing now, with or without mayoral control, urban education reform is as much about politics as it is about technical expertise or results.”
“I have learnt to use my brains by now and to know right from wrong: my childhood is a thing of the past.”

The Odyssey survives in our collective memory because Odysseus’s long and difficult journey home mirrors the universal journey of life itself. Along each of our respective paths, there will be temptation, suffering, missteps and misfortune. Our only hope is to reflect on what happens and learn as we go.
Win or lose, the mayor and the schools chancellor have given us all an opportunity to learn from the journey that has led to this point. They have brought about massive changes to a system desperately in need of a new way of operating. And they have done so in a way that has likely, in typical Greek fashion, sealed their own fate. There is a third way, but to take it we would be wise to remember the advice the aging warrior Menelaus gives to the young and impressionable Telemachus: “There should be moderation in all things.”