Success Means Knowing Who is Responsible for What and Owning the Outcomes

About ten years ago, the men at my church were put in charge of a Mother’s Day Brunch scheduled to follow Sunday morning mass. Okay, “put in charge” is a stretch. Basically, each guy got a “Things to do” list from Phyllis, the church school director, when they arrived at church. Phyllis was really the boss, and we were given the tasks to carry forth the event. The list wasn’t long, maybe ten tasks in all. My list had Set butter dishes on tables highlighted in yellow. There were other tasks on the list such as Prepare pancake batter, Pour cups of orange juice and set on tables, Make coffee, Cook sausages and bacon, and more. No problem.  We had 15 minutes to get things ready–not much time, but I could easily set butter dishes on tables in that period of time.

Screen shot 2013-04-20 at 8.40.31 AMImmediately after mass, the men left for the hall to begin prepping. When I got in, I found all the butter dishes on the tables. Hmmm. “Interesting,” I thought. Well, since my task was completed, I decided to sit down. As other guys entered, they too scanned the room before joining me at the table. In short order there were ten of us talking baseball, weather, and golf. After a few minutes of light banter, I started wondering what are these guys doing sitting? Don’t they have tasks to do? I noticed some of the other guys were also thinking the same thing, at which point we compared lists. It was comical to find we all had the same item highlighted: Set butter dishes on tables. Oh, oh. At that very moment, Phyllis walked in to find all of us sitting and the only thing done being the butter dishes SHE HAD SET ON THE TABLE earlier in the morning!  With a look of disbelief, she asked, “What are you guys doing??? Don’t you know the mothers will be here in two minutes!” We tried to explain that we all thought our task was to Set butter dishes on tables, but she just shook her head and laughed.

Truly that is one of the funniest things I can remember about life and ownership for outcomes. Reflecting back, none of the men took on any responsibility other than the task each thought was his alone. We each had assumed that the highlighted item on the list was our sole responsibility, and since we found the task completed when we entered the church hall, we contributed no more to the effort other than light conversation about sports and weather. Hilarious! Funny thing is, that’s how reform efforts stall. When people in organizations leave the hard work for others, fail to ask for clarity of tasks, or do little more than the minimum, nothing substantial gets done. Fortunately, effective leaders and educators know better.

Clarity of vision and mission, robust action plans, accountability, and shared ownership are essential to successful organizations. In terms of quality professional development, Graczewski, Knudson, & Holtzman (2009), state, “When a principal was able to articulate clear goals and strategies for the improvement of instruction, when the goals were understood and supported by the majority of teachers, and when the strategies for professional learning were consistent with each other, there was more likely to be coherent and relevant professional development” (p. 91).  In the Wallace Foundation’s Report, Education Leadership: A bridge to school reform, Devita, Colvin, Darling-Hammond, and Haycock (2007) write, “The leaders in high performing schools or districts don’t leave much of anything about teaching and learning to chance” (p. 30). Lastly, Tupa and McFadden (2009) found that in the highly successful Brownsville Independent School District, staff accept personal responsibility for the learning of all students. There are many, many examples of success when a vision is clearly laid out and all stakeholders own and assume responsibility for specific task outcomes. Whether it’s setting butter dishes on tables or disaggregating interim assessment data and action planning, people do better when they share in leadership and own the results of their efforts.

Graczewski, C., Knudson, J., & Holtzman, D. J. (2009, January/February 1). Instructional leadership in practice: What does it look like, and what influence does it have? Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 14(1), 72-96. doi:10.1080/ 10824660802715460

Tupa, M., & McFadden, L. (2009). ‘Excellence is never an accident’. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(8), 554-556. Retrieved from


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