leadership, top, head of school, head, independent school, board, board chair, theory, leader, expertise

It Doesn’t Have to be Lonely At the Top

Not long ago, a trustee of a prominent independent day school groused to me that the Head of School doesn’t lead “he just goes around asking other people what they think. No one knows where he stands. We need a vision of where the school should be in five years, ten years, and he needs to spearhead that, not merely reflect the thinking of others.

”It wasn’t too many days later that I was having lunch with a trustee at a second well-known day school who said substantially the same thing about his Head of School: “Not only does he not want to stake out positions, but those of us on the board who want to push him are stymied by a do-nothing board chair who doesn’t want to rock the boat.”

It may be that the theory of distributed leadership has carried many of today’s Heads too far. Being collaborative and seeking the wisdom and opinions of others is smart, but merely being a compendium of the thinking of others is not leadership, it’s homogenization. Our RG175 colleague Coreen Hester has written that heads get “so enmeshed with being liked and being simpatico with their various constituencies that they forget to assess where the organization is and where the organization is going. They get mired in their relationships.”

It is the task of the leader to take the thinking of others and help fit it together in a cohesive way that reflects her/his own thinking. “Distributed leadership” means distributing responsibility and even authority to others, yes, but you cannot distribute yourself or your position when you’re the Head of School. The board and the constituencies all look to you.

Boards want a leader, not a mouthpiece for the thinking of others. Faculties want to be led. Parents want someone who will tell them the way the School should run and then run it. Students want a Head who’s clearly in charge. And being in charge doesn’t mean having an authoritarian, overbearing presence; it means putting faith and trust in others, giving responsibility to others, including many people in key conversations, listening to students and parents, along with faculty and trustees, but not being afraid to be decisive and say, “After careful thought and deliberation, this is what we’re going to do.”

Too few Heads realize that they are the educational leader in the School. They were hired because of their expertise. In the boardroom, they are the ones trustees turn to on educational matters. Trustees have real lives; they don’t want to be school heads. They expect to be solicited for advice in their areas of expertise, but they want the Head to lead the way when it comes to school and the only time they’re tempted to “play school” is when they think the Head isn’t moving the School forward. They look to the Head to light the path to the future. The way forward begins with the Head.

The old cliché has it that it’s lonely at the top. It’s only lonely if one’s alone. If a leader has taken the time to win others to his/her point of view or direction, and brought them along through the process, then the leader will find plenty of support at the top. But it’s important throughout that process of inclusion for the Head to recognize that all those other people want/need to know where s/he thinks they should be heading and once they do, they’ll willingly follow the leader.