October 2010 Archives

Emerging Leaders Workshop

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I had a good experience on Friday, attending a full day of sessions in Los Angeles with other independent-school folks from all over California and beyond who are interested in questions of leadership in our schools. The participants ranged from lower-school librarians and curriculum coordinators to sitting upper-school principals, and the presenters were highly experienced heads of school and other senior administrators. I'm blogging about it as a way of processing some of what we learned, although for reasons of confidentiality I can't share too many anecdotes. But here are some of my big takeaways--

1) Finding a position in school leadership is not nearly as simple as it once was. While the workshop was explicitly not about how to go about finding a position of leadership in a school, the stories of all the presenters involved how they more or less fell into leadership positions by default or by invitation. These days, there seem to be few such paths available for advancement, since most schools are choosing not to promote from within and will consider primarily candidates who already possess experience at a given level for positions at that level. The big question I have is about how to break into that closed circle. Rumor has it that with the end of the recession on its way, and with a wave of retirement for senior leaders who have kept their positions for longer than in the past, there will be in the next three to five years a number of openings across the country for aspiring leaders. But so far that seems to be just a rumor.

2) In order to have effective leadership, a school must have in place good systems as well as good people. We spent a good deal of time considering various qualities of leadership and differing "leadership styles" (a phrase I still find somewhat vacuous). We talked about things that would make leadership especially ineffective. But in the end, it seemed that one could have all the leadership ability in the world and not be able to effect positive change in an institution if the systems and structures in place do not permit it. A question about this came up for me in a session involving the importance of telling your school's story. Since the stories we tell both reflect and construct the reality of the narrated, it matters a great deal who is telling the story and how. Since anyone can tell whatever stories they want, how is it that some stories become privileged over others, even when those stories are coming from a place that is, for lack of a better word, unsanctioned by the institution? Or, conversely, when does a school leader have a duty to provide a narrative for the community, and therefore is any person who provides a compelling and persuasive narrative by that token a school leader? Sometimes systems need to be created where compelling positive narratives need to be generated and disseminated, and some schools do not have good systems for this. One function of faculty meetings, or student assemblies, or parent conferences, or board retreats, is to assert some control (in the broad sense of two-way communication and influence, per James Beniger*) over those narratives. Dysfunctional systems do not provide such forums for this essential two-way communication and reciprocal influence to take place.

3) Leadership is not about behaving a certain way but about knowing how to adapt one's behavior in the face of complex, ever-changing circumstances in which complete information is seldom available. The best way to approach being a leader, therefore, is to be extraordinarily self-aware, since what is required at any given moment may necessitate a choice from a number of viable responses to a situation. Reacting instinctively may work from time to time, but over the long run it will cause more harm than good. Even effective leaders find that their welcome is worn out in an institution where they have done much good for many years. The metaphor that was shared with us is that of coming into a position with a stack of chips to spend. Ineffective leaders run out of chips more quickly than others, but even good leaders eventually have only a small stack remaining, and the institution needs someone with a different chip stack. This metaphor is worth remembering, since institutions will remain after individuals leave (most of the time), and while an individual's influence on the place and on its participants may be quite significant, it cannot be larger than the school. Play your chips knowingly and well, and try when possible to use the chips that you didn't even know you had at the table with you (underdeveloped skills and capacities).

Beniger, James R. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986. Beniger's discussion of the definition of control on pages 6-10 is enlightening.

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