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Buying or Believing?

Posted March 26, 2013 in Community Blogs, Urbandale

A term that is often used in organizations is “buy in.”  In this blog it does not mean an action on a stock purchase.  Rather, in the context of this blog it is meant to denote people’s commitment or support to a new idea, initiative, or program the organization has determined as important to make improvements.  The more “buy in” the better, for it means there is support for an idea to move from the “drawing board” to be put into action.

I have never liked the term “buy in.”  If I am “buying in” to an idea or plan, it must mean that someone is selling it to me. “Buying in” doesn’t necessarily mean I am committed to what I have “bought.”  It may well mean that the other person has done a very good job of selling, not that the idea is particularly good.  In other words, it has not captured my “spirit.”

So, here is my chance to add to the vernacular of organizational development.  Rather than promoting or seeking “buy in,” I am advocating for something much different and deeper.  What I seek as a leader is “believe in.”

More than once it has been said to me that I can be a bit “hokey” and too idealistic when it comes to my ideas and beliefs.  I have been told that I go “over the top” on this whole concept of commitment.  To be truthful, that is the truth about me!

There is a power in believing, that cannot be measured.  There is something innate about belief that lies at our very core.  Perhaps many of us could cite times when, despite the odds, our belief carried us on to success.

I am reminded of my first attempt at running a marathon.  I completed all of the training as prescribed in “Runners’ World” magazine and believed I had developed the capacity to complete the 26.2-mile trek.  Unfortunately, I did the exact opposite of what I was supposed to do as a first time marathoner… I started out like gangbusters and by mile 17 while running downhill, my body literally hit “the wall.”  Mile 17 meant I still had nine to go… not necessarily a stroll in the park in that 33 degree temperature where precipitation was a constant mix of rain and snow.

What kept me going?  Well, besides the green banana I consumed at mile 17 and the sports drinks at various stations throughout the race (which one time had to be poured into my mouth because I was shivering too much to do it myself), it fundamentally came down to the belief I had in my training and myself to complete the journey.  My belief would not let me quit as I walked and (sort of) jogged the remaining nine miles.  I’m convinced that had someone “sold” me on the idea that I could complete the marathon without the deep belief that I could, I would not have done so.  It was my “believe in” that carried me forward, one step at a time, during that miserable experience.

In Urbandale, I am not looking for “buy in” to our vision, mission, values, and goals.  It is not my intent to “sell” this to anyone, for if I were to successfully do so, I’m not sure how people would respond when challenges arose and times got difficult.  However, by encouraging people to learn and deepen their understanding of what it is we hope to accomplish, helping them to understand WHY it is important, and providing examples of student success, we are on our way to developing the “believe in” that is so important in reaching one’s goals, no matter what obstacles come our way.  The power of believing in something may well be one of the greatest forces on Earth.

In the movie “The Matrix,” there comes a point when the hero of the story acts upon instinct rather than wondering whether or not he can complete a herculean task.  It is at that point the heroine of the movie asks the hero’s mentor what’s happening; to which the mentor replies, “He’s beginning to believe.”

What can be accomplished when organizations create this foundation of “believe in?”  This is what we hope to discover in Urbandale as we continue to lay the foundation and invite people to read, learn, and even question what it is and why it is we hope to accomplish this transformation of our district.  Only when people are given this autonomy are they ever truly able to get past “buy in” and move into the deeper territory of “believe in.”

Months and months of training taught me to believe in my ability to run a distance that many say is beyond the limits of a human’s physical capacity.  Even when my “tank was empty” my belief was so strong that I was able to do whatever was necessary to complete my goal.  If it weren’t for that belief (and the green banana at mile 17), the ending to my marathon story would be much different.

That’s the power of “believe in.”  You can believe in it!


  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Doug. I love that the superintendent of my kids’ schools thinks and believes deeply about things, but this post is good for me as a teacher too. It reminds me that I need to BELIEVE in my students’ abilities and I need to help them to believe in those abilities themselves, not just get them to buy it. THAT is my challenge for my students AND my own children. Again, I appreciate that the leader of my kids’ education is communicating these things to the teachers and families of the school district. Thanks for what you do. 🙂

  2. Dr. Stilwell- It is incredible what a green banana can do! Actually, your believing in yourself and anything you attempt is exactly what your teachers want to see when their kids are learning something new. My kindergarten son is determined to multiply. Although I do not think he can do this without further practice and knowledge of numbers, he can now multiply by ones, twos, and fives. Nothing can stop this little guy from learning. He “believes” he can multiply and he does. This is part of what makes our young children learn more easily than our older children. My fifth grade daughter is sure she cannot learn how to multiply by 7 and 8’s and her belief is making it so very difficult. She has a far greater knowledge of numbers than her little brother and yet it is very difficult for her to learn these facts. If she doesn’t convince herself she can do this math- it may remain a very difficult task. The Urbandale teachers work with kids everyday that struggle like my daughter. They also work with kids who learn like a sponge sucking up water. Our job as parents is to continue to encourage, and shape our kids to believe in themselves. If we can do this, our children’s teachers will be able to teach anything and our district will be an outstanding district! Superintendents, teachers, parents, neighbors, children are all so important in this “believe in” system you talk about. I hope you know, “WE BELIEVE YOU CAN INFLUENCE EACH MEMBER OF YOUR SCHOOL DISTRICT!” So, keep on being just a little hokey because it is working. Urbandale is an awesome school district for our kids!

  3. Dr. Doug Stilwell,
    This is the first time I read any of your blogs. I felt I missed many good writings of yours. I hope/believe your students can put this into practice and even many adults who read it. These small words have big meanings. With your support some unsure moments of a student’s path can reenergized like you had at 17th mile (a sports drink had to be poured into my mouth because I was shivering too much to do it myself). You and your staff are doing a great job in supporting the young kids. Thanks to all of you for guiding our youths.

    • You can read previous blogs by going to our website at and clicking on “Dr. Stilwell’s Blogs” on the right-hand side of the page.

      Doug S.

  4. Believing is a great phrase to use for what our district is going towards. Being a teacher in the district, it wasn’t until I tried many of the skills I have learned in staff development and conferences I attended in the last couple of years that I learned to believe. I really thought there was no way that this would work and be successful in a classroom. This fall, I “took the plunge” and implemented the quality tools and continual improvement in my science classroom whole heartedly.

    I was and am continually amazed at the success of my students using quality tools and continual improvement. My students have taken control of their learning and are leaders in the classroom helping each other learn the material. One student has taken a group of ELL students and formed a study group to help each other learn the material. Another student has mentioned many times how thankful they are that I am letting them go at a pace that will help them be the most successful and learn the material in a way that is best for them.

    With my quality tools, our students have shown their growth in my class, improvement over the year, as well as, excitement and enthusiasm to their new form of learning. Having seen the success of our district’s direction, I am definitely a believer in the impact it can have on our students. I have seen first hand how successful our students can be when you believe in them and let them become the leaders in their learning and help them succeed as far as they want to go. Believe in your students and their is no limit to their successes in the classroom!!!!

  5. Good words to live by and certainly what our children deserve. Buy-in is skeptical and focused on rewards to individuals. “Belief in” is something we all own and can be part of creating.

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