temperament, leadership, head of school, education, independent school, personalities, qualities, ability, experience, decisions, thoughtful, management, interview

Temperament: A Critical Piece of the “Fit”

“I’m not feeling he has enough gravitas.”

“I can’t tell if her energy is accompanied by the ability to pace herself.”  

“He’s got exactly the experience we need, but there’s something a little rigid about him.”  

“She’s calm, which I appreciate, but I can’t tell if she rises to challenges.”  

All these comments have been voiced by members of search committees seeking their beloved school’s next Head. The position statement has undoubtedly listed a daunting summary of the “Opportunities and Challenges” and “Desired Characteristics” such as integrity, humor, communication skills, warmth, and kindness. God on a good day. But rarely has a search committee thought about the temperament needed for their next leader, and the specific qualities of the candidates’ hard-wired personality that will fit both the here-and-now culture of the school and the desired path for the school’s journey during the next five to ten years. How important is it that the candidate demonstrated she can read the room? Work the room? How firm will the next leader’s spine need to be? Is he conflict avoidant? Will a head whose natural leadership pace is brisk be a breath of fresh air or be overwhelming to a team used to the measured pace of their previous leader? Likewise, will the thoughtful and inclusive leader you’ve interviewed struggle to make difficult or unpopular decisions? If you’ve heard the word “healer” associated with the community’s needs, have you thought through how you might learn about a candidate’s pastoral abilities? Importantly, do you have evidence that the candidate is self-aware? 

RG175 consultants encourage schools to understand both the hard and soft skills they need in their next leader and to reflect upon how soft skills translate to hard skills; does magnetic warmth forecast prodigious fund-raising? Will a creative thinker devise workable plans and pair her innovation with management prowess? Our RG175 team strives to prevent search committees from over-correcting for the perceived temperamental weaknesses of their previous head. We’ve seen schools boomerang from a quiet, predictable manager to a charismatic innovator, often to the detriment of the administrative team and faculty who struggle to adjust to the new leader’s temperament and style. The phrase “be careful what you wish for” is one that deserves nuanced discussion in the search committee. Is the school ready for a change agent? Do you really want the next leader to “hit the ground running”? Or are you in need of a year or two of a slower pace and a quietly effective wellness campaign? 

In the search for a leader with the “right” temperament for the school’s needs, both the interview process and skilled reference checking are fundamental. During the interview process certain interviewers can be charged with asking questions that require evidence of resilience, grit, grace, humility, or other desired qualities. For example, “Can you describe a difficult or unpopular decision you made at your current school?” might reveal a candidate’s strength in the face of entrenched opposition. Or “How do you attend to your own professional and personal growth?” might divulge a candidate’s eagerness to learn and his openness to coaching and/or mentorship. And “What are some of the ways you recover from a setback?” might help the search team understand her resilience.

In reference checking, questions can be customized to ask for evidence or examples of the applicant’s temperament. A persistent reference checker should be able to ferret out both soft and hard skills, along with temperamental traits and relevant examples to buttress broad or non-specific descriptions. If the school is in search of a healer, ask for an example of the candidate’s skills at addressing difficult or demanding parents. While RG175 shares a guide to reference checking, we also encourage a thoughtfully composed bank of questions to address concerns that have been voiced during the interview process. If the search committee is worried about the candidate’s firm decision-making skills, dig deep during the reference calls. In fact, the advice to “dig deep” is one that RG175 consultants agree is critical to the quality reference checks. Too often these calls are friendly chats, not focused pursuits of the school’s needs in its next leader. 

Lastly, the question “What are three adjectives your colleagues might use to describe you?” asked to both the candidate and their references can be the most revealing. A candidate might say “approachable” “warm” and “efficient” which can then be compared to the adjectives references provide. Persistent, genuine, tenacious, pragmatic, compassionate, resourceful, energetic, honest, adventurous, joyful… Ask for a story or anecdote that brings the candidate’s resourcefulness or tenacity to life. 

Right time, right place, right person. Successful leaders are heralded for the qualities of their temperaments that fit the journey of the school: the “joyous optimist” who energized fundraising or the “calm pragmatist” who quietly built an exceptional administrative team. Temperament is a critical part of the leadership matchmaking process.