One of the most powerful tools an independent school leader has is perspective, an ever-evolving practice of seeking deeper and deeper insights into the landscape of reality. Those insights can lead to better strategic thinking and better strategic decisions.
But clearly seeing and understanding reality without a commitment to the mission and culture of the school is a prescription for disaster. It makes the head an outsider, a real threat to the long-standing values of the school. Independent schools are typically not ripe for being blown up and put back together. When heads try to do this, they often get fired. On the other hand, too many heads are oblivious to the landscape of reality, unconcerned about how the school’s mission might intersect with the market or more often, hamstrung by orthodox independent school beliefs that blind them to the particular circumstances that define the school’s challenges. Some heads enter their new school communities, tenaciously holding on to principles learned at previous schools and determined to replicate them. It’s like a doctor prescribing a treatment before understanding what the illness is.
It’s easy for independent schools to be bubbles; many of them are. In an effort to establish a brand, schools tout their student achievements, publicize their victories, and tell stories about what makes their communities different and special. They want parents, students, alumni, and faculty armed with positive information that engenders loyalty and a sense of pride. These are good things. However, they can be debilitating when the head is swept up by them, paralyzing efforts to learn and gain deeper insights about what the school really is and how it is perceived in the market. A head must be committed to the mission of the school, but she cannot be a “true believer,” to use Eric Hoffer’s term, and fail to ask uncomfortable questions in service to the mission of the school.
The proper perch for a head of school is one that embraces what for many, might be a contradiction — being “all in” while maintaining a distance. David Brooks’ recent editorial in The New York Times offers sage advice to a head of school or any leader in order to reconcile this tension: live “at the edge of inside.” At the edge of inside allows a head to use her imagination to integrate the school’s mission and how it is expressed with the existing reality: “insiders and outsiders tend to think in dualistic ways: us versus them; this or that… but the beginning of wisdom is to fight the natural tendency to be dualistic. The person on the edge of inside is more likely to see wholeness of any situation.” A head of school has to be both a champion and a skeptic. She has to be both head cheerleader and chief questioner. As chief questioner, the head, in reality, is chief learner, believing that deeper and deeper insights create leverage that will help the school do a better job of living its mission.
So new heads of school, look for “the edge of inside.” That’s where the journey to meaningful change begins.