pace yourself, head of school leadership, leadership, decisions, change, school

Pace Yourself!

As a school leader—whether DEI Director, Dean of Faculty, DFO or Head of School—setting the right pace for change is vital. Moving too fast? You’re at risk of making your team anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. (Or all three!) Moving too slow, your beloved school can lose the positive associations that come along with energy, vigor, and forward momentum.

I speak with authority. As a former head of school, I have committed both kinds of pacing mistakes, seeing my team gasping for air when I moved at a breakneck pace, or leaving my colleagues wondering if I was asleep at the wheel when needed change was happening too slowly. My regrets generally fall in the latter category, and are mostly related to staffing. That teacher who I knew was ineffective, perhaps even a “morale-buster? I confess it took me several years to show him the door. Many of us, even those who are known for wise decisions about the pace of change, describe the most painful pacing decisions we’ve made as those around staffing. We want what’s best for the students in our school, but we know ineffective—even incompetent—colleagues and we are often so concerned about their adult needs that we fail our students or damage the institution’s reputation. “Just right” pacing often seems impossible with staffing quandaries.  

Pacing has a great deal to do with temperament. I’ve witnessed leaders who are great listeners who listen…and listen… and listen some more. Sometimes these world-class listeners, flummoxed by what they’ve heard, move cautiously and glacially. Certainly, listening is an important skill for any leader, but a willingness to move forward with a decision and acknowledge what you learned through listening will ultimately help your team understand your ability to distill and come to a decision while genuinely hearing the thoughts and concerns of your team. 

I’ve also witnessed “Ready, Fire, Aim” leaders frighten their colleagues by identifying a problem and rapidly executing a solution that feels “out of the blue.” Quick decision-making needs to be in response to a challenge that must be put in the rear-view mirror. I once ran a faculty meeting to understand how we might “fix” our yearly calendar so that school-wide events, progress-report writing, field trips, in-services, and holidays might be thoughtfully distributed. We filled an hour with back-and-forth, suggestions, and strong feelings, until a teacher raised her hand and plaintively asked, “Couldn’t you just make a decision?” There was an audible sigh of relief from all those in the room. Right. You can’t “fix” the calendar for everyone’s happiness. You CAN make a decision, share the reasoning, and more forward.  

Strong leaders set an appropriate pace for school change. But if there is a need to move quickly or slowly, strong leaders communicate the “why” of the pacing choice, and stay in close touch with those who are affected, explaining the need for a sprint drill or a leisurely stroll. Understanding what the challenges and events of the week, the month, and the year look like, an effective leader will share the 3,000-foot (or cruise altitude!) perspective and create a clear context and a well-advised tempo for the pace of change.