Bounded Autonomy: A School Run Like the Navy

With an easy smile and a loud laugh, Principal Michael Biela of Rickover Naval Academy may not immediately strike you as a product of the military. But don’t let his friendliness fool you – he runs his school like he used to run his ship. Drawing from his training in the Navy, Michael gives his teachers and students the tools and training they need to be successful, and then he trusts them to do their jobs.

“The most deadly job on an aircraft carrier is controlling the arrestor cables when the planes land,” Michael says. “If something goes wrong, that plane is going to smash into other planes, it’s going to do all sorts of terrible things.” Michael thinks about teaching much like the job of controlling arrestor cables. “The men and women who do that job have been trained, but no one is checking in on them daily to make sure they’re doing it correctly. It’s the same with a school.” Michael knows that the systems he has set up at Rickover will allow his “ship” to run smoothly.

He calls this managerial style “bounded autonomy,” which comes straight from his naval experience. Teachers don’t turn in daily or weekly lesson plans. They create their tests in advance so that they have a clear set of goals for students. From there, Michael allows his staff to help students achieve those goals in any way they see fit. “That’s how the Navy runs,” he says. “You do your job. You don’t need me looking over your shoulder.”

Students at Rickover are given “bounded autonomy” as well. Every year, Michael meets each student to lay out expectations—“you know you’re going to make mistakes, and we do too. Just don’t make them on purpose,” he says. Michael then empowers his students to take charge and model behavior for each other. “All the research out there says that the most influential thing in a student’s life is his or her peers,” he says. Older students can earn the titles of Officer and Chief, gaining additional responsibilities. Students take on jobs of writing tardy slips for each other, maintaining order in the lunchroom and keeping the school clean.

One clear expectation is that the walls at Rickover remain spotless. Graffiti and tagging won’t be tolerated. Michael recalls a time during the first week of school when a ninth-grader commented on the freshly painted walls. Michael overheard another student responding with, “The teachers want it to be nice and clean for us here, so your job is to help us keep it that way.”

Michael values autonomy, and knows its importance for himself. In 2017, Michael was selected by Chicago Public Schools to become an Independent School Principal, exempting him from network oversight. He has the training he needs, he’s set clear goals and now he’ll have the freedom to achieve those goals as he sees fit.