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Posted March 22, 2005


By: Frank J. Menhams

[Frank Menhams, MA, is an educational consultant with 15 years experience working in specialty schools and programs. He was former program director of the Cascade School. Frank also evaluates specialty programs and schools. He can be reached at 530-356-4747 or]

One topic of discussion within the Specialty Schools and Programs industry is that of the relevance of a "cult" leader of which any specific program is dependent upon for a continued, successful life. From the beginning, Specialty Schools and Programs have had a few visionaries who had a dream, and then materialized it. The family tree of both the Specialty School and the Wilderness Program is traceable to a handful of strong-willed individuals. As time passed, some of their "select" -if you will- progeny set out to start their own hybridizations of the original models, usually diluting some original components, and adding new fresh ones. While the Schools began to change, the need for a dynamic leader did not; virtually every Specialty School or Program has a unique individual leading that institution. The question being brought up today, is can a program continue once their original "leader" leaves, retires, or dies?

What is it about our industry that places so much weight on the personality of an individual that a robust program can implode and cease to exist due to this person's leaving the School or Program?

In the past several years, some of the original Specialty Schools and Programs shut have down entirely, while many more go through radical re-configuring with Executive Directors coming and going as often as a new issue of the Woodbury Reports™ is published. The seeming cause and effect of the departing "cult figure," and the demise of the program, is a natural logical thought- progression. Why is this so? It just doesn't make sense that when the leader of a company moves on, the company should falter and die. When companies such as Disney or HP release their CEO's, the company just doesn't roll over and fold! Why is our industry so different? Inbreeding!

There are several factors to look at in this discussion; the original programs began in the sixties and seventies when gestalt and confrontational therapies were in vogue. Loosely termed "emotional growth" schools, these new enterprises were relatively secretive, (think Synanon) keeping their newfound modalities of helping youth as close a secret as possible. This was not just within the budding industry; it was also within the school itself. Very few "anointed" ones received the support to step up and learn the "secrets" of the founders. Employees, as well as parents, were kept out of the communications loop of the privileged few. I believe this management style was the reason for the idea of a "cult-personality" needing to be at the helm of a truly potent school or program. This management style is also responsible for the demise of those schools who continue that early style.

The management style I just described allows for little, if any, succession options. As I mentioned in my previous article, the need for an exit strategy is paramount to a school or program that wants to exist beyond one generation of management. In keeping their expertise limited to a select few, the old-style cult personalities effectively lead the way to their own extinction; much like any inbred system.

The key to healthy survival of a system is constantly introducing new thoughts, ideas and "blood" into that system. That way it continues to replicate itself, albeit in a slightly evolved form. The importance of preparing younger staff for the responsibilities they one day will hopefully elect to incur is tantamount to the continued success of any school or program. Further, through the sharing of hard-won knowledge comes the implied message of trust, and with trust comes empowerment and self-esteem. It is important to remember that the students will reflect the adults they are with, whether school staff or the adults in a family. Management that supports and empowers their employees will have a student culture that embraces the very same tenants; "as is above, so is below." This is clear when you hear about the demise of the student cultures in some of the now-defunct programs; as the management became sicker and weaker, the student culture did as well, until the school or program had to close out of the basic need to keep the students safe.

Times change, and fortunately many of the "offspring" of the initial schools continue to evolve. The concept of "emotional growth" lives on today, often in a very effective manner. It has toned down and merged with more clinical, hence teachable, methodologies. With a new paradigm come new problems. Instead of cult-leadership, some schools are swinging the other way with committees running their schools at a lumbering pace. The good news is that there is a fervent desire not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. Thought, discussion and most importantly change is in the air. Knowledge is shared on both micro and macro levels; from the groups, to the staff and at NATSAP conferences, the modality of secrecy and fear that once permeated our industry is shunned for the healthier and far more compassionate models that we witness in the industry today.

Copyright © 2005, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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