A recent conversation with a search committee member has me thinking about the difference between “positive thinking” and “wishful thinking,” and the impact this seemingly subtle difference has on leadership searches in schools. Like any good researcher in 2023, I turned to ChatGPT to help me understand where they diverge. ChatGPT started with the obvious: “Positive thinking is not necessarily the same as wishful thinking.” It continued, “Wishful thinking is when someone has a desire for something to be true without evidence or logical reason for it to be true. Positive thinking, on the other hand, is the practice of focusing on positive thoughts, emotions, and beliefs in order to improve one’s well-being and overall outlook on life.” Not bad, right? Since the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking: A Practical Guide to Mastering the Problems of Everyday Living by Norman Vincent Peale in 1952, when it spent 186 weeks as a New York Times bestseller, positive thinking has seemed inextricably tied to the American psyche. As Peale conceived of it, positive thinking involves work, discipline, and focus. Wishful thinking involves, well, wishing.
The search for a new head of school is a time when, in the best of circumstances, positive and wishful thinking come together. Typically, a search offers the opportunity for all constituents to articulate their hopes and dreams for the school’s future. It is then the search committee’s role to translate those wishes into a thoughtful, thorough, and successful search that is guided by the evidence and logic noted by both Peale and ChatGPT.
I would posit that there are four qualities that drive all successful searches: honesty, transparency, discipline, and evidence.
1. Schools need to be honest about who they are, what challenges they face, and how much change they are ready for. Too often, school communities focus on their aspirations or inflated self-image rather than the realities of a difficult market, how they are viewed by those outside the school community, or how existential the challenges the school faces.
2. Transparency is essential to building trust in the process and excitement for the ultimate outcome. It is sometimes a tricky line to walk between the confidentiality candidates desire and the community’s need to know what is happening with the search, but trust in the process withers with a lack of clear and consistent communication.
3. A disciplined process that stays laser focused on the school’s needs for leadership is critical to a successful search. Plenty of distractions will present themselves, and bias—prejudice in favor of or against a person or group when compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair—can infect an otherwise thoughtful process if a search is undisciplined, leading to bad decisions.
4. Search committees need to rely, above all, on evidence. How does a search committee know that candidates present the vision, values, and experiences they seek in their next head of school? RG175 helps schools ask the right questions and contextualize the responses.
Attention to these four criteria throughout a search can help a school stay firmly in the realm of positive thinking, avoid the trap of wishful thinking, and land a great new head of school.