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The accelerating retirement of baby boomer heads and the enrollment pressures many schools have been facing since the Great Recession present a significant challenge for independent school trustees as they select new heads to guide their schools in uncertain times.

Many search consultants think that this new leadership will come from the ranks of the so-called “rising stars.” These are senior administrators who have been highly successful as division heads, deans, or assistant heads. These jobs require supervision, management, and problem solving, but they often do not require leadership. Leadership is about changing the way people think and the way people behave in order to attain different and desired results. Leaders understand intuitively the dynamic and symbiotic relationship between thinking and behaving. They understand that sometimes a change in thinking leads to a change in behavior just as a change in behavior can lead to a change in thinking. This understanding, so crucial to adding value to an underperforming school, is rarely a part of the skill set of “rising stars.”

Given the high stakes of independent school leadership in an era of a fluctuating economy and low-school enrollment, what should search committees be looking for? What are the qualities of those who have the capacity to lead a successful change effort?

What follows is a primer on what a head needs to be and do in order to be a true leader. My hope is that the identification of these qualities and behaviors will focus the work of search committees as well as promote the self-reflection of aspiring heads. In particular, search committees for schools must frame the search process in a way that uncovers these qualities in candidates or, at the very least, identifies the potential for candidates to develop the necessary ways of thinking and skill sets to change the trajectory of the school.

What Motivates the Candidate?

What does the candidate believe? Leadership begins with self-knowledge, a deep understanding of who you are and what truly motivates you. Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College and the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes her thought process in deciding to become the president of Smith College in 2013: “I believe in women’s education; I know there are significant challenges at Smith, just as there are at any college; it’s my job to figure it out with my team.”

The power of these seemingly simple declarations is profound. McCartney’s belief in women’s education is not just an intellectual exercise; it drives her to action, even when she is unsure of what that action is going to be. Her statement is a testament to the power of her convictions, and those convictions will overcome the seemingly daunting challenges and inevitable setbacks that come with the job. Also, implicit in her response is the fact that she is a learner, another essential trait of a leader. Search committees must move beyond educational philosophy statements to uncover the true beliefs of each candidate. Those beliefs represent values, and values translate into action.

What drives the candidate? This is a variation of the previous question, but it is more personal and, often, more irrational. If a candidate is going to truly lead a school, she will need a reserve of energy in order to prevail. The beginning of the change process is a lonely time for a leader. What energy reserves will she draw on to continue the fight and will they be enough? Power? Status? Winning? The successful underdog? A fear of failure? It may not matter what those drivers are as long as they provide the candidate energy to maintain her resolve in the face of intense and inevitable skepticism that comes with doing what many think is impossible.

Can the candidate use her beliefs to inspire people? If a search committee thinks that leading an underperforming school is simply about coming up with a five-point plan, it is terribly misguided. Leadership is about transforming people, helping them find meaning in their lives by getting them to play a significant role in achieving something great. One successful head recently told a teacher candidate, “I’m not looking for someone to work for me; I’m looking for someone to work for a cause.”Transformative change requires extraordinary performance from many people, performance that goes above and beyond individual job descriptions. A head doesn’t need to be a great public speaker to inspire. But her ability to communicate a compelling vision and a path to achieving it, her ability to show how this journey will make a difference to those with whom she works, and her ability to demonstrate through daily actions that she is worth following and embodies the very change she seeks — these are essential skills for a leader. They are very different from giving orders and solving problems. If you want followers, you have to win them.

Is the Candidate a Realist?

In the 1990s, Al Adams, a school consultant and former head of school at Lick-Wilmerding High School (California), wrote an article for Independent School advocating a transition process for new heads. Specifically, Adams argued for the new head in his first year to play the role of anthropologist, to study the school objectively, and to understand at a deep level its strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. This is sage advice for any new head, but for a head taking over a school in need of transformational change, it is required for success. Too many heads bring their own biases to their new schools, or they unthinkingly apply success formulas from their experiences at previous schools. Search committees must find candidates who rely on objective, unbiased data to make decisions. President McCartney’s statement acknowledging the challenges at Smith indicates her predisposition to shed the rose-colored glasses and tell the truth about the school. In essence, she is teeing up the call to arms — yet another sign of a great leader.

Objectivity is not simply a euphemism for being hypercritical. Every school has assets, and frequently those assets play a vital role in launching the change process. Moreover, schools do not often welcome revolutions. The case for change often begins with the leader’s embrace of all that is good about the school, and that embrace, in turn, heightens the credibility of the leader and ultimately his or her power to effect change. One successful head consistently lauded the relationships between teachers and students in his frequent first-year stump speeches and later incorporated that value into a vision for the school. His objectivity and his desire to find not just the bad but the good as well allowed him to identify this value and use it to persuade people to follow.

The focus of the head’s dispassionate investigation should be on mission, identity, and brand. Mission is why the school exists; identity is what the school really is; and brand is what the public thinks the school is. An objective, deep, and systematic analysis of these three domains will yield deep insights that will, in turn, set the stage for creating a vision, a vital element in transforming a school.

Schools require heads that use objectivity as a tool to assess its present condition and use that assessment as a springboard for change. To this end, search committees need to question candidates closely about how they make decisions — the gathering of qualitative and quantitative data and the analysis used to formulate a course of action. As New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “Awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom.”

Will the Candidate Be a Visionary?

