Positive School Leadership 101

Examining the argument of how to hire and maintain leadership in a private school that is positive for all involved.  Some believe that one person should be the sole leader of a school, while others promote other forms of leadership.  We will look at the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of this issue, in order.


Grammar – Defining our terms…

All three of my title’s words need some defining, as well as the numbers.


“School” is a good place to start with definitions.  By school I am referring to a place where education occurs.  Education is the cultivation of wisdom and learning, both in those called its students and those who are considered the educators.  The main relationship of any school is that between a teacher and a student, but there are a myriad of secondary relationships included here.  There will inevitably be the need for a positive relationship between the parents of the student and the school.  If this relationship every fails in its trust and support, one for another, then education will cease. To be involved in a school means that all the relationships involved must pursue and cultivate wisdom and virtue in those relationships.  And the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world are at odds.  God’s wisdom leads us toward sacrifice, peace, love, affection, and often away from material gain, power grabs, and men’s praise.


It should also be asserted in regard to “school” that the term is derived from the Latin, schole which means “leisure.”  School, when it seeks its roots, is not a place of industry or factory style “work” but rather a place of contemplation, of preparation for the workaday world, as well as the good life that should be above and beyond the simple life of working to earn a living.  This is not recognized much in our world today.  Instead of seeing school as a place to become fully human and well versed in godly wisdom and virtue, it is more often seen as a preparatory hardening and strengthening for the inevitable exhausting work of pursuing material gain and economic well-being.  This is shooting short of the larger target.  Good schools prepare students for life in its fullness, not simply the gaining of a good job, as important as that is to the good life.


“Leadership” is cheaply defined in our day.  Most would simply say it’s a code word for those who have the power.  The Bible would define leadership in radically differing ways, choosing terms such as service, self-denial, and meekness.  Nonetheless, every school must have those who lead it toward wisdom and virtue, mostly by embodying such themselves.  To preserve a school’s freedom to teach and “live” as it wishes, most schools in our political system are purposefully categorized as “not for profit.”  In that system, that means the leadership must take the form of a governing board as its State recognized leadership.  This Board of Directors is by necessity made up of volunteers, typically from the community, who may or may not know anything about schooling, but who desire to see a school thrive for their own and other’s benefit.  Often they hire and oversee someone to head the school, hopefully someone who understands their vision for a school and who has the ability to make it real.


And I must define even the adjective, “Positive” in my title given the modern misuse of this term at times.  In this context, positive would be when the leadership is in fact leading in the direction of the school’s mission and vision and doing so in a way that preserves the good work, well-being, and humanity of those involved.  In short, it is positive when the school is being led by its leadership into greater wisdom and fuller virtue.


Finally, I use the numbers “101” simply to denote that this short paper seeks to put the basic or fundamental principles of positive school leadership, not to fully develop any points but to set forth principles that the reader then must apply to the specifics of their place and time. This is by purpose general, broad, and short.


Logic – Stating the sides to the issue of school leadership, especially as it pertains to school administration…

When we begin considering positive school leadership, we find ourselves needing to pin point just who and what constitutes school leadership.  As has already been stated, this is normally located in the Board of Directors and the administration of the school that they hire.  But a perplexity surrounds this issue in our day.  There seems to be three main views regarding how leadership is embodied in the modern private school.


The first view maintains that ultimate leadership for a school is retained by the Board.  Any administrator who is hired by that Board is simply an employee given management rights, but not in place to define the school, only there to execute the will of the Board.  Thus the real work of the school is done at the Board level.  Typically this requires larger boards with enough members to fill many committees that meet and work often, including all the major aspects of a school’s life: finances (including budgeting, fundraising, all money related activity), personnel (hiring all school staff including teachers, coaches, admin, office staff, etc.), curriculum (which would fully define the instruction of the school), events, admissions, facilities, etc.  The hired manager is simply the eyes and ears for the board on site on a daily basis, implementing their policies and will.


The second view would have a Board that hires a CEO for the school.  This one person would be the sole employee of the board and all other staff and faculty would be the responsibility of this one position.  All the aspects of a school’s life mentioned above would typically move down under the auspices of this CEO.  Some financial aspects might stay at board level.  The board moves to that of a vision casting and planning group who guide the CEO in the long term planning of the school’s success, and who also oversee and evaluate the effectiveness of the CEO.


The CEO view has been found difficult to fully implement, however, because of the incredibly overflowing plate it gives to this one person.  A school that puts all these things on one person’s plate is setting that position up to be either regularly turned over due to burn out or due to dissatisfaction with the job that person is doing.  This turnover is in turn damaging to the school by making the school very unstable.  Often the duties of the CEO really require two types of leadership: one directed at the “business” of the school, keeping it running as a financially viable institution with great customer attention and public relations/marketing; and another person who is the educational guru of the school, focusing on faculty, curriculum, instruction, etc.  While some uniquely gifted people exist who can do all this on their own, they usually wind up burning out.  The personality spectrum required to encompass such diverse skills as those ranging from budgets, to books, to banquets, to in particular needy parents and students is a huge stretch.  Such difficulties have led to a third view, or what might be seen as simply a modification of the CEO position.


