Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On Leadership

"Leadership is the process of influencing others towards a shared commitment to a common
purpose" - Scott D. Phillipps

It is patently obvious that our society has become dizzyingly complex. Some scholars have gone so far as to describe a future of exponential growth in technological advancement (Kurzweil, 2005; Vinge 1993). Regardless, never in the history of mankind have we been bombarded with so much information so quickly. Nor, in the history of mankind, have we been faced with such quick, irregular, and non-linear change. In independent schools, we are faced with the challenge of serving an increasingly diverse student population in an increasingly interconnected world. As educators, we want to prepare our students for the future, but we’re not entirely sure how. We are charged with sustaining and growing our schools, while imbuing our students with relevant skills and knowledge which will allow them to be successful in this progressively more complicated world. Furthermore, we face an economic crisis not matched since the Great Depression, during which we must convince our families to make significant pecuniary sacrifice in the name of a concept as abstract as education. In such an environment, sophisticated leadership in independent schools is more important than ever.

Today, then, the independent school leader is faced with a quandary: Failure to act when everything else is changing around you might well lead to the death of a school. On the other hand, acting too quickly, without proper information, can also be lethal. As Author Robert Steinberg has said, "The essence of intelligence would seem to be in knowing when to think and act quickly, and knowing when to think and act slowly” (cited in Fullan, p. x).

So, the question is: How does one lead an independent school within the context of what Michael Fullan has deemed “a culture of change”? This is not an easy question to answer. However, I would argue that the types of leaders to which our schools and our society have been habitually drawn are not the kind of leaders who can effectively lead the independent schools of tomorrow.

Traditionally, the leaders we have emulated and admired are “take charge” individuals who exemplify the attitude expressed by U.S. Patriot, Thomas Payne: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” They are leaders like Winston Churchill, who can energize a nation in times of war or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who can lead a nation to reform through forcible means. To this end, Leadership guru Ronald Heifetz (1994) has accused us of looking for the wrong kind of leaders, especially in times of crisis:
In a crisis…we call for someone with answers, decisions, strength, and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going—in short someone who can make hard problems simple…Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are not simple, painless solutions—problems that require us to learn new ways (p. 21).

These kinds of superhuman, charismatic, and energetic leaders can be more damaging than beneficial. They lead us to sporadic progress and provide us with examples which very few of us can copy. Most of us cannot be like Winston Churchill.

Likewise, these times do not call for leaders like Kemal Ataturk, who rule by decree. Yes, if you are strong enough and intimidating enough, people will do what you say. But such leadership does not foster commitment in others—it merely achieves compliance. Compliance does not lead to real change or a real sense of responsibility among people in organizations.

The complexity of our time does not call for demagogues, nor does it call for superheroes. Leadership, today, depends on individuals who can help others confront problems that have not been solved and which don’t have easy solutions—simply because real change depends on everyone, not a single, extraordinary individual.

In my view, the able leader is one who considers the opinions of his followers. Certainly leaders must have the inner strength and self-confidence to step into the unknown and persuade others to follow them. However, this bold self-assurance must be tempered with a “decent doubt”—the possession of enough humility to admit to being wrong and to acknowledge that others have good ideas—perhaps even better than one’s own. True leaders are not afraid of the strengths of others. The great industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, explicated this in his epitaph: “Here lies a man who attracted better people into his service than he was himself.” In fact, it could be said that the greatest task of a leader is encouraging and recognizing the accomplishments of others and embracing dissent. Any leader who does not put dissenters in his or her inner circle is probably doomed to groupthink mentality and is assured of failure.

Finally, an effective leader comprehends that he has a much greater responsibility than self-service and self-aggrandizement. An effective leader acts with moral purpose, by this I mean acting with the intention of making a positive difference in the lives of employees, customers, and society as a whole. A leader appreciates that he must sacrifice for the good of others and that his welfare is undeniably tied to the welfare of every individual in his community or organization. A leader endorses the notion of abolitionist Frederick Douglas that, “It is better to be part of a great whole than to be the whole of a small part.”

Independent schools are full of great teachers, active parents, and ambitious students. These stakeholders, rightly, have high expectations for their school leaders. Embracing and tapping into this environment’s inherent strength is the key to the success of an independent school. I do not believe I have all of the answers to the challenges facing independent schools of tomorrow, but I do believe I have proven that I have the ability to influence others towards a shared commitment to a common purpose—the very definition of leadership.

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