Almost every opportunity statement for a head of school position boldly insists that the school is looking for a true visionary. Yet I suspect that if I asked search committees what “true visionary” means, they would be hard pressed to explain. Because of the school’s insistence that the candidate be a visionary, the ambiguity about what that really means, and the distinct possibility that a successful candidate will assume that her biases should shape the vision for the school, the “vision thing” is often flawed from start to finish. But vision is a vital component of true leadership. Vision defines and inspires. It focuses time, energy, and resources and motivates people to take extraordinary actions — all in service to a noble cause. With vision, the school is acting with a purpose. Administrators and teachers are not just solving problems; they’re solving problems with an end in mind. There is a huge difference.

Vision done right is not a creation; it is a revelation — one that emerges from deep and integrative thinking that focuses on four critical areas:

  • the beliefs of the candidate;
  • the mission of the school;
  • the identity of the school; and
  • the brand of the school.

The vision emerges not just from thinking about each area in isolation but also from looking for connections. This is true interdisciplinary thinking, the kind of thinking that Project Zero Principal Investigator Veronica Boix-Mansilla at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has been championing for several years in her path-blazing work on interdisciplinary studies. For new heads, the deep, thoughtful, and creative insights that result from this thinking produce a vision that not only has the power to inspire but is also grounded in the reality of the head’s beliefs, what the school is trying to be, what the school really is, and how the school is perceived in the marketplace. What emerges is not just a vision, but also as A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin call it in their book, Playing to Win, a “winning aspiration.”

To determine if a candidate has the capacity to be a visionary can be difficult but not impossible. The answers to focused questions about initiative often suggest visionary potential. In particular, what challenges did the candidate undertake? Why? What did she do? And most important, what was the result? Too many search committees are enamored with actions in response to problems. I want to know the results. If a candidate thinks in terms of results, and especially, if she indicates that the results of her actions did not meet her expectations, she has my attention. Her response suggests high standards, objectivity, and a willingness to hold herself accountable — all indications of having humility and being a winner.

Because it is difficult to determine if a head candidate will naturally gravitate toward being a visionary, I believe executive coaching and mentoring from experienced, successful former heads can be highly valuable in the first year. First-time heads need someone with extensive experience in bringing about change to help them think deeply about the school and to shape a vision. Successful heads are uniquely qualified to be a sounding board and provide counsel. Search firms that offer ongoing services for a first-time head in his or her first year provide a valuable resource — although it’s one that currently is underused.

Finally, the sometimes lengthy gestation period for a vision to emerge reinforces Al Adams’s wisdom for new heads to take the time to learn about the school and its culture, the market and competition, and how and if the mission is lived on a daily basis. The Supremes sang, “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The same is true for vision.

Will the Candidate Execute?

Real change agents are never fully satisfied with mere theoretical discussions about what should change and how. They want to execute. They want to see if their visions can be achieved. Yes, they want to make sure that their actions align with the vision, but they don’t want to suffer from “analysis paralysis.” Their entrepreneurial spirit, including their willingness to try, fail, and learn, calls them to act with a sense of urgency once a plan has been developed.

It is imperative that search committees determine if a first-time head candidate has the courage, instinct, and knowledge to execute the plan that will achieve the vision. More specifically, search committees should try to determine if the candidate can and will do the following:

  1. Make difficult personnel decisions. Firing people is never easy, but more often than not, it is crucial to achieving the vision; without the right people to execute the plan and generate new ideas, real change will not happen.

  2. Attract talent. This is the flip side of firing people. The new head has to build a talented team, including a great board. And because the school often lacks demonstrated success, the head’s ability to sell, to persuade, and to convince is absolutely vital to realizing the dream. A search committee should look for passion.

  3. Focus time, energy, and resources on what matters. For too many first- time heads, every initiative and every budget item has equal importance. These heads cripple the change process by spreading out resources instead of concentrating them in order to make a difference.

  4. Understand the momentum of change by finding and celebrating wins and, at the same time, never being satisfied. Having one foot planted firmly in the present while the other is planted in the future is a vital quality of the successful change agent. At the beginning of the change process, finding and celebrating wins, no matter how small, strengthen the credibility of the leader and engender enthusiasm for the cause. But the celebrations must not lead to complacency. A good leader never stops selling, never stops motivating, and never stops inspiring. This is why search committees have to identify what truly drives a candidate.

  5. Create a culture of innovation. Developing a vision and a theory for how that vision will be achieved does not mean that the head has to come up with all the ideas. Quite the contrary, the head’s job is to create the culture that prompts new ideas and initiatives. But most significant, those initiatives have to help the school get to the “winner’s circle” as defined by the head’s vision. Not all ideas have equal merit. Successful leaders use the vision to focus the creative energy of its teachers and administrators. One school head constantly told his administrative team, “Best idea wins.” Search committees would do well to discover to what degree the candidate believes that her success is the direct result of the success of those who work for her.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the qualities needed to lead a school. Nor should search committees view these leadership qualities as a checklist. But they should inform search committees’ thinking and perspective. Head candidates who are comfortable with change and have a passion to lead a change effort are not common in the independent school world. This is a world that rewards risk-avoidance, clings to tradition, and too often bows to the desires of powerful constituencies to the detriment of the school. The dearth of easily identifiable leaders is especially alarming when one considers the challenges many schools face. According to NAIS President John Chubb, 50 percent of NAIS member schools are facing enrollment pressures. Search committees must either find true leaders or identify the latent leadership qualities of “rising stars” in order to change the trajectory of their schools. The challenge is great, and the stakes are high.