Leadership: More than standing there and letting it happen

Who are the leaders in an Essential school, and what do we want from them? Can the conventional organizational system support this kind of leadership, or will it have to change? What’s the difference between a leader and a manager? How do we go about identifying leaders for hiring and promotion, developing them from existing staff; and encouraging reluctant leaders to step forward or expand their horizons?

No matter how much they want to be empowered, the group declared, individuals will always tend to come back to a central person for support, direction, and someone to blame when things go wrong. A dilemma may arise if a school is moving from a wheel-like structure, with the spokes attached to a central leader, to a structure that allows for multiple leaders. For example, a teacher who is designated an Essential school “coordinator” may not have the defined role of a conventional administrator to fall back on. Finally, a good leader must manage her boundaries, welcoming input not only from the school’s central structures but also from elsewhere in the system.

A leader must always ask herself, “Am I just standing there letting it happen, or am I really leading?” This last, the group suggested, depends on the leader getting all of her “publics” to move in a general direction. Those “publics” may be the principal and faculty, for example, or the school board, the legislature, or the parent organization; but whoever they are, the effective leader must answer the same questions:

  • What kind of behavior do we want from this “public”?
  • What promotes or inhibits the support and help of this group?
  • What would help remove or reduce whatever inhibits this group’s support?

As an example, the group looked at the principal and faculty, from whom they wanted behavior like this:

  • full and open participation
  • willingness to assume different and unique responsibilities
  • an understanding of Essential school concepts
  • willingness to work in groups and teams
  • willingness to take risks and learn through mistakes
  • enthusiasm, professionalism, commitment to quality work
  • ability to relay Essential school concepts to students
  • willingness to express unpopular views
  • a sense of humor and collegiality

Specifically, they noted, the principal is a key person in whom such behavior is desirable. An “authentic principal,” the group noted, is accountable and non- manipulative, focusing first on a person rather than on that person’s role. If these qualities are present, trust results –among colleagues, between faculty and principal, and within the organization as a whole. If they are not present, one can expect active and passive resistance, and eventually withdrawal from the group’s commitment to change.

Members of this group raised a number of specific problems and strategies surrounding questions of leadership, including:

  • What happens when an Essential school is not committed to shared decisionmaking? Establish a council with an uncomplicated process, the group suggested, to make, fund, and carry out decisions arrived at by consensus. If teachers do not want this kind of responsibility, make sure what they do or say makes a difference, working with opinion leaders (begin with the principal) to solve problems.
  • What if your leaders burn out, or lose their enthusiasm? Try breaking the task into manageable pieces, some in the group suggested. Give authentic and specific encouragement, preferably in writing and delivered in person. Define and model your expectations; offer management consulting on leadership styles, and clerical assistance. Share common experiences, and put pressure on the principal to offer stronger administrative commitments. If all else fails, “send them to Orlando in February,” someone joked.
  • How do you get an organization to support Essential school leaders? Directly bring up the issues in specific and concrete terms, the group strategized; then don’t avoid conflicts, but resolve them. Share the knowledge and the decisionmaking with all the school’s constituencies (community, school board, etc.), letting others lead as the situation warrants, and arranging workshops that they all can attend. Develop a strong communications plan for both internal and outside use.