Tangling with temple cats: the challenges of leading change - Education Matters Magazine
Expert Contributors, Opinion

Tangling with temple cats: the challenges of leading change

Dr Stephen Brown draws on feline analogies to illustrate the challenges educators face in leading change.

Temple cats? In my travels I have observed such felines lying on the steps of ancient temples in South-East Asia or prowling the cobbled streets of a historic city in the Middle East. These cats come in many shapes, sizes, forms, and colours, and exhibit various behaviours. 

Some are content to prowl around untamed, others prefer to eat, sleep, yawn and observe the passing parade—while others habitually get ready to catch their next quarry through various underhanded, dubious but deliberate moves. Welcome to the world of the temple cat. 

Temple cats exist in every organisation

They are policy, practices, procedures, and people that inhibit progress, are never challenged, contribute little, lack authenticity and are self-serving. 

Kriegel and Brandt in their popular text, Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers: Developing Change – Driving People and Organisations note that these ‘temple cats’ or ‘sacred cows’ typically express as outmoded beliefs, assumptions, practices, and policies that prevent responsiveness to new opportunities. The story of the Guru’s Cat (De Mello, 1982) is worth sharing to amplify this point: 

‘When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract worshipers. So, he ordered that the cat be tied up during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied up during evening worship. 

‘And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied up during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed’. 

The story of the Guru’s Cat reminds us that once some practices and rituals had purpose in a context and time but now no longer make sense.

Where are they perched?

Think of your workplace right now and the challenges you face in leading change. List the temple cats that are the barriers to the effective implementation of any new initiative. I suspect most of the temple cats in your organisations are people. Typically, their behaviours range from disengagement and subversion to overt advocacy to retain status quo, power plays and duplicitous actions.

Are we too tame to tangle? 

The essence of leadership is persuading and influencing others. Why then, do leaders sometimes show a reluctance to challenge these temple cats? Tangling with a temple cat requires courage, preparation, and a willingness to act for the collective good. Timing is everything when dealing with a temple cat. 

Confronting the cats

Leaders are required to act and challenge the hegemonic culture that exists in their organisation by dealing with these cats. Sometimes leaders are afflicted with ‘condition blindness’—accepting or simply not being aware of the temple cats that are embedded in the organisation as cultural norms and behaviours. 

Leading change by its very nature involves others—shifting mindsets, challenging assumptions, and resetting culture. It is complex, dynamic, and adaptive work—never easy but immensely rewarding. 

Tangling with your temple cats is essential to set productive, positive workplace cultures that enable any organisation’s purpose, mission, and key strategic intentions to be enacted. 

A few questions to ponder

  • What kind of cat are you?
  • What policies, practices and procedures would you now retire to the cattery? 
  • How do you know your school/organisation is thriving?

About the author

Dr Stephen Brown has an international and national reputation as an outstanding CEO and leader in the field of education. He is the Managing Director of The Brown Collective, focused on the formation of educational leaders and partnering with schools, networks and system to enable sustainable impact. The organisation reflects both his collective experience over 40 years in policy, strategy and leadership development – and that of the remarkable global network he has developed during this career.

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