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In my phone conversation with NAIS president John Chubb, he stated an alarming statistic: fifty percent of all NAIS schools are facing enrollment pressures. His next statement startled me even more: “the reason, in my opinion, is a lack of leadership.” Moreover, in my role as consultant over the past three months, I have interviewed many candidates who have been fired or who have come to a mutual agreement with the board of trustees that their contracts will not be renewed. The stories are sad, filled with bitterness, regret, and often, a crisis in self-confidence.

There is, indeed, a crisis in independent school leadership, magnified by the new financial realities and the fact that many more independent schools today no longer get a “free pass” when it comes to marketing and financial sustainability. As a result, NAIS, heads of schools, search committees, trustees and consultants need to think long and hard about the assumptions that go into selecting the next generation of school heads.

What follows are some of the critical questions that independent school thought leaders need to be asking themselves:

  1. What are the qualities of real leaders and how can those qualities be identified in the search process?
  2. Does the standard search process unwittingly lead to elevating “poser” leaders ahead of real leaders?
  3. Do boards and search consultants pay enough attention to transition and especially the first year of a headship?
  4. Should the norm be that first-time heads have an executive coach?
  5. Are the NAIS Institute for New Heads and other professional development opportunities for new heads providing the kind of training that new heads need?

There are lots of schools that don’t need real leaders. Their brands and endowments are so strong that essentially they are insulated from the ill effects of bad leadership. Or for many of these schools, having an effective manager who keeps a steady hand on the wheel is good enough. But most NAIS schools are not in this enviable position. They need leaders, not just people who fill leadership positions- people with passion who can use that passion to inspire others to do things they never dreamed of; people who are constantly learning, constantly looking for insights that help them define the landscape of reality; people who can create a vision that fulfills the mission of the school and also helps it win in the marketplace; and people who have the courage to execute a plan.

It’s time – time for a change.