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In his book Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner argues that schools should teach skills to think in the manners specific to particular disciplines. Teaching students these ways of thinking—these conceptual frameworks so that they are able to gain deep insight into a topic and use the skills to solve other complex problems—should be, according to Gardner, the backbone of secondary and collegiate education. However, more often than not, memorization trumps disciplined thinking in the classroom.

We suspect that the way many heads thinking about their schools often suffers from the same superficiality that Gardner describes, in part, because our profession has not articulated a disciplined method of thinking. Typically, heads are charged with solving problems that are uncovered during the head-search process, often the result of interviews conducted by a search consultant. The pressure for a new head to solve these problems is exacerbated by the fact that the trustees accept these issues as problems in need of immediate attention. Likewise, veteran heads become victims of this same mindset, viewing their role as “master problem solver.”

Examples of conventional patterns of thinking also go beyond solving — or trying to solve — discrete problems. In some instances, a head will ask the school to embrace the latest or most popular ideas in independent school education without thought to the essential needs of the school. In other instances, a head may resort to applying successful solutions used in a previous school, push an agenda that reflects his or her personal values, or worse yet, try to imitate the 2 Independent School nearby successful competitor school. These actions, while taking up a lot of time and energy, more often than not yield little in the way of meaningful and sustainable change.

Unlike the scientific or legal fields, our profession has yet to articulate a model of thinking that best suits us. This absence in no way diminishes the outstanding work of so many independent schools throughout the country. But might a standard method of thinking, articulated and consciously employed by heads, help make our good schools better and our better schools great?

We think it can.

Mission, identity, and vision are the backbone of thinking creatively and systematically about a school. This template asks that heads understand these dimensions of their respective schools and thoughtfully connect these understandings. This “macro-thinking,” combined with a rudimentary knowledge of the virtuous cycle (described later in the article), has the power to unleash the potential of a school, often producing results far greater than heads and trustees could have imagined.


Words matter. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” in the Declaration of Independence, in effect, he sent out a standing invitation to various races, religious groups, and others victimized by discrimination to use those words to fight for their freedom. These words forced — and are still forcing — our nation to explore what equality really means. Likewise, a mission statement should be more than a statement of purpose; it should be a constant call to arms. Great schools are not the ones with the biggest endowments or the best college placements; they are the ones that constantly look for better ways to live their respective missions. This can happen only if the head uses the mission statement to hold the school accountable and inspire its constituencies to new and greater heights.

1. Did a group of people intelligently and thoughtfully discuss the “why” of the institution?

2. To what degree does the school live the mission? Does the mission align with the daily operation and culture of the school?

3. Who among the school’s leadership is able to articulate the key elements of the mission?

4. How does the school market itself, and do those statements align with the mission of the school?

Deeply understanding a school’s mission, and the manifestation of that mission, is the vital first step in thinking creatively and deeply about the school.

One head, to give one example of the centrality of mission, interviewed more than 100 people in the first four months of his tenure, including a leading placement consultant who worked with families on prep school admissions and a nearby private K–8 day school head. Initial findings indicated that the school’s mission was unfocused. Further research on the school’s history and a review of illuminating documents such as a recent feasibility study confirmed the head’s initial impression that an ambiguous identity stemmed from a mission that tried to be “all things to all people.” As a result, the head actually asked the trustees and the faculty to vote for one of five possible mission statements/identities in narrative form. He told the trustees, “I can’t help the school realize its potential until I understand what the school is.” In lining up behind one mission, the key constituencies were able to weather the storm of angry protests that the school was losing its “heart.”

Going through this painful process was a necessary prelude to the dramatic and successful change that followed.


Identity represents the collection of perspectives about the school, both internal and external. In order to develop a vision that focuses and inspires a school community and grounds change in the reality of the marketplace, the head must understand the existing identity of the school (“the good, the bad, and the ugly”). Consultants do good work in identifying prevalent perspectives of the school during the search process, but their work is merely the prologue to the novel that the head should eventually write. The art of actively listening to both internal and external constituents of the school will allow the head to understand the multiplicity of perspectives about the school, the way in which the school manifests its mission, and the possibilities for enhancing its identity. To this end the head should consider these questions:

1. What are the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the school and do these perceptions reflect reality?

2. How wide is the gap between the school’s perception of itself and the external community’s perception of the school?

3. What assets does the school have and how can they be used to generate change?

4. What is the culture of the school and how will it influence change efforts?

5. Which are the competitor schools?

6. What are the prevailing views of the local public schools?

7. Is the “excellence” niche already occupied and if so, in what areas and by what schools?

The work of one K–12 school head sheds light on the value of understanding identity. As a result of interviews with each faculty member and trustee as well as conversations with several parents, the new head discovered vastly different perceptions of the school depending on the constituency. These conversations prompted further research, including a careful study of the existing strategic plan and the campus master plan. While the trustees saw a school that was functioning well, if not superbly (adequate facilities, healthy enrollment), the faculty and parents saw a train ready to go over the cliff.

The head determined that any significant change effort had to begin with a reconciliation of these wildly disparate views of the school. Her persistence and willingness to ask challenging questions in order to fully understand the perceptions of the school were critical in developing a vision. She realized that if constituent groups had profoundly different views, change would be difficult and, in fact, extremely divisive.


We will be the first to admit that we are weary of the overuse of the word vision. Every school wants a head with vision, but few truly understand what vision is. And yet, vision should be the logical culmination of a head’s profound understanding of mission and identity. A head’s vision should be what the school will do in order to better live its mission. By weaving together the various relevant threads uncovered from the head’s research, a tapestry emerges —avisual,asitwere—ofwhatthe school can be.

