Understanding Power: How Heads Can Get Their Schools to Make Better Decisions

It doesn’t take a genius to know that decision-making is a key element in effective leadership. There are many dimensions of decision-making, in fact far too many to explore in a blog post. But one dimension—often overlooked—is power. Who determines who will play the central role in providing input and shaping the decision.

Let me begin with a key premise: when I was a Head of School I wanted people with the most expertise on an important issue to play the primary role in shaping the decision. If the issue involved when to teach a particular math concept, I wanted the math department to drive the decision. Likewise, if the decision involved choosing an architect, I wanted the most knowledgeable people on the Board and in the Operations office to play the primary role in selecting the firm. Pretty straightforward: get the most talented people in your organization to play significant roles in shaping decisions. As Head my job was 1) ensure that talented people were in the right positions so I could draw on their expertise with confidence and 2) communicate clearly the guardrails and priorities of the School so that the primary decision-makers had the proper guideposts.

But this simple principle too often gets derailed for two reasons: 1) some heads do not understand how to use power effectively, or more specifically, how and when to mitigate its potential negative impacts, and 2) some heads simply do not have enough humility to give away power when others have greater expertise.

Let’s dive a bit deeper.

One of the most important things a head can do in order to be successful is to constantly monitor his or her capacity to influence the outcome of a decision, vis-a-vis others’ capacity to do the same. In short, who has the power? This is why first-year heads are instructed not to make big changes. Not only do they need to understand the landscape of reality, but they need to build their capacity to influence the direction of the School. But beyond this sage advice is the reality that no head should ignore: that the Board of Trustees has the ultimate power, and the head is only an employee of that board. Thus, board meetings are potential nightmares for heads in that they create an opportunity for people with power to make decisions about perceived problems they know little about. As a result, it’s a clear violation of the premise of decision-making mentioned above; power becomes the driver of decision-making, leaving expertise in the dust. Throw in alliances within the board, friendships, unknown business relationships, and other hidden agendas and it’s easy to see how meetings can end up with heads and their senior staff doing a lot of “stuff” after the meeting or even worse, implementing bad decisions. Heads must anticipate this power dynamic, help the board chair understand the dynamic, and be prepared to minimize its impact on decision-making.

The nature of power in any school is exactly why I argue for a new head to assiduously and intentionally build up his or her “soft” power, to pay attention to optics, and to take the time to develop a brand that leads to a positive narrative about his or her leadership. But even with this kind of effort, the head must understand how the balance of power will influence the outcome and what measures can be taken to ensure that the right people are making the decision. This is exactly why board committees with real expertise are so vital. This is a group of people (if chosen correctly) who know what they are talking about, working toward the best answer, and who are able to justify that answer to the rest of the board, mitigating the power of other, less well-informed trustees. In short, if the right people are making the decisions, the head can step aside, not withstanding the guardrails and priorities.

The principle of having those with the most expertise play the primary role in making a decision demands that the leader have a harnessed ego. Here, the head’s humility and her knowledge of what she knows and what she doesn’t play a significant role. Heads have to be willing to give up power, when appropriate, in order to help the School arrive at the best decision. In many respects, one of the head’s most important jobs is to amass power in order to give it away, all for the purpose of better fulfilling the mission of the School. When the head feels the need to have her prints on all decisions, schools should be weary.

The other key factor in giving away power is an understanding of the importance of the issue as it relates to achieving the vision of the School. When an issue was low on my hierarchy of importance, I was glad to give power away quickly. When it was high, I wanted to orchestrate more carefully and direct decision-making to the right group.

All this talk about power may make some of you think that I am Machiavellian. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised in the Washington, D.C. area; it’s understandable that I believe fervently in the political dimension of running a school. Heads who ignore this dimension are prone to fail unless they have saintly boards of trustees. I believe in collaboration and partnership. I embrace these concepts, as should all leaders, but I am not so naïve to think they will always define school relationships; nor will I sacrifice the principle of having expertise be the primary driver of decision-making for the sake of collaboration.

Understanding power—how much the leader has, when to give it away, and when it is most likely to usurp good decision-making— herein lies a critical element of leadership too often ignored by heads of school.