Where is Your School in the Organizational Life Cycle? Why Does it Matter?

The School Life Cycle

Dr. Barrett Mosbacker, PublisherSchools are organic and dynamic—they are not static. Like the human body, schools go through a lifecycle of change or stages of development. Although most schools go through a predictable cycle or series of stages, the cycle is not inevitable.

Below are typical organizational stages, which I have summarized and adapted from research on the topic.  I have not developed the last stage (renewing).

Why is this important?  Because understanding where your school is in the typical organizational lifecycle will help you understand the issues you are facing and how to adapt your leadership.


Birth/Infant Stage

  • Characterized by a strong entrepreneurial visionary leader or small group
  • Requires a strong visionary leader who can maintain a high degree of commitment
  • The leader, or small founding group, must maintain control and have significant input into the infant school. It is normal at this stage that the leader be more hands-on and in control with little or no delegation.
  • Visionary and pioneering staff
  • Staff characterized by belief, hard work, high morale
  • Tendency to latch on to a particular school of thought or philosophy of education, instruction, and/or curriculum
  • School structure is minimal and informal
  • Systems are developing
  • Minimal policies, ill-defined roles (or well written but poorly followed policies)
  • Group/committee/board micro-management of administrative functions, usually out of necessity in this infant stage
  • Change can be quick and relatively easy
  • Limited resources
  • Potential for quick growth
  • Establishing a reputation and market presence

Adolescent Growth Stage

  • Beliefs, values, goals, structure, and actions become more formalized
  • With growth, staff are added
  • Delegation is increasing
  • The challenges of growth are being confronted—facilities, resources, programs, personnel, school structure, board/administrator roles and relationships
  • The original “feel” of the small infant school is being replaced with the feel and characteristics of a larger maturing school. This can result in a change in clientele, complaints that “we have abandoned our mission,” that “we no longer feel….,” “that we are becoming……”
  • As structures begin to mature, the board grapples with its role relative to a changing school, added staff, and maturing leadership and administration
  • Faces the danger of growing too fast with growth and vision outpacing current or projected resources (usually financial and physical)—Example: adding a high school too quickly
  • Conflict and inconsistency can become more evident (there are more stakeholders; the original founders/entrepreneurs find their original vision and values being challenged and stretched. Conflicts arise from confusion regarding roles and responsibilities. Leadership must learn to share control and to delegate responsibility with concomitant authority.
  • Problems can arise when conflict erodes or ends in a critical loss of mutual respect and trust among those charged with formal and informal control of the decision-making process. This can lead to concentrating on technicalities, legal and procedural issues rather than on strategic development.

Maturing Stage

  • This stage is characterized by high visibility for the school. A strong understanding of its common purpose and mission continue to energize and drive school leadership. Leadership knows what it is doing, where it is going and how to get there.
  • School leadership makes plans and then follows up on those plans
  • Structures and policies have matured but are still developing and growing
  • Bureaucracy and systems are increasing (note: not all bureaucracy is bad—there is good and bad bureaucracy)
  • Leaders must continue to maintain the delicate balance between creating and managing. It is easy during this stage to get caught into doing what is customary, but forgetting the reason for doing it. This may lead to rigid clinging to something no longer suitable. A method may become more important than the mission.
  • Increased specialization among staff and with programs
  • Increased emphasis on high quality rather than “start-up” training
  • Standards are raised for teachers and other staff
  • Overall school quality is growing and there is clear evidence of excellence
  • The school is confident and secure
  • Morale is high

Aging Stage

  • The aging stage can be characterized by a decline in stakeholders’  understanding of and commitment to the school’s purpose.  New parents and staff may not have a sense of ownership of the school’s purpose. They assume others to be responsible, so there is decline in involvement.
  • As the aging stage progresses, the school moves from nostalgia to questioning. In the nostalgia phase the school community reflects on and longs for a comfortable past. You know the school has reached this phase when you hear: "I remember when." "We can't do that." "We've tried that and it didn't work."

In the questioning phase, school stakeholders initially question within themselves, concerning leadership and school problems. Then the questioning becomes more intense as groups begin to discuss problems. At this point, either the organization redefines itself and is revitalized by its dream, or decline sets in.

  • Expectations for growth are lowered. There is little interest in development of new  new methods. The school starts to focus on past achievements instead of future visions. Emphasis is on how things are done rather than what and why they are done.
  • Procedures and policies are kept in place even though they are no longer relevant.
  • Changes are viewed with suspicion and met with increasing resistance. Fewer changes are proposed, and no change that radically departs from status quo or disrupts the peace is considered.

The Dying Stage

  • This fifth stage is characterized by the total loss of purpose and hope. The mission is not understood. As questioning and polarization increase, the emphasis shifts to who caused the problem, rather than what to do about it.
  • Conflict, back stabbing, and infighting abound.
  • Focus shifts to the internal turf wars while newcomer, especially if they have a vision to try new things, to challenge the conventional wisdom, are seen as a nuisance, threat, or are ignored.
  • Due to the lack of interest and participation, programs are eliminated. It is difficult to find volunteers with only 10 percent of stakeholders doing 90 percent of the work.
  • Programs and structures are deleted for lack of funds and involvement. The primary goal is preservation and survival.
  • Although there are many traditions, practices and procedures in place, they serve little to reach and develop people and to fulfill the mission of the school.
  • Changes are nearly impossible. Excuses and rationalizations are made for why something can't be done.
  • While dying is frightening, changing is more so. Any suggested change tends to fuel the fire of polarization.
  • There is confusion between what constitutes an enviable principle and a personal preference.
  • Morale declines to a deep low. Few have any sense of hope and optimism. No one knows what to do about the problem, but everyone thinks that it is the other person's fault.
  • Leadership is extremely frustrated to the point of despair by not knowing how to stop decline and the infighting in this stage. Frequently the leader is perceived as the problem which may or may not be the truth. Leadership takes many hard hits in the dying stage, particularly if the primary influencers do not support the leader. If the leader is visionary, creative and aggressive, he or she will likely not last long.
  • If the leader is passive and maintenance oriented, he or she may make the patient comfortable while it continues to die.

Where is your school in the organizational lifecycle? Are you adjusting your leadership to ensure that your school navigates the lifecycle successfully so that it continues to have a lasting impact?