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Opportunity statements for head positions at independent schools more often than not indicate that the school is looking for a “visionary” leader. And, indeed, vision is often critical to the advancement of a school. It separates true leaders from managers. And yet, heads of school struggle with the “vision thing” often because they do not understand what it is and how it pertains to leading an independent school. Moreover, they suspect that they should develop a vision, but are unclear where to begin.

Creating a vision is hard; it requires self-knowledge, imagination, an understanding of the landscape of reality, and a rigorous commitment to the school’s mission. It is much easier to be “problem-solver in chief,” but yet, the hard work and time spent developing “a winning aspiration” pays huge dividends for the head and the school down the road.

Misunderstandings about what vision is and how it should be developed abound in the independent school world. For some, vision is simply what was successful at their former schools: “If it worked at School X, it’s bound to work here.” This shallow thinking disregards the specific circumstances of the new school; it is easy, but it is often wrong. Vision can also go awry when the head fails to check her passions with the mission of the school, the political realities of the school community, and the marketing realities that the school faces. It is not good enough to come up with a vision; a head must come up with a vision that can be realized and that will truly help the school do a better job of living its mission. This is why the best visionary leaders create dreams that can be achieved and can make a difference, and that in turn, result from deep insight into the head’s passions, the nature of the school, and the nature of the community it serves. But make no mistake; creating a vision is the head’s responsibility, not the responsibility of the trustees. There is no way that trustees have the time, nor the expertise, to gain the kind of deep insights into a school that will become the foundation of a vision.

Creating a vision begins with the head understanding what she is passionate about in education. This self-understanding and the ability to articulate this passion can provide the animating force in her leadership. It is what gives vision the ability to inspire others and drive them to take extraordinary actions in support of a worthy cause. Passion is essential to vision; without it, there is no possibility of building a community in service to a meaningful cause.

But the leader’s unchecked passion can just as easily lead to failure because it has not been grounded in the mission of the school and the political and market realities that the head faces. Rather than creating a “winning aspiration,” the head inflicts her beliefs on an unwilling and unresponsive school community. Vision has to make sense. It has to be part of the school’s larger historical narrative in order to inspire the stakeholders; otherwise it becomes delusional bias, incapable of garnering followers.

Many veteran heads and consultants advise new heads to take several months at the beginning of their tenures to learn about the school, its programs and its culture. This is certainly sage advice. But what is rarely mentioned is the connection between learning about the school and developing a vision. The deep insights gained from studying the history of the school and its culture and mission, from interviewing veteran faculty and administrators, from talking with trustees and former trustees – this deep learning allows the head to use her imagination to integrate her deeply held beliefs about education, the limits and possibilities for the school, and what the school truly needs to better serve its mission. The integration and the succinct articulation of this integration is the most powerful tool a head has to bring about substantial, positive change in a school. And yet, few first-time heads understand how central this work is to leadership.

The right vision creates a community of shared meaning. Stakeholders derive meaning by helping to create something bigger and greater than any individual. In particular, faculty and administrators are able to use their creativity to build programs that will help realize the vision and fulfill their professional and creative aspirations. The head can use the vision to rally the stakeholders and inspire them to see their work as more than just a job, but rather a cause that lends purpose to their lives.

Vision is the essence of leadership.