For some reason, the other day I found myself searching for my copy of John McPhee’s The Headmaster, which recounts Frank Boyden’s remarkable sixty-six year tenure as head of Deerfield Academy. Under his leadership Deerfield grew from near-extinction to its status as one of America’s leading boarding schools. The book is one many school leaders cite as being particularly influential and inspiring; I recall a few heads saying it spurred their decision to lead a school.
I’m not sure at all what prompted me to look for the book. I haven’t read it in over twenty years, and I don’t recall the last time I even saw it other than on the shelves of used bookstores. Perhaps I was inspired by seeing another title; after all, often my mind makes sudden associations I can’t explain. I wasn’t seeking any particular guidance. Maybe I sense some connection to one of the multiple thoughts that bounce around my brain until they cohere into some pattern.
I couldn’t find it. I also discovered that the Dallas Public Library doesn’t have it. Then the pattern emerged. The “missing” book became a symbol, albeit one born of coincidence.
While I recall none of the particulars, the blurb on Amazon confirmed my general memory: “McPhee portrays a remarkable man ‘at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who...created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities.’" Yes, the headmaster, with all the connotations of syllables I underlined. Some quick research found various articles that all created the picture of a man who controlled every aspect of school life as much as he could. He was Deerfield; Deerfield was him. And he was widely admired and loved. All in line with my hazy recollection of the book and representative of the era.
I wonder about how the Boyden-style of school leadership would work in 2016. I don’t say that with any disrespect or belittlement. His accomplishments and legacy speak for themselves. Instead, it’s a commentary on how independent school headship and current thinking on leadership in general has changed.
One of the pieces I skimmed about Boyden used an example of his total involvement how he planned all the details of school dances. Given how school heads now have to direct their time and energy, I can’t imagine any of us thinking up playlists. We’re much more CEO that lead teacher (the origin of the term headmaster), focused more on the business aspects of running the institution than anything else. For example, this year I’ve been heavily immersed in governance and marketing issues. When it comes to curriculum and pedagogy, I strive to clarify a philosophy and approach and vision. I don’t get into the nuts and bolts of curriculum or specific lessons except when necessary. One truth I’ve come to accept is that the further up the ladder one climbs, the less direct control one has.
This axiom ties to the ways leadership theory has changed. For so long, perhaps even before the industrial revolution, institutions have been set up per hierarchies, pyramids, org charts, matrices, departments…anything that makes it clear how the power flowed in a command-and-control system. It’s very evident in most schools. Now we hear about flattening the organization, distributed leadership, servant leadership, managing up, busting siloes. Evaluation programs are about finding strengths and promoting growth so everyone has a chance to lead in their own fashion. All this fits with current research about real motivation coming when people feel mastery, autonomy, and purpose. It’s part of the reason, beyond gender issues, most of us prefer the term head of school over headmaster or headmistress.
While I have my preferences, rather than deem one way better or worse, I’m reminded how much of leadership is contextual. The best leaders are those with certain qualities, to be sure. Just as crucial to their success is being the right person in the right place at the right time for the right purpose. I don’t think I could—or would want—to lead a school the way Boydon did. But it was what was expected, and it obviously worked. I don’t think it would now. I wonder what Boydon would think. With my limited knowledge, I don’t know if he could adapt. I suspect he certainly would try, for he possessed two of the most essential leadership qualities that transcend time and place: he cared about his people and was driven by a larger purpose.