Let me begin with a belief. Independent schools that have “turned around,” schools that are thriving, and schools that have made significant advances, all have one common attribute: strong, powerful Heads of School. These Heads do not take that power for granted. They know they are accountable to the mission of the school and their respective Boards, but nonetheless, are widely viewed as the leaders of their schools, the drivers of change and school improvement, and the people that various constituencies look to for leadership. An effective Head has demonstrated through a myriad of actions that she is worth following and has earned the trust and support of the various constituencies.
In the school business this power must be earned. The only power a first-year Head has at the beginning of her tenure is the power to earn power. The primary task of any first-year Head is to build her power by building her brand as an effective leader. There is a plethora of ways for the new Head to build this brand, and in fact, these avenues can vary from school to school depending on its values. They might include knowing every student’s name, attending most of the athletic events, getting to school early, greeting students in the morning, speaking publicly about the positive qualities of the school, meeting with each teacher, staff member, and trustee during the first half of the year, listening, having an open-door policy during the first year, working harder and longer than anyone else, communicating with all constituencies, demonstrating expertise, seeking counsel from key people, always preparing thoroughly for meetings, demonstrating good judgment by making difficult decisions that align with the school’s mission, having a good sense of humor, and showing respect for all employees. These are but a few examples. The point is that a new Head is under a microscope. She is constantly being evaluated and the overall results of those evaluations largely determine her success in the future. Ideally, these brand-building actions are well within the wheelhouse of the new Head, and their authenticity is never questioned. At times, though, the Head may have to get out of her comfort zone in order to demonstrate a leadership quality particularly important to her new school. Uncomfortable as it might be, she needs to learn to like it!
Earning power by demonstrating key professional and personal qualities (in essence, building a personal brand) is essential to effective leadership. With any Head of School transition, there is a vacuum of power, typically filled by the Board of Trustees. Through the search process the Board is learning more about the school, understanding its shortcomings, and rightfully assuming its role in choosing the next Head. But with this power, trustees can also “push” their personal agendas- a recipe for disaster. Thus, it is imperative that this power be transferred back to the new Head in order for the school to thrive. But very rarely is power given away; it has to be taken.
In the case of independent schools, the new Head must wrest this power away from the Board (or faculty or senior administrators) by assiduously and thoughtfully building her brand, by demonstrating to all constituencies, most importantly the Board and the faculty, that she is worth following. Only when power shifts back to the Head and she continues to demonstrate through her actions and words that the school is in good hands, is the school poised to flourish. That so many schools “run through” Heads is often a reflection of the Head’s failure to wrestle power from the Board. Too many Heads complain about Board interference when in reality, the Head has not developed and executed a plan for taking power back from the Board, in essence a plan for building a leadership brand.
It is self-evident why it usually is a bad idea for a first-year Head to engage in strategic planning. She has not had enough time to create and articulate a vision, a “winning aspiration,” and she lacks the power to influence stakeholders enough to adopt her vision and the goals to realize it. Strategic planning is a major undertaking; it should not compete with any other goal. Likewise, a new Head’s primary goal in the first year should be earning power and should not compete with any other goal.
A new Head should never forget that inside the minds of a lot of people associated with the school is this challenge, “Prove to us that we should believe you and follow you.” Until the new Head of School has demonstrated that she is worthy of the mantle of leadership, her power to influence others is limited, and that diminished influence is not a prescription for successful strategic planning.