School Leadership in the Time of Trump

...In Leadership BS, a book published last year, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, identifies five virtues that are almost universally praised by popular leadership writers—modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and selflessness--and argues that real-world leaders ignore (or don't have) these virtues. (If anything, real world leaders tend to be narcissistic, back-stabbing, self-promoting shape-shifters.)...

Josh Rothman, The New Yorker, 2/29/2016

During one of my last years as a headmaster, the school had an interesting topic in our usual Tuesday night speaker series, which we call The Society of Skeptics. This speaker—whose name I cannot recall—was embarked on the goal of becoming a professional golfer by fulfilling the ‘10,000 hour rule’ (the theory of mastery that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book The Outliers). That theory seems to suggest that 10,000 hours of dedicated effort is necessary to lead to successful skills acquisition. So, our speaker that evening was in the midst of starting to play golf from complete inexperience, devoting the required hours of practice and play, determined to emerge as potentially a professional golfer. I do not know how that experiment is currently working for him, but I left the talk as a skeptic, believing that professional golfers, and especially the top ones, actually have innate talent necessary to combine with however many hours of practice and play they have. And by “talent,” I do not mean just athletic ability, but something else: mental focus, competitive drive, strategic assessment skills, situational creativity, and an inherent psychological sense about themselves and their opponents. I doubt our speaker had all that. 

Now into my fourth year away from active school leadership, but into my third of working with, helping, and preparing school leaders, I am coming to the conclusion that the successful school leaders have much in common with other successful professionals: an innate sense of what to do, how to respond, and most importantly a self-awareness that allows them to read situations for what they are. These successful leaders may have plenty of school experience—or not as much—but they all have a healthy sense of who they are, what they are good and not so good at doing. They understand the variety of hats they must wear, masks they must put on, and most important, when to wear and put on neither hat nor mask and be entirely themselves. This self-awareness, usually combined with humorous self-effacement, allows the variety of constituents a school leader faces to feel connected to the leader, even if his or her style is quite individual. Unfortunately, I am skeptical that such traits can be acquired with ten thousand hours of practice, but given that America’s for profits and nonprofits spend 14 billion dollars a year on leadership training, I am in a distinct minority. 

In my work, I have come to believe there are some critical characteristics of good school headship, characteristics that do not take into account school experience or lack thereof. The experience issue might seem critical to success, but in fact independent schools are increasingly turning to candidates who are relatively inexperienced in school leadership; even so, those candidates do rise to headships, and if they possess the innate abilities I describe below, then their chance of success can be as good as someone with years of professional preparation. And in saying these are ‘critical characteristics,’ I am not suggesting that personal qualities of honesty, trustworthiness, and respectfulness are not also valuable, only that being a successful leader and being a truly good person are not the same thing--even if we wish it were so. Finally, I do think that good leaders should be good people, but given the current political situation, that may also be a minority view. 


So, here goes my short list of critical characteristics and in no particular order of priority: 

An Open, Varied, Frequent communicator—a head of school must communicate constantly and in a variety of voices and presentation styles. Delaying communication responses, communicating impersonally, or ignoring communication opportunities rank as one of the key criticisms of struggling leaders. Sometimes it is a parent saying, “I stood right next to him at the game, and he didn’t even say hello;” or a faculty member saying, “I wrote her an email about the issue, and she never responded.” Every HOS loses an email, fails to recognize someone he or she should, forgets the name of a trustee, etc. If, however, that becomes a defining characteristic—as in, “she/he is a poor communicator”—the likelihood of turning that reputation around is slim, and the success of the tenure in jeopardy. 

Having High Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ)—Even if a HOS has a good ability to work individually a person, her ability to “read a room” and understand people as a group is critical to building a positive leadership reputation. Some heads hinder their progress by surrounding themselves with a small, comfortable group of administrators and trustees, a habit that fails to develop allies in the larger constituencies—and a HOS will always have times when school-wide support and understanding will prove critical to his ability to lead. Even heads who do interact with a variety of groups and people need to remember to listen more, talk less, having the confidence to yield control to others, a trait that not only empowers others but also gives the head’s EQ a chance to figure out the situation. 

A Seeker of Feedback—Heads not only need constant feedback, but also need to demand it. Every meeting that the HOS attends or leads should offer an open-ended question (“How does everyone feel about this or that or whatever the subject is?” “How comfortable are we with that strategy?” “What is a good way to communicate our decision?”) After an event, presentation, a large meeting, the HOS should seek honest evaluations of his/her performance: “was I clear?” “How do you feel people reacted?” “Did I miss anything?” And after the feedback, no matter how critical it might be—and even if it is misguided—a successful leader is appreciative to have had a response, grateful for the communication. 


If a HOS can commit 10,000 hours to anything about leadership, it should be to look for chances to grow, to be self-critical and aware, and to try hard to be open to new ideas and approaches. Given the range of responsibilities, demands, and challenges a head of school faces, a school leader should be considered capable if half of the decisions, actions, and outcomes of his or her headship proved correct. It is, however, the response to the mistakes, the misguided decisions, and the poor communications that defines good leaders. Being able to pivot toward taking responsibility for those mistakes, admitting openly the error, and redoubling efforts to correct the problem and change course underscores the rejection of stubborn defensiveness in favor of growth and success. A successful head may be a good person—and I hope s/he is!—but s/he better be a good communicator, have high EQ, and demand feedback as well.