A tiny battle for democracy

Orly Mercado

Posted on February 15, 2007

Small old boys clubs

We assume that most managers today know how vital transparency and accountability are in managing any business today. Companies like Enron in the United States or LiveDoor here in Japan, provide us lessons of what can happen when a few exercise absolute powers to govern without checks and balances. In managing a small private school, one would assume a customer-led ethos would prevail. Everything begins with the customer. The children and their parents come first. So you could imagine how taken aback I was when the Chair of the School Council declared in a PTA meeting I was presiding over that the Council was not accountable to the parents. This was after he continually refused our suggestion that the parent representatives to the Council be elected by the parents themselves.

The international school here in Kobe where my son is enrolled, has had many problems in the recent past. There has been an unhealthy turnover of three school masters in four years. The last school head resigned after squabbling with the council. He complained about micromanagement by the council.

In spite of all these problems, there has been resistance to reform. Authorities insist on having a governing council that is self-evaluating. Talk about very basic management tenets. The council chooses its own representatives. It refuses to allow the parents, or the faculty, to elect their own representatives. They claim they are preventing the entry of people with their own agenda. Once on the council, a pledge of confidentiality is required. While the new head of school is turning out to be a gem, much of the changes have been dependent on personalities and not changes in the system or the institution.

I have been trying to fathom the real reason why there has been so much resistance to change. There seems to be an aversion to contrarian views. It is not a marketplace of ideas where hubs and spokes convention can be set aside for brave new thoughts. Coming out of the meeting I reminded myself not to sweat the small things. This is just the PTA. But then again, wait; it is not a small thing. The huge consequences of the lack of transparency and accountability always start small. To preserve, what in essence is an old boys club, is so out of touch with the essentials of modern corporate governance. An oft quoted statement uttered by the British historian Lord Acton in the last century, still rings true today: “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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