Friday, June 26, 2015

Do We Expect Too Much of Leaders?

     I imagine the past week has prompted some reflection on the part of school leaders all around Dallas, perhaps nationally. First a fellow head of school resigned, and a few days later the superintendent of the Dallas public schools stepped down. I'm not going to comment much on the reasons for either case. I've heard only bits and pieces about the former, which happened suddenly; and while the latter has been played out in the media over a couple of years, I haven't paid that much attention.There are other reasons I'll refrain from commentary. I recognize my biases in the first case, and I know they are only affirmed by what I've heard. I tried not to fuel any gossip about any situation, especially when I know so few of the facts. Finally, when it comes to other heads of school, I try to adopt the stance of former U.S. presidents, who refrain from public criticism of the current president because only they truly grasp what it's like to hold that position.
     Please don't think I am saying heads of school have anywhere near the sort of pressure-packed, life-or-death responsibilities as a world leader. My point is that almost everyone who moves into the role--no matter what their preparation--comments on not really being ready for the complexity and sense of ultimate responsibility. It can prove unbalancing. Even as one grows into the job, a certain edginess persists. The stories from last week came as a stark reminder about the many ways and how quickly things can unravel--even when there are many, many apparent successes.
     I don't mean this to come across as whining, although I realize it could. Heads of school accept this, mainly because it's a very fulfilling job. We have to grow constantly as individuals. Our jobs force us to learn about myriad topics. We work with fascinating people. And we get to do it all in a profession that really matters. To paraphrase poet Taylor Mali's response to the question about what teachers make, our work "makes a difference."
     Still, we face a potential dearth of school leaders, especially heads of school. Per the National Association on Independent Schools, two-thirds of current school heads will retire in the next decade. However, a very large majority of potential replacements indicate no desire to become a head of school. The reasons vary and offer some insight. Mainly, they look at sitting heads and decide it's just not worth it. I'd argue that it is, and I'd also challenge fellow heads to do a better job of cultivating their successors.
     But recent events beg a larger question for me about leadership: Do we expect too much of our leaders? Perhaps a better way to ask that would be: Are we fair in our expectations of our leaders? ( mean all leaders--not just those in schools.) It's a much more complicated, multi-nuanced issue than it might seem at first blush. Plus one must flip the question and ponder what leaders can fairly expect of their constituents. There are no easy answers, and pondering all of them could go on for several more posts. In the meantime, I'll just finish by saying how much gratitude and respect I have for those who take on the challenges of leadership and show great integrity in circumstances such as those which prompted this post.

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