Basic Principles of a Living Organization

There are two major challenges to the ongoing creative activity of an evolving organization.  These two challenges are similar to the two elements we must deal with in managing our individual lives. We must deal within each moment and each day with what is living, growing and evolving immediately before us and widely around us. We must also look at the present moment in relationship to the whole of our lives and our lives in the whole of culture and humanity’s evolution.

It is actually easier to perceive and understand the form, processes and evolution of a human being than it is an organization. The principles of human development are a part of us and as educators, it is something we have trained ourselves to perceive and that we continue to develop with our colleagues every day. We experience theses principles through our lives.

In our organizations, especially in schools, the principles of organizational development can also be evident.  But because organizations are social creations involving numerous people and have greater levels of complexity, it is harder to see and work with the processes that guide our organizations.

In our role as teachers, we have classes and a student body. But, unlike other organizational structures we are part of, students stand before us as objective reality and we are outside them. As teachers we know it can be helpful at times to try to find ways to “walk in a student’s shoes” to gain insight about their nature. As social creators, it is equally as helpful to try to step outside the organization to gain perspective.

Once we step outside, we take a step towards becoming social scientists.

Listed below are basic principles related to the school as a living entity with thoughts on how these principles and ideas can be helpful in practicality.

The school is a living entity

Just like our approach to the nurturing of the students in our care, it changes things to think of the life of the school, not as a problem to solve, but as a mystery that is unfolding. Once we start to see the school as a set of problems to be solved, it is easy to forget that it is the wholeness of the being that must be the place of our attention.

Diagnosing and trying to solve school problems is similar to diagnosing and trying to change the behavior of the students. We need to consider the whole being. It is much more effective to look at the constitution and development of the student or the school. The use of metaphors is most helpful in this realm. How would you describe your organization if it were a person? How would you draw a picture of your organization as a landscape? Often a creative exercise helps reveal insights about the quality and nature of the whole school.

The school has a biography

The birth and founding impulse of the school, much like the conditions around the birth of a child, provide a signature to understand the unfolding life of the being or the school. Every beginning has three basic elements: parents (or founders), family heredity (or culture), and the individuality(or vision). It is important for those in leadership positions in an organization to regularly reconnect with the founding of that organization (celebrate founder’s day, recognize founders, retell the founding story) so that the signature of the organization will be discernable and shared.

Just like the significant turning points in a life have an effect on the growing being -- whether they are accidents or expected phases of opportunities --, so, too, do the major events in an organization’s life: major crises, conflicts and cultural shifts. I have worked with a number of schools where the lack of resolution or healing of a past crisis was actually holding the community back, and where a conscious effort toward healing, resolution and understanding allowed the school community to move forward with more trust and unity.  There are times throughout the year when a review of events and how they fit into the ongoing biography of the school can yield insights into the next steps in development.

The school grows and develops through phases in relationship to social laws

While each school is a unique endeavor, (not like a franchise that is intended to be exactly like its siblings) Waldorf schools move through phases that can be observed and understood. The character of these phases is both general and at the same time uniquely connected to one institution. A good description of the phases and their qualities, challenges and opportunities, is offered in Chris Schaefer’s “Phases of School Development” posted in this newsletter.  A school, like any organization, is a social creation made by people and therefore it follows social laws.

The school is a social organism made by people 

The founders of  any Waldorf school, and their ongoing relationship to that school, have a profound impact on the unfolding life of the institution. But each new school also grows gradually through the gifts of those who are involved over time. Therefore, it is important to understand that the entire organism changes (to a greater or lesser degree) with the addition of one new member. As teachers know this is true in their classes, the addition of one child changes the entire configuration of the class in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. With this understanding, it becomes more important how we incorporate (orient, invite and socialize) people into the organization and how we support and encourage their development and participation in the organization. As organizations grow in size, it is helpful to consider forming a group or organ that has as one of its primary responsibilities the incorporation of new families into the school.

The school has body, soul and spirit

All three aspects of the being of the school – body, soul and spirit -- need attention. Behind each aspect there are principles that are uniquely important.  There are physical structures and resources needing to be sustained;  there are people and relationships woven into a community and culture needing to be nurtured; and there are ideas, principles, policies and processes that need conscious attention, ongoing renewal and re-creation. What’s more, it is very important in the ongoing renewal of the organization that the spiritual dimension is attended to regularly, which will support organizational harmony. This spiritual dimension should occur in each meeting to help develop a culture of inspiration, and also annually, on a more comprehensive basis,  in reviewing the mission and staying connected to the vision.

The school is part of its environment and the greater culture

Like any being, the school is an integral part of its environment and has an ecological importance. The health of the organism is related to the quality of the relationships it has with the world around it. How an organization participates and takes an interest in the community out of which it was born contributes much to its success. Unfortunately, this aspect of board work is quite often the one most frequently moved aside to deal with more pressing issues. One way of understanding this would be to do a community assessment that looks at the major relationships the school has with the community and identifies areas for growth. This is very much related to the many aspects of sustainability we explored in our April Newsletter.

The school has a physiology

The school’s physiology includes a physical form and substance, a set of processes connected to its life in the world, organs for supporting the processes, a set of ideas and principles that continually shape and recreate it and a purpose/individuality that guides it. And all of these elements of the physiology are created by people and thus reflect social ideals. Torin Finser explores these relationships and qualities in depth in his book, “Organizational Integrity.”

A school learns as it grows

Over time, a school can take its experiences and learn from them, turning the lessons into institutional wisdom. The wisdom lives both in the individuals and in the policies and procedures established. Like all life, the challenges that come from the future as opportunities for change test our core beliefs. It is very helpful for the school community to commit to articulating its core beliefs/values and to regularly come back to renew and evolve them. The way that the school gathers its wisdom has a significant effect on the parents and the students of the community.

A school has a lifespan

An organization’s lifespan is affected by the initial purpose and the changing nature of the culture. Ecologically if there is no longer a need for or support for the organism, then the organism cannot continue. This is important to keep in mind as we look into the future and explore aspects of sustainability. We already see a change in the culture of education since 2000. From 1980-2000 almost 100 new schools were founded. Since 2000 there have been, in North America, relatively few.

Below is a chart that begins to outline some of the key aspects of the above principles.

Principle Notes
Every organization is a social creation with a unique purpose The ongoing role of founders has a significant effect on organization.
Every organization has a biography The biography of an organization does not follow the life phases of a person. It has unique patterns and transition points.
There are social laws that govern the life of organizations Rudolf Steiner outlined a number of important social ideals, laws and phenomena.
An organization is born out of its surrounding community Its relationship with the community determines to a great degree how strong its roots are.
An organization grow, lives and learns in relations to its leadership An ongoing review of leadership and a commitment to supporting and developing leadership can make a big difference in the growth and development of the organization.
An organization has a physiology of structures, ideas, principles, and processes Policy development and review is an important part of sustaining the organizational culture.
An organization has a relationship to the threefold nature of social life A school is a cultural organization to promote and support  human development. This understanding should guide the school in its development even as some aspects of the school are related to the economic and social political realms.
An organization expresses healthy or not so healthy effects. Developing indices of health and reviewing them regularly helps an organization identify areas to take care of.
An organization grows and learns through mistakes and crisis A school experiences the equivalent of inflammation (heat) and Sclerosis (hardening, or being overly fixed) Both sclerosis and inflammation are important aspects of its healthy life.