Inasmuch as the pandemic has brought out the best in many heads of school (and, thankfully, their teams), it has also managed to shine a spotlight on a number of leaders who have been catechised by means of leadership workshops and leadership development programmes into believing that an individual with vision and an ability to inspire others is what defines a school leader. The cottage industry that supports and promotes leadership development in this vein, irrespective of whether it is stated explicitly, focuses on the difference between management and leadership (oft-used statement attributed to Drucker: management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things), to the detriment of competence in management. ‘Doing the right thing’ becomes the guiding mantra, leaving ‘doing things right’ as detritus, never to be discussed again, as the leadership catechesis continues.
The failure of a number of visionary, inspirational leaders isn’t because they’re not genuinely visionary and/or inspirational. Faculty and staff, counter to the narrative that one hears too often, are not leaving their jobs because the head of school is not visionary or inspirational enough. As market research shows (see predictiveindex.com or planbeyond.com), they’re leaving their positions because their bosses lack normal managerial competence; they also see their bosses as lacking in trustworthiness and care. As D. Sull, C. Sull, and B. Zweig have pointed out (“Toxic Culture is Driving the Great Resignation”, 2022), employees are leaving institutions whose leaders, from the perspective of the employees, have breached their psychological contracts (with faculty and staff, in the case of schools) by violating the unwritten rules of trust, fairness, and justice.
We often assign many negative things, such as the above, to the pandemic, but the evidence base suggests that things associated with poor management–such as low job satisfaction, commitment, and engagement–are the same things that have been the focus of hundreds of studies and multiple meta-analyses for decades. The pandemic, then, has not created the underlying issues; rather, it may have teased out the actual point of what faculty and staff will or will not put up with.
Schools have not invested significant enough time, energy, and resources into developing highly effective managers before coaching them into the leadership pipeline. At best, they do it simultaneously (prematurely placing a developing manager into a developing leadership pipeline), and at worst, they simply place someone into the leadership pipeline because they “feel” that the person in question will make a good leader (note the opening paragraph’s mention of leadership catechesis). These leadership development programmes, whether internal (in-house) or external (e.g., NAIS Aspiring Heads) tend to focus on high-level items of leadership, and spend little to no time teaching the fundamental skills of management. The curriculum of the programme doesn’t allow for it. Participants in these programs, then, absorb the catechesis that strategic vision captures the day, or perhaps how they project themselves in school and in public (some would call it ‘executive presence’) matters far more. These things are not unimportant, but they mask the reality of what is actually needed to “do things right.” This tack may not be (or have been) intentional, yet a consideration of leadership development programming requires one to reflect on the assumptions that inform the inputs of the model.
Below is a list of managerial competences that failing visionary, inspirational leaders tend to lack, and, concomitantly, what school leadership development programmes (that likely ‘trained’ them) fail to deliver (indicative, but not exhaustive, list):
- structuring activities: define roles and tasks, and provide the resources to do them; spell out goals and expectation, specify what to prioritise, and lay out reporting relationships and communication channels; then, periodically check for understanding, to see whether clarification is needed
- defend roles against job creep: schools are brilliant at adding (roles and responsibilities), but lousy at subtracting them
- match resources with new requirements: distinguish between emergencies, and long-term (adjust, then re-adjust)
- design jobs for motivation: provide some variety in tasks and be sure to identify clearly what success looks like
- build decision-making into roles: faculty and staff have a need for autonomy: define what needs to be done, at what level of quality, for whom, and by when…and empower and entrust them to do it
- execution: create the conditions for predictable execution, of “getting things done”, using structures and accountability, including one’s own tasks
- tell the truth: about development, performance, circumstances
- focus on fairness: perceptions of fairness (by faculty and staff) matter a great deal; create and adhere to fair processes and holding people accountable
- address injustices: if employee pay has become unequal, equalize it
- avoid blame displacement: if there are confines within which to operate, identify/hame them, provide the reasoning why (transparency), and harness the collective desire to move forward with as much clarity as possible–do not seek to name and blame, as this often backfires
- behavioral integrity: address one’s own broken promises and inconsistencies; own the inability to fix something, and apologize for failing to make things right