By Bob Henderson
Serving as a school head is a profound honor and joy, which many describe as the greatest job in the world. Those who seek the role are most often compelled by the desire to do good for a community, and have the ambition to create an environment that will produce people who make a significant and positive mark on the world. Much is frequently said about the challenges and stresses of headship and its growing complexity, but most experienced heads will attest that the opportunities and pleasures of the role far outweigh the perils. Much of the strain of headship can be avoided or minimized by being attentive to the blunt alerts below about how you need to behave in your first few months on the job, whether you are starting your first headship or entering a second or third school as “The Boss.”
First, it is a certainty that someone in the community will not think you were the right choice. The most obvious source of such resistance may be a senior administrative officer who was at some point a candidate for the position and thought he or she was better suited. More subtly, it may be such a person who never actually threw a hat in the ring, but secretly harbored that ambition. Or it may be an individual or faction within the faculty, parent group or graduate body. Under those circumstances, the right course of action is simply to ignore it. Such sentiments cannot be confronted, appeased or consoled, and your confident daily performance and assumption of effective leadership will be the best balm over time.
Second, your isolation is likely to be immediate and sustained, even if you establish strong and healthy relationships among the staff and board members. If you are a new head, the sudden absence of any true peers in the institution can be a jarring revelation. A favorite topic of conversation among senior administrators will be how to navigate your style and quirks, and how to work with and around you. Some of it may not be flattering, were you to overhear it. You will not be privy to those exchanges and you must accept it as part of your role that—even if you have outstanding connections to your senior staff—they are not your pals. Trustees can be friends, but they are also your employers and will be evaluating your performance attentively if they are doing their jobs well. They too, are not your true peers. Building support networks outside of the institution, and perhaps hiring a mentor and thought partner, are crucial steps.
Third, schools are more akin to villages or parishes than to corporations. You cannot enter issuing directives, even when you think you have a hiring mandate for change. Doing so alienates empowered constituencies. Change requires a patient, nuanced approach, the construction of teams with specific focus, and the assertion of goals that make steady progress toward more narrowly grasped audacious long-term objectives. Moreover, a leader has to accept that she or he will be more successful when recognizing that some, if not most, members of her or his new community may be smarter and/or more creative than he or she is. It is certainly true that the collective intelligence of a good administrative team exceeds considerably that of the individual head. Suppressing one’s ego and allowing subordinates to shine is critical, trusting that the head will, in the end, be recognized for the institutional success this approach engenders. The exception is, of course, a crisis. The key is not to be confused about whether you are confronting a true crisis or merely some significant discomfort that emerges from anxiety over transition or, as Sir Francis Bacon termed them, “Idols of the mind.” If it is indeed a true crisis, it is in fact also an opportunity. It will provide a window to effect change more swiftly than under more normal circumstances, as well as a chance for you to demonstrate leadership skill and gravitas. In my first year as a head I had to confront a whole series of genuinely daunting crises, the most important outcomes of which were that I bonded closely with my board of trustees, displayed a degree of competence that cemented my acceptance as the leader of the community, and was allowed to advance my broad agenda for the school more rapidly than I otherwise could have.
The fourth alert is a corollary to the third – your EQ will probably take you further in your role than your IQ. The most important task for a head entering a new community is to ascertain the culture and values of the local civilization. The search process and institutional propaganda may have taught you a lot, but there are hidden norms, complex relationships, unspoken expectations and sacred cows that you have to ferret out and understand on your own, before you can, as necessary, challenge them. You need to establish a clear read on the personalities, minds and habits that surround you. There is an old adage that a fish can’t see the water in which it swims. A newcomer, however, has a unique and fleeting chance to comprehend the whole environment. In that sense, your first task is largely anthropological, understanding the entire milieu and zeitgeist of the planet upon which you have landed.
Finally, from the very start you must understand that you have to walk your talk. You are under a microscope, with people in every constituency looking for cues and clues in regard to direction, behavior, tone, values and expectations. You will be exhausted, looking for the chance to relax and simply be yourself, yet you cannot forget that your every utterance or interaction is likely to be imbued with meaning for others. You have to be honest, clear, consistent and direct, while at the same time effusively grateful, thanking others often and publically for their accomplishments and behavior that has advanced the community in the direction you prefer. Gandhi said that we must become the change we wish to see in the world; I never fully understood this burden until I became a school head, and I learned some of the reality of it through errors that took me much time and energy to undo.
I was very fortunate when I first became a head to have a board chair who was truly dedicated to my success and development. He was also a talented corporate executive with much to share of relevance from his professional experience. This is not often the case, nor, I would argue, can it be, given that the board president has an outside life and other pressing duties and responsibilities, including oversight of rigorous evaluation of the head’s performance. I could have used (and now strongly advocate for heads to have) a mentor and thought partner who is not connected to the school. I fully endorse the argument advanced by my colleague at RG175, Tom Olverson, in this regard. While I believe having an outside thought partner is incredibly helpful, even essential for all heads, this is especially true as heads first enter a new community, make their adjustments, sort out their relationships and the politics of the community, assess their overall personal circumstances, and establish their agendas. It is also of immense value for effective search consultants to help school communities in transition to understand these exigencies confronted by new heads and work consciously to ameliorate their impact.