Results For Independent Schools
- State of Independent Schools - Dave Taibl
- Crisis 101: Hope is not a Strategy - Jim Hulbert, J.D.
- Sizing up the Competition - Dave Taibl
Do Not Lose Your Head: The Importance of Healthy Governance in Military Schools - Jack H. Albert, Jr. D.Min.
St John's Northwesten Military Academy
Leading a school is much like learning to dance. Learning to dance without instructions or a teacher would be limiting, because there is no opportunity to practice the role without professional feedback. When one learns to dance, there is typically an instructor, together with practice and rehearsals. In a school community, however, the leader, or head in this case, often finds himself smack in the middle of a crowded dance floor. On the floor, there are students with needs and demands. Nearby there might be parents seeking answers and offering particularly helpful and timely suggestions. Of course, there will always be faculty and alumni. Each group arrives on the floor with its own special needs and desires. As if the floor were not crowded enough, the Board of Trustees and friends of the school show up for good measure.
Yes, the dance floor of a school head can become very crowded; jam-packed to the extent of adding confusion to an already difficult task. This is when a school head would do well to step back and reflect on what is happening to him, or her. It is here that the head might discuss with the Board an opportunity for a sabbatical, or possibly a period of respite at retreat with other heads. It might be as simple as taking time with a coach or mentor to reflect on best ways to deal with school situations. Providing time off the dance floor is also one of the responsibilities of the Board's Executive or Governance Committee and should be part of the discussion in the annual review of the head by one or both of them.
And this is what Heifetz and Linsky refer to as taking a balcony perspective, suggesting that one come off the dance floor and "go to the balcony . . ."
It is from the balcony perspective that I have reflected on what can happen to good leaders who assume the mantle of head of school. From this level I have learned to better appreciate and understand the role of head of school and the demands of service that are placed on leaders. These observations 'from the balcony' have confirmed my conviction that those called to the vocation of head of school are a unique priestly lot.
For years men and women have held leadership positions in independent schools. These ministers of trust have faithfully practiced their craft of developing the skills of boys and girls, thus giving testimony to Erasmus's notion that "the best hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth."
Given the complexities of our time and the nuances of our school cultures, holding true to the testimony of Erasmus's thought is not always easy; more often, it is fraught with stress and disappointment.
This nuance is nowhere better explained than in Leonard Baird's classic work The Elite Schools: A Profile of Prestigious Independent Schools, in which he wrote, "the administrator of an independent school whether in the role of the headmaster or teacher-administrator is in a difficult and complex task. An administrator particularly must satisfy many groups." In his equally significant work, American Non Public Schools: Patterns of Diversity, Otto F. Kraushaar amplifies this thought when he quotes educator and philosopher Robert Hutchins: "he [the headmaster] deals with at least six constituencies: the faculty, the trustees, students, parents, alumni, and the public, each of whom could claim much of his time. And there is the hazard... that he will spend enough time with each of the six to irritate the other five." In other words, headship is not for the faint of heart.
The seed of this article germinates from the stresses and disappointments of independent military school leaders and their relationships with others to include the board chair and members of the board. Governance is thus a serious matter in all our schools. Ineffective governance can often cause a school to literally lose its head.
Heads of independent military schools leave or consider leaving for many reasons. One primary cause is failed or failing relationships between them and their board members or the chairperson of the board. These relationship failures not only fuel the turnover of heads in these schools, but also foster an ethos of dissonant leadership in these schools. This dissonance places school leaders out of sync with members of their staff and faculty, as well as with students and other school families. Further, such dissonance creates disharmony and dysfunction in schools, often breeding distrust between leaders and resulting in the failure of the efforts made for our children.
The behavior known as dissonance can be prevented. It is known that coherent, healthy schools abound when school leaders take a mature and wise approach to the learning found in leadership concepts, such as those in the rubric of emotional intelligence and its competencies. These practiced competencies test and encourage the intentional-change efforts of leaders who hold firm to the belief that leadership is a learned capability. The practice of this learned capability hones the skill-improvement that is critical in the development of resonant leadership.
Most leaders in independent military schools are certainly responding to a call on their lives. They attend to the need(s) of others yet are often not attended to; maybe for years. Such a disconnect emboldens one to suggest that people in this barren place need a set of skills to ply their trade in a more effective and intelligent way. Consequently, this might be called simply leadership learning as a means of addressing some of the more important issues that are fermenting in the cauldron of school governance relationships. Healing these relationships is mission critical for the success and health of a school. Such healing can be accomplished by a wise person (a skilled consultant; a causal agent) who intervenes with a set of skills or competencies employing, for example the concept of emotional intelligence.
This model to heal suffering and dissonance succeeds in large measure by having an established process and procedure enhanced by an appraisal that seeks to refine each level of improvement worked on. Again, the practice of this work is underpinned by the attributes of emotional intelligence as defined by Daniel Goleman and its skill competencies, enhanced by a person's intent to change behaviors.
As stated earlier, this process is best executed by one who wisely guides those leaders intent on change through a series of practical experiences which will be fashioned by their own learning styles and beliefs. The leaders should be encouraged to persevere in these experiences, with broad latitude allowed for failing and succeeding alike. This testing in the safe presence of the wise counselor is recommended in order to nurture growth and resonance.
This model informs a process. The process is a journey. It is not a formula or a technique, or another how-to book or seminar (even though the journey may begin as the result of a meeting or seminar, or as the result of reading a book). The wise person leading this effort must be a practitioner of the process in order to best assist those in need. There are many ways in which this process can be delivered to schools and their leaders.
First, school leaders can set up a visit from or to a successful military school leader or other military school or its board to facilitate a discussion on the relationship between members of boards and heads. A series of case studies could be used as a starting point from which to explore mutually beneficial solutions to a school issue or issues under discussion.
A second approach addresses every school's concern with budgets and the costs of professional development. Because recourse to consultants is often an expensive undertaking, a not-for-profit consulting consortium could be offered as one cost-efficient alternative. One way may be to seek reduced service rates from existing consultants or university professors who will often provide work gratis.
One very practical way to introduce this work is for the head of school to create the process as a means of professional development for the faculty and staff of his or her school. After seeking the board's endorsement, the school could make this endeavor a three-year strategic effort with significant work but little expense. This way there would be reporting exposure to the board of trustees, and meaningful work would be provided by the professional staff of the school. Everyone has the potential to benefit. Again, however, this places the person delivering these efforts in a vulnerable position, because we all know creative ideas are usually open to criticism and rejection. This is simply a risk one must take in the arena of leadership.
Finally, this effort is not the only way to insure resonant leadership in our schools, but it is a way, it works, and it is needed.