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The Ethics of Leadership Search

With the growth we’ve experienced in the international schools sector, it should be no surprise that there is a concomitant increase in the number of leadership searches happening at any time. I find position descriptions fascinating (I admit to having a habit of reading loads of them…) on account of the questions generated from the challenges and opportunities named in the document. For instance, are there common patterns across a large number of schools, of which we should be aware? Or are there ‘weak signals’ to which we ought to pay attention, to see whether those signals grow stronger over the months to come?

I am concerned deeply about the ethics of leadership search, the more I read through all this documentation from around the world. The era of ‘fake news’ upon us is perhaps not coincidental. There are too many occasions when I know a handful of things about a particular school, but, whilst reading the position description for their next leader, I find myself faced with a different school. Call it “spin,” call it what you will, it is concerning. To be sure, a school needs to persuade its next leader to consider the school by means of the position description, but do we (those reading the descriptions, with an eye to entering a search) spend adequate time in reflection and consideration of how the document is worded, relative to the intelligence available on the school?

Following are some questions we (at large, but especially aspiring heads) might pose whilst considering a position description as part of a leadership search:

(1) What psychological mechanisms do the authors employ, in terms of persuasion and influence? In other words, to what degree does the document make use of cognitive response theory, or the Elaboration Likelihood Mode of persuasion? These are biases in the nature of the position description itself. They can be salubrious, or they can be deleterious.

(2) What are the epistemic credentials of each mechanism? For instance, when element X (financial status of the school, learning ecosystem, challenges, opportunities, etc.) is mentioned, does that element convey knowledge? Does it (reliably) impart true beliefs about the school and its community? What are the merits of the cognitive states it promotes or suppresses in the reader? In other words, how does it make you feel, and why is that? Time for careful reflection is paramount, ideally with a trusted ‘other’ (mentor, etc.).

(3) Via these mechanisms of influence and persuasion, what kind of state do the authors look to produce in the person reading it? For example, does the school envision leadership as a matter of getting a person into a state whereby s/he can be relied upon to behave in a certain way? Or is the school more interested in doing the right things for the right reasons, aware of counterfactual patterns that may be present in the community? To what extent should this kind of consideration regarding the desired end-state (that kind of leader the school seeks) guide the reader’s response to query the search consultant, and with careful consideration, enter the early stages of a search?

Discourse and communication are powerful aesthetic features, to be sure, when it comes to influence and persuasion. The responsibility for evaluating the epistemic and ethical legitimacy of these features, including the epistemic and ethical legitimacy of engaging the emotions of potential candidates, rests with three groups: the board (the progenitor of the position description), the search consultant (the framer of culture and opportunity, involved to varying degrees in the presentation of the position description), and the candidate her/himself (the interpreter of the position description, with an eye to securing the position and leading the school).

Quite frankly, the responsibility is significant. In a world in which everything is hyper-this, and hyper-that, my concern is that proper reflection and questioning isn’t given the energy it deserves. Note that I didn’t say the ‘time’ it deserves. We can allocate our time all we want, but it is far trickier to allocate our energy; it is proper allocation of our energy that will enable closer scrutiny of position descriptions, allowing greater ethical considerations among all three groups mentioned earlier. A hurried search (“We are on a fast track to meet the school’s desired deadline”) is an important signal to which to pay careful attention, for instance. Can one truly allocate one’s energy best in such a situation?

One often hears talk of the variances in quality among international and independent schools. For me, I wonder how we might improve that quality by paying closer attention to our own role in ascertaining quality, when it comes to considering the highest position of influence within the school community?

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