The philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote, “We must obey the forces we want to command.”

My mother always says, “You can only control what you can control.”

I have only recently been introduced to Francis Bacon but have always had the wise words of my mother ringing in my ears. Her point is that all that you have direct control over is your own actions. Naturally, my actions are often shaped by external factors that must be accounted for but her intent is to encourage me to always be positive, do what I believe to be right and to work hard regardless of any external factors that I do not have influence over but could nonetheless influence any outcome.

Ultimately, we all act upon the ideas we have and the decisions we make. As an individual, some of my ideas have turned out to be better than others. I know that because I acted upon them. As an individual, my mother’s advice has stood me in good stead. It has allowed me to reconcile those ideas that did not lead to positive outcomes with the positive intent with which I acted upon them. My mother’s words enabled me to learn from my experiences and to carry on.

However, as a school leader, I am presumed to have control (or at least influence) over actions that are not limited to my own. In this sense, Bacon’s quote becomes more relevant. But what is it that I want to command as a school leader?

As a school leader, above all else, I believe in the potential of the creative and innovative power of a group of committed people working together towards a shared vision of a better future. It is a leader’s responsibility to manage change and to command that potential in order to generate good ideas with which our schools can face future challenges and capitalize on future opportunities. I do not want to command people per se but I do want to command their potential to generate ideas that will ultimately benefit our students. 

I am reflecting on Bacon’s quote as my final exam for What Managers Can Learn From Philosophers. The laws of thinking as explained in this course has given me plenty to reflect upon. I am unsure as to the context within which Bacon said, “We must obey the forces that we want to command,” but this quote makes perfect sense to me in the context of school leadership. If we want to command the potential of educators to generate good ideas for the benefit of our children, we must obey the laws of thinking.

“You have to simplify the world if you want to change it” – Luc de Brabandere*

This might sound counter-intuitive (it certainly did to me), but often the first step to really thinking about something is to forget about most of it. When a mother says she is thinking about her children, it is undoubtedly true. When an educator says she is thinking of her students or issues affecting them (e.g. assessment), the reality is something different. The educator could be thinking about a student she spoke to that morning or she could be thinking in concepts about her students or the issue. To build concepts about her students or a student issue, the educator must forget most of her students and most of the issue. This is not particularly easy to do in a caring profession but it is impossible for her to think clearly if she is bogged down by minutiae. This is not to trivialize students or their issues. The laws of thinking require educators to simplify them into concepts if they are to really think about them.

To command the potential of educators to generate good ideas for the benefit of our children, school leaders need to help educators simplify what it is that they are required to think about.

“You can’t think without boxes” – Luc de Brabandere

Concepts are simplifications and to think about the world is mostly about making simplifications or mental models. We can never hold in our head what is in the world. We only have simplifications of what it is we have experienced or interpreted through the experiences and sharings of others. In education, these simplifications are often created through data collected on students in relation to achievement, attendance, behavior, socio-economics, et cetera.

The most common term for a simplification in this sense is ‘box.’ Thinking inside or outside the box refers to using a simplification to understand and generate ideas in relation to the issue being thought about.

George Couros, the author of The Innovator’s Mindset, asserts that schools are often subject to budgetary and other constraints and therefore need to “innovate inside the box.” I agree with his sentiment and Luc de Brabandere would suggest that thinking outside the box does not mean thinking outside of the school. It just means to think about the school in a different way. But to think about schools in a different way, educators need to build a new box.

To command the potential of educators to generate good ideas for the benefit of our children, school leaders need to help educators build new boxes within which to think.

“Not a single idea is born good” – Luc de Brabandere

The truth is that imagination generates new ideas and judgment determines whether they are good or not. To ignore these two steps is to ignore the laws of thinking.

The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and that is a logical advantage to us working in groups. However, that advantage is lost if we ignore the laws of thinking. The laws of thinking require us to suspend judgement until the idea has been imagined. It is impossible for us to engage both sides of our brains to fully imagine an idea and judge it simultaneously. Any attempt to do so inevitably leads to ‘Yes but…’ Syndrome (YBS) as I have reflected upon previously.

YBS prevents us from consistently generating and maximizing the potential of good ideas for the benefit of our students. As individuals, it can prevent us from sharing ideas. As a group, it can prevent us from fully imagining and exploring the possibilities of an idea that has been shared.

To command the potential of educators to generate good ideas for the benefit of our children, school leaders need to eradicate YBS.

School leaders inevitably find themselves in charge of change. To command the potential of those that they lead to manage change, the laws of thinking must be obeyed.

Couros, George. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., 2015.

*Luc de Brabandere facilitated What Managers Can Learn From Philosophers.

Francis Bacon