Meaningful Change and the Courage of Leadership

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of co-presenting with another NAIS friend/colleague of mine to forty administrators and faculty of The Gilman School in Baltimore, on the topic of leading and managing change in schools. Embedded at the end of this blog post, the presentation we gave covered topics of identifying and navigating organizational culture, holding people accountable, providing clear expectations and a metric to measure success, and the importance of adaptation to evolving circumstances and renewal along the way when the process runs into roadblocks and bumps.

The last slide of the presentation covered the key ingredients to meaningful change: Vision, Consensus, Skills, Incentive, Resource, and an Action Plan. The recipe is adapted from T. Krozier’s Managing Complex Change. As we discussed Gilman’s current roadmap, especially around the topic of diversity and inclusion, a key component of their culture and current Strategic Plan, several administrators and faculty shared strategies on how they can hold each other accountable for its success. They asked questions of leadership, bringing others along, and moving forward despite the inevitable bumps. There are plenty of change leaders at Gilman – by virtue of their position and title as well as deep experience and tenure at the school – who can contribute to more than one of the ingredients mentioned in Krozier’s recipe for change.

In the course of this conversation, one point stuck out and I voiced it accordingly: “I’ve given this presentation several times but never realized until now that there’s still one ingredient missing. It’s the courage of leadership to make the tough decisions because it’s the right thing and the right time to do so.” I alluded to Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed and how I suddenly wished for a similar treatise on leadership. I have been in and heard from far too many schools and educators of the slow pace of change in our institutions. Many times, there’s good reason for it. Leaders, especially when new, have to go slow at first so s/he can go fast later. However, too many leaders – whether they be in our schools, corporations, or Congress – also lack the courage of their conviction and are satisfied to keep kicking the ball down the road for someone else to, eventually, pick it up. There will always be reasons and excuses against change, and if leaders cannot model the grit, courage, and character so required in our schools right now, then how do we teach the same to our students and model those attributes for our parents and faculty with any shred of authenticity?

I realized not too long ago that as close as I am in my current position as Assistant Head to the top job in schools – and will be taking on that top job in just five short months – I still have an out because while I can make tough decisions now, I can always absolve myself of doing so and kick it up to the Head. But when I’m the Head next year – and I’ve wondered this for a couple weeks now – will I join the ranks of leaders who pass on the hard decisions all the time, or will I demonstrate the courage to take a stand when necessary and because it’s right? I recognize that I’m talking a big game here, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I will be challenged and questioned along the way, not just by others but even by myself. What will matter most then is what I say and what I do. I hope I don’t fall short.

Leadership isn’t easy and it’s easier to criticize leaders from the sidelines than join the ranks oneself and be a part of the process and solution. I’ll end this post with a story that beautifully illustrates this point and shared with me several years ago by a Head of School. This head started his career as a teacher at a New England boarding school and would think that his Head of School made the wrong decision 100% of the time; that given the opportunity, he could have done better. Then he climbed the ranks and became a division head, and although he was closer to his Head’s reality, he still felt that his boss made the wrong decision at least 70-80% of the time. Now he’s the Head of a school and everyone else says that about him.

The presentation on Culture and Change as presented to The Gilman School on Wednesday, January 30, 2013:

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