A few months ago I wrote a front-page essay (“Leading to Greatness,” October 11, 2013) with the goal of bringing attention to what I perceive to be a serious issue within our community.
The concern relates to a high level of pressure, distress and turnover among senior executives in many of our communal organizations. I outlined how anxiety and transience are widespread issues at the foremost positions within our schools and institutions, and how such conditions fundamentally compromise growth and optimization. I went on to highlight two primary factors that contribute heavily to the problem: Experience and Expectations.
Experience reflects the pathway our leaders take to the top. Naturally, a substantial number of leaders ascend to their roles after serving in second-tier administrative capacities or in positions that can be viewed as legitimate stepping stones for more robust leadership opportunities. Many also pursue some form of advanced degree in organizational or school administration in preparation for their posts.
I can testify from experience, however, that despite such experience and/or training, top-tier leaders often begin their tasks unprepared for the rigors of their new position, particularly when the experience and training focused on instructional leadership (such as classroom observation and curriculum) rather than organizational stewardship and management.
Moreover, many leaders never had the benefit of one or both of the aforementioned. They rose quickly to the top after toiling successfully in classrooms, poring studiously over texts, or doing meaningful work “in the field,” but were never challenged in a manner similar to what they then experience as chief executives.
While common wisdom might suggest the exemplary competence they previously displayed in other capacities would hold them in good stead in their new positions, many such professionals soon find that not to be the case.
Of course, the shortage of meaningful, congruent training and experience is not limited to professional leaders. Lay leaders, despite successes in their personal careers, are often unprepared for their capacity as board members. They accept their duties as an opportunity to serve but lack clarity as to how they can be genuinely helpful in supporting professional staff.
I also wrote that unrealistic and/or unclear expectations were key contributors to leadership turnover. Our hopes when it comes to leaders and their organizations are greater and more varied than they’ve ever been. Not only do we ask more from our institutions – particularly of those in the educational realm – in terms of core production, standards and service, we also have higher expectations for them regarding professionalism, financial and fundraising skills, reporting, communication, and a host of other qualifications and competencies.
Even leaders with many years of administrative experience are bound to struggle with heightened levels of expectation, especially if they lack updated skill sets and experiences necessary to meet new demands.
Perhaps you are wondering why I continue to harp on leadership-related challenges. Maybe you think I am overstating the matter by labeling the aforementioned a deep and serious problem when it really isn’t. Granted, we do not look favorably on burnout, relatively high turnover, inadequate training and the like, but are they really such a big deal? After all, aren’t our schools, synagogues, outreach organizations, etc., functioning, growing and generally succeeding?
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Before I respond to those questions let’s first take a look at what research has to say about leadership and its impact on organizational achievement. In Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), author Jim Collins highlights what he terms “Level 5” leaders. These are corporate executives who have dramatically transformed their companies’ productivity and fiscal well being over an extended period of time.
In addition to understanding their respective businesses and being able to manage core finances, Level 5 leaders were found to possess a wide range of other important competencies, such as the ability to get the right people “on the bus,” to build internal consensus, and to lead humbly from behind (commonly referred to as “Servant Leadership”).
Level 5 designees also commonly demonstrated capacity to craft and maintain a clear vision and a sense of direction for the company for both the short and long terms. They possessed the requisite skill set to lead their organizations forward in a fast-changing corporate climate – a skill set that extended far beyond the conventional “how-tos” of their respective businesses.
More specific to education, researchers have identified a powerful correlation between principal effectiveness and student achievement.
In School Leadership That Works (ASCD, 2005) Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters and Brian McNutley of McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) identify 21 primary responsibilities of school leaders, culled from a meta-analysis of many studies on the subject. These duties include being a change agent, serving as an “optimizer” (charged with establishing and maintaining a healthy school culture) and building relationships. The list also contains such qualities as possessing keen situational awareness (having the ability to make proper decisions based on constituent feedback, local politics and the like) and a general sense of the “lay of the land.”
These skills are in addition to things associated with such areas as core instruction, teacher effectiveness, curriculum development and discipline – the primary skills aspiring principals could reasonably be expected to develop along their professional pathways, and the main areas of focus for many graduate and instructional leadership programs.
In their examination of effective school leadership, Marzano and his colleagues also speak about first and second order change. They distinguish between change that is fundamentally consistent with existing organizational norms and values and does not require new learning (first order) and change that represents a clean break from the past, a divergence from existing values that demands much in the way of new learning and skills (second order).
Naturally, advancing second order change – the kind of change that is typically necessary to bring our organizations forward in line with more current best practices – demands more in terms of leadership capacity than does first order change. “Second order” skills include the ability to develop a clear vision, create a strategic plan, delegate effectively, and build equity with staff.