Education February 2020 Magazine

Steve Straessle: The Intangibles Edict


By Steve Straessle


Every business and every educational institution should  have a CIO — Chief Intangibles Officer — or at least put forth  the effort to bring in an IC: Intangibles Consultant.


Several years ago, the eighth-grade boy walked into my office as if in shackles. His long, unwashed hair formed a curtain over his eyes and it bounced as he moved, allowing him to see his feet just well enough to avoid walking into things. A giant hole in his Metallica T-shirt exposed his left torso. He plopped into the checkered chair beside my desk and began studying the dirt under his thumbnails.


The boy’s mother shook her head behind the boy as if wanting to apologize for him already. She explained in a long, unbroken Faulkner-esque soliloquy that the boy’s father had never been in the picture, that she worked odd hours as a nurse’s assistant, that she couldn’t keep an eye on him. He didn’t study. He didn’t care. He was lazy. When she said that last word, the boy raised his head slightly towards her as he peered silently through his long hair.


The boy had bad grades and a bad attitude. When his mother exited the room, I asked him a series of questions. Do you want to come to school here? God, no. Do you like any subjects? Not one. Finally, the last question: “If you come to this school, will you try or will you just flunk out?”


The boy retracted as if smelling something rotten. “Of course, I’d try.” Not the answer I expected.


The NFL’s Indianapolis Colts reminded me of this boy. Weird correlation, I know. But, a couple of years ago, the Colts hired Brian Decker, a former Green Beret, as director of player development. Odd, I thought. A Green Beret would make a great strength and conditioning coach, or even a leadership coach, but a player development specialist?


The deeper dig on Mr. Decker provides the answer. The Green Berets noticed that a number of the soldiers nominated for the elite Special Forces unit washed out during training. These soldiers were all physically fit and intellectually capable. But they couldn’t hack it. So the Army brought in Decker, who devised an assessment tool rooted in the aspects of a soldier’s life that simply can’t be measured with normal data points: toughness, grit, life challenges overcome, emotional stability. Decker assessed the intangibles.


Soon, the Green Berets saw vast improvement in their classes, not only fewer washouts but better graduates. Upon retirement from the military, Decker took his Special Forces assessment ideas to a logical civilian industry: pro football.


Think about it. More than 50 percent of first-round draft picks wash out, leaving fewer than half actually making it in the league. Decker’s idea was to take more than the usual data points — height, weight, speed — and marry them with the immeasurables — perseverance, decision making under duress, approach to setbacks — to more confidently predict those who might make a high-dollar investment lasting. The result has been finding diamonds in the rough, great athletes who have the making of franchise players.


And this Intangibles Edict works elsewhere.


For example, we can easily look out into the Little Rock School District and view an angry sea turned by storms that seem to whip up and disappear like fronts on a map. The color and noise of these storms easily distract us.  But inside, there are children who have seen challenge and have overcome. There are young adults who undergo great stress just to get to school. And there are Brian Deckers in classrooms — teachers who recognize that one important word in their students, that one word that sums up the constellation of good qualities that usual one-dimensional educational data won’t notice: intangibles. These teachers understand that a child is more than the sum of standardized tests or grade-point averages. They understand that a child is the sum of life experiences added to the promise the future holds. 


Every business and every educational institution should have a CIO — Chief Intangibles Officer — or at least put forth the effort to bring in an IC: Intangibles Consultant. It takes unique experiences, a positive outlook, a motivational personality to make it work. There must be someone who can look past the data and underscore the value of deep life events and the grit they create. 


While the NFL needs the fast and the strong, and education needs the National Merit Semi-Finalists and Beta Club members, and businesses need the richly-educated and mind-blowing entrepreneurs, the ultimate success and continuity of each industry relies on recognizing the uncovered gems within people. This may be the most important data point of all.


Oftentimes, our best employees do not possess Ivy League educations or the right network of peers who can refer them to jobs. Oftentimes, they instead possess a strong work ethic and a no-quit attitude that elevates them. And us. 


If you’ve been in education long enough, you’ve seen those students. You’ve seen those students who you thought would never make it but a glint in the darkness, some spark set off by the hardness of life rubbing against an unbreakable spirit, caused you to look a little deeper. The same goes for business. 


The boy begrudgingly cut his hair and strapped a tie around his neck. His first few weeks in the all-boys atmosphere featured a series of fits and starts. He ate lunch alone under the freshman bleachers. He stayed quiet in class. But, he tried. Slowly, he came out from under the bleachers and engaged. He joined JROTC. He stopped by the front office to say hello. His teachers encouraged him.


Then, one crisp evening in May, the shadows lengthened and the crowd quieted and the shuffling of feet stopped. I heard his name called. And I watched the boy walk across the stage, a smile lighting up his face as he retrieved his diploma. 

Steve Straessle is the principal at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock.

Leave a Comment