Giant #6: Michael Ayers

Giant #6

Michael Ayers

“if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

1675 letter by Isaac Newton:

I have learned over time you never know where or when the next learning opportunity will come from.  Returning to South High School in Minneapolis as principal in 1995 was a challenge.  I taught physics at South in the early 70s. Early in the year, as principal, I met Judy Ayers, a parent of two students, she was organizing the career center, and on the PTSO board.  After a couple of months, she came into my office and said that I talked a lot like her husband. I might enjoy meeting him. She would ask him to call me.

About a week later Michael Ayers called me and said Judy thought we should have a meeting.  As principal, buried under the demands of a 2100 student high school, staff, and a great community, I thought, “oh great, another meeting.”  Thinking I was so smart, I thought 30 minutes, pleasantries, and say good-bye. HA.  In the 90 minutes that followed (Michael had the day off) we discussed books, theories of leadership, and implementation strategies. While getting my doctorate I minored in Industrial Relations in the business school at the UofM (Minnesota).

Michael taught future leaders at 3M (that small sandpaper company in St. Paul, HA) systems thinking, scenario planning, and leadership development.  I was blown away by his recall, solid understanding, and ability to make sense of complex concepts.  Michael mentioned that he read books and created notes of his readings in computer documents.  STUNNED.  I was doing the same thing.  We talked about knowledge was important and execution was even  more important. After all, if you can do something with what you know, what good is it  to know.

Summer 1996, the systems thinking training Michael was facilitating at 3M had a few seats available.  He graciously called and asked if I, and maybe two or three others, would like to attend.  What an offer. Volunteering his time to work with educators.  The three of us from South used the time to do a causal loop diagram of how change happened (or didn’t happen), started to understand balancing and reinforcing loops, and ‘the tragedy of the commons.’

Michael has been one of my most thoughtful sounding boards and has extended my thinking to consider intended and unintended consequences of possible actions.  I became a better leader and human being because of my association with him.  We wrote a book together (Michael did the work), has contributed to my thinking about other books I have written, and I can always count on him for honesty, systems wide thinking, and laser like feedback. He is one of the smartest people I know, has high integrity, and strong values of equity and kindness.