This third view is sometimes pejoratively referred to as the “two-headed monster” set up.  While I would not wish to poison the well by using a pejorative term, it is the most picturesque label for it, so I will run with it.  Here, typically, the Board is active in hiring two individuals who address the needs mentioned above, one as the public “face” of the school and the other as the lead “teacher” of the school.  To work, this view demands clear separation of duties and yet a high level of team play between the two.  To preserve the “one employee” of the board distinctive of the CEO view, sometimes the “teacher” is hired as a direct report to the “public face,” usually with the latter being termed as Head of School and the former as Principal or Dean.



Given these views, I will now briefly state my own position on this issue and enumerate some reasons why I consider it the best and how to make it work well. It should be stated that in my 11 years of school administrative experience, I have some experience with all three situations.  The following comes from those experiences as well as my discussions with countless other people in the positions of either board member or administrator.


One of the clearest and most basic aspects of good positive leadership is that it must be accessible.  This principle alone makes the first view, that of a “directive board” untenable.  The only real defenses I have encountered for the first view revolve around finances (administrators do not come cheap, if they are good ones) and power (many new schools have boards that are the founders of the school and thus very protective of their “child” which makes for a power issue of major emotional proportions at times).  Often these boards just don’t know how to afford or trust a CEO, so they keep the duties for themselves and often hire an efficient manager willing to work for middle management pay.  In the end (often the end of the short history of the school) this setup has resulted in a lack of real leadership leading to the death of the vision and life of the school.


But hiring one CEO and providing them with 12 pages of bulleted job description is also a recipe for poor results.  Let me break those bullets down a little before I address how to deal with such a demanding position.


First, most schools have become too complicated because they have not stuck to their defined role.  In our modern views of education, we believe the school replaces the family, church, and even neighborhood of the student.  This is normally because all of these great institutions have fallen apart in our culture.  So schools take on duties that really don’t belong to them.  I am not suggesting that schools will succeed by pushing too hard back on this reality, because they won’t.  But a wise young school will be very careful and very intentional about when it adds additional programs.  The bells and whistles should come along only as the basic functions of the school are in place, stable, and already demonstrating excellence.  It will politely deny the erstwhile father who wants a full football program now, for his son, regardless of whether it fits the mission, size, age, and other factors of the school.  Learning to say “no” which starts with and is modeled best by the Board, will make the success of the school much more likely.  The bullets while still many on the job description, will be less than otherwise.


The second issue to be unpacked with this bulleted list is that of the corporate mindset.  In modern business theory quantification and evaluation is king.  A leader is measured by various quantifiable criteria that are usually “industry” wide and focused on profit growth, number of widgets sold, and the like.  As stated in the grammar section, this is not what a school is focused upon.  If a school leader is being evaluated by bulleted points in a job description, those points should be focused on wisdom and virtue (which is not something that can be quantified) rather than numeric indicators and standards of efficiency.  If the job could be defined according to wisdom and virtue, rather than the prevailing corporate standards of the day, we might find a different list of bullets, which might be promoting life in the school and its leadership rather than killing them off (pun intended).


But the reality remains that keeping a financial “business” like a school of any size running properly and in the “black” is a full time job.  And then there is all the stuff of teaching.  If teachers colleges or some other place were turning out great teachers who all understood and embodied one definition of schooling, then it might be possible for a CEO to be able to “run” the school and let the teachers teach.  But this is not the case.  And thus is born the necessity for a second person to help the CEO, expressly with the issue of education reform.  A good school today, one cultivating wisdom and virtue, is a very unusual entity.  All the work of curriculum selection, implementation, and review, along with constant faculty hiring, training, evaluation, and management, and continual conversation with parents about that education is another full time job.


So I recommend that schools use the third view above in the Logic section.  A board that has birthed a school with a clear mission, stated in a clear vision (which should include both a statement about the kind of student they wish to cultivate, as well as a statement about the kind of teacher that will best bring that student to graduation), all brought together in a full philosophy of education will then hire a sole employee, the Head of School, to be the face of the school and the day to day leader of the school.  This person should be in love with the vision of the school, able to embrace and nourish a strong relationship with the board, the parent body, and the students, and a capable business person who can keep the ship financially afloat and running smoothly.  That CEO will in turn hire a dynamic, well educated person who is the adult embodiment of the educational vision of the school and who can daily steer the faculty and students toward the vision of the school.


The key to this symbiotic relationship would be time taken at the front end for both parties to fully understand the talents, abilities, and gifts of each other and how these could be coalesced into a team that can bring about the vision of the given school.  This may mean that some aspects of the ideal might be modified if it is found that one possesses parts of the necessary skills and talents for each of the two positions and the other the lacking parts to make up the whole of the two positions.  But typically, personality being what it is, these two individuals will fall within the parameters of the above ideal and be two fairly opposite types of people.  There is a principle of complimentary parts at work here, typically.


It is paramount that these two individuals be two and yet one.  Their duties must be clearly divided and yet they must think, act, and love the school as one.  With this kind of teamwork in place, it is possible for the school to flourish without sacrificing the health and sanity of one overworked individual.  In doing things in this manner, the school would seem to understand the equal truths of unity and diversity.  The best kind of unity is when diverse talents and abilities are collected around one beautiful, good, and true vision that brings about a fuller and greater expression of itself as a whole than any one part could ever accomplish on its own.


As always, I would value any input from others that would help my grammar, dialectic, or rhetorical aspects of this discussion.


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