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From Good to Good Enough? II - Jewish Press 3.19.2014

Before proceeding any further I would like to emphasize that I have the utmost respect for our communal leaders. These are my colleagues, and I know just how talented they are, how hard they work, how much they routinely accomplish and how much they have invested in the success of their organizations and communities. I recognize they easily could have taken their abundant capabilities elsewhere and pursued more lucrative and less frustrating (or at least less consuming) positions. Instead, they chose a life of communal service. They asked how they could give back to their communities and elevate them to newfound levels of growth and achievement.

I believe every leader deserves our support and appreciation.

But I also know that I assumed an executive position in school administration with two master’s degrees and a number of years of teaching experience under my belt. I had also served in two separate administrative positions for a total of eight years (this does not include three years as part-time program director providing teacher training, parenting and mentoring services) and was able to strengthen each program where I had worked. Yet, in retrospect, I feel that all my aggregate training and experience was insufficient in preparing me for the new challenges presented by my role of head of school of a sizable community day school.

In my new position, I had to understand and optimize board function, engage with a much broader range of constituents, identify and articulate the school’s mission and vision, together with a host of other new responsibilities. I had to do so in a context in which I followed a longstanding leader who had built the school from infancy and was now being asked to introduce some meaningful second order change. There was simply nothing in my preexisting toolkit that could prepare me adequately for those many charges. I know that many other leaders have experienced similar challenges in one form or another.

The question, then, is simple. If we are to assume that many of our leaders – professional and lay – would benefit from increased, targeted leadership training as well as support, guidance and a listening ear in the form of committees, coaches, consultants or something similar, why are we not providing it on a more consistent basis?

Why is it that only a small number of leadership programs exist, and that the ones we do have are often limited in their focus or capacity? Why don’t we work to ensure that every person charged with advancing the institutional mission must immerses him or herself in understanding how to navigate complex organizational entities in rapidly shifting times and then provide these men and women the time and resources to do so? Do we not want these leaders to be fully capable of leading their charges from “Good to Great,” for the ultimate benefit of our children and our communities?

I suspect there are a few reasons for this attitude. One is the absence of funding. You are likely aware that most if not all of our schools receive (frequently significant) dollars through No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a federally funded program designed to provide academic support for students in the form of small group instruction and coaching in schools. They also receive monies (normally on a more modest scale) for such things as professional development (PD) trainings for teachers as well as educational materials. This is in addition to dollars that have traditionally been budgeted by schools from their own coffers for this purpose.

In contrast, our schools receive no monies toward leadership training. All leadership PD must be funded by individual leaders, their organizations, and/or a sponsoring agency or foundation. With perpetually tight budgets forcing administrators and their boards to make difficult fiduciary decisions, leadership-related investments tend to get placed squarely on the back burner.

Time constraints are another factor. It can be extremely difficult for leaders to get away or to even carve out the sustained time necessary to read, engage and be thoughtful, reflective practitioners. In the case of school principals, there are countless activities to attend to, not to mention the many “fires” that require routine extinguishment.

Lay leaders are themselves extremely busy, volunteering their time above and beyond what they must budget for their professional and personal responsibilities. Rabbis and other leaders often serve as chief fundraisers, chief programmers and chief recruiters on top of being chief executives.

A third component is culture. The corporate world is littered with coaches, consultants and motivational speakers who are engaged to enhance function and inspire productivity. It is not uncommon for executives to have one or more personal coaches, nor is it unusual for human resource departments to provide ongoing leadership training and professional development to company employees.

Hiring motivational speakers and authors to come to the workplace to offer insight and inspiration is also relatively common, particularly within larger enterprises. There is an intrinsic motivation toward excellence; improved leadership is seen as the difference between success and failure, between small margins and larger ones, and external supports are viewed as one primary way by which to increase productivity and enhance the bottom line.

No doubt awareness and appreciation for training and learning exist within our organizations at a greater level than in years past. We have seen the expansion of existing programs while new ones continue to be developed. Of greater significance is the fact that more principals and leaders are availing themselves of such opportunities. That said, our willingness to participate in training and related education and to engage coaches, consultants, etc., lags significantly in comparison to the broader marketplace.

Perhaps some of our leaders are not aware of available services or their potential benefits. Some may worry that available providers lack the requisite insider knowledge and cultural awareness. Moreover, engagement in such supports may be viewed as signs of weakness – something we only consider pursuing when our world begins to cave in around us.

* * * * *

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the absence of a more robust focus on leadership training and support is the lack of an appreciation of what we really want and should (as well as should not) want from our leaders and organizations.

Yes, we know we need to have them. They exist to help meet our religious, educational and social needs, among others. They deserve and receive our support because they serve as the backbone for everything that we seek to achieve individually and communally. But do we know what we should or should not be asking of them? Do we spend time and resources to think beyond the moment and envision how our institutions could look, whom else they could service, and how they could become even more successful?

Have we taken the time to develop comprehensive strategic plans equipped with priorities that challenge us to grow in concrete terms while also leaving go of the distractions that sap leaders’ energy and confuse their direction (and far too often serve to undermine them)?

And once we have done all that, have we put our monies where our mouths are and communicated in clear terms – in words, resources and actions – the support we are prepared to provide to ensure their actualization, including augmenting administrative levels to remove many of the low-end items from our leaders’ plates?

As stated above, our leaders are stretched as it is. We ask so much of them and are deeply indebted to them for all they do on our behalf. While we certainly want every leader to be as optimized as possible and should communicate our desire for continued professional enhancement, we cannot expect that to happen on its own, particularly with the many burdens and limitations our leaders presently face.

Communal organizations are ours to benefit from. They are our treasures and their leaders are the crown jewels. Let’s be sure to find ways to offer what we can to help them reach their true potential.