Vision gives the school a dream to which it can aspire. It focuses the school’s attention, time, energy, and resources. Vision and the realization of goals derived from it are the essence of leadership. But leadership expressed through vision has to be earned. The head has to convince key constituencies that his or her answer to the question, “What does the school truly need?” is the best answer, grounded in research and analysis of the school’s identity and inspired by the school’s mission.

After a thorough analysis of mission and identity, one head surmised that excellence was a “table stakes” issue, requiring the school to demonstrate a certain level of it in both academics and athletics. His vision to make excellence a stronger part of the school’s identity, combined with a credible plan to achieve his ambitious goals, engendered the confidence of both trustees and faculty.

Victimized by an inferiority complex, the school was afraid to change because it constantly compared itself to the more established schools in the area. But a realistic vision and a plan for execution stoked the courage of both trustees and teachers. Once the head established the vision, he resisted the pleas for actions outside the vision’s scope, recognizing the need for the school to focus its resources and energy. The establishment of a vision proved critical in the success of the school. Thirteen years into his headship the school had raised $33 million in capital and endowment funds, an amount unimaginable just a few years before he began his tenure. Two buildings have been constructed, a third is presently being built, the annual fund has quintupled, SAT medians have jumped more than 100 points, and the number of applications has doubled.

The Virtuous Cycle: From Thinking to Action

We have all heard of the term vicious cycle — a series of reinforcing negative actions creating an unwanted feedback loop. One negative action leads to another negative action, leading to other negative actions, eventually reinforcing the original negative action. Its opposite, the virtuous cycle, operates in exactly the same manner except that its feedback loop is a series of actions producing positive results, one after another. Striving to generate or reinforce a school’s virtuous cycle should be a primary goal of any head. Utilizing the virtuous cycle requires the head to research and analyze her school’s mission and identity, and from that research and analysis create a compelling vision. Once this vision is established, the school is poised for unleashing the power of the virtuous cycle.

In narrative form, a high-quality faculty and program increases capacity to attract high-quality students (able to demonstrate excellence as a result of the school’s program), who in turn generate stories of excellence, stories that lead to enhanced reputation, which results in enhanced school pride and greatly enhanced fund-raising capacity, enabling more support for faculty and programs — and the cycle begins anew. We use the word capacity intentionally at each stage of the cycle; thoughtful planning and execution are essential for taking advantage of the resultant growth in capacity. The virtuous cycle is like a spinning top, but unlike the top, it moves in a purposeful direction toward the vision established by the head and affirmed by the trustees.

While creating a vision based on mission and identity, the head must also think realistically about the resources of the school and the degree to which they can influence capacity-building. It would be unreasonable for a head of a new school, lacking in resources, in a rural part of the country to think that he can replicate the capacity of a 200-year-old school with a $300 million endowment. At the same time, every school has assets (program, money, human capital) that can be leveraged to help activate the virtuous cycle. The analysis of the school’s identity should uncover these assets and may be helpful in determining an entry point in the virtuous cycle.

One head of a K–12 school, after a thorough analysis of the mission and community perceptions of the school, decided to focus attention on facilities. She believed that corrective efforts here would have a significant impact on the program, attract more students, and ultimately strengthen the school’s position in the community. Planning carefully, the head presented a compelling case to the trustees for a comprehensive master plan. Concurrently, this head inaugurated an aggressive recruitment program for the lower school, the division that was losing students at an alarming rate. These efforts ultimately became the core of a very successful school-wide marketing initiative. Research and appreciation of the local independent school market were critical in the success of both endeavors.

Within 15 years, the school’s enrollment increased by 100 students. Several campus buildings were completely renovated, a freestanding athletic facility was constructed, and 15 acres of land were purchased to build an outdoor athletic complex.

Although the head did not explicitly reference the virtuous cycle, her actions clearly demonstrated her understanding of this powerful concept. She was not merely solving a series of problems; rather, she was launching a transformative chain reaction. Today, this school, whose future existence was once more than tenuous, is now recognized as one of the premier schools in its region.

Another successful head of a grades 7–12 school wanted to raise the academic profile of his school. To realize this vision, he worked with his admissions staff to establish a comprehensive and ambitious marketing plan designed to attract academically stronger students. Entering the virtuous cycle at this point with a well-executed plan helped the school achieve its goal, and more, by activating the virtuous cycle. The result: a good school known more for its athletic program became a great school recognized nationally for its outstanding academic as well as athletic programs.

The Door to Effective Leadership

This template for thinking about a school is not the equivalent of painting by the numbers or following a recipe step by step. Individual heads will have to do their own “macro-thinking” in order to discover connections, recognize patterns, and synthesize findings. We do argue, however, that the discipline of analyzing mission and identity, creating a vision that motivates and focuses stakeholders, and using the virtuous cycle to realize the vision can result in change far greater and more significant than might be achieved by solving discrete problems.

When trustees ask a new head to begin solving problems before he or she has the time to research, analyze, and think deeply about mission, identity, vision, and the virtuous cycle, they unwittingly compromise the leadership of the head and the head’s potential to help the school be its best self. Moreover, implicit in these directives is an unhealthy shift in the balance of power away from the head and toward the board. First-time heads are particularly susceptible to this transfer of power.

The thinking process that heads bring to their schools, we maintain, is the most important resource for creating positive, sustainable change. Heads need to continuously ask themselves two questions:

1. What is the school now?

2. What can the school be in the future?

Meaningful answers to these questions only come about when the head uses a disciplined method of thinking about the school that yields deep insight. In writing this article, we hope to give heads (especially new ones) a method for truly understanding what their respective schools are, what they can be, and how this can be accomplished — in short, to help them think like a head of school.