Creating a Leadership Team Growth Mind-Set in Jewish Day Schools

By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick

Much has been written about the evolving role and impact of professional leadership on institutional effectiveness. To be sure, the nonprofit field is inundated with descriptions and case-studies of leadership team best practices – from characteristics of effective leadership team styles, to empirical predictors of high impact team leadership outcomes; from recruitment and retention strategies to leadership team assessment protocols and performance standards. At the end of the day, most folks support the contention that the success of an institution is inextricably linked to the quality of the leadership at the top of that organizational pyramid.

This continuous preoccupation with identifying and promoting Jewish day school professional leadership protocols, behaviors and requirements has spawned a new understanding, lexicon and culture regarding the critical importance of measurable outcomes of high impact leadership groups on school quality, growth, viability, culture and effectiveness.

In order to more fully understand and appreciate the impact of team leadership on our schools, this post endeavors to drill-down a bit deeper into the exciting challenges of “mind-set” team leadership – its application and relevance to Jewish day school viability and sustainability, and the unintentional consequences when there is a leadership “growth mind-set vacuum.”

Developing an Effective Leadership Team Mind-Set

An effective Leadership Mindset, within the context of a Jewish Day School, is an ongoing/consistent and conscious effort on the part of the school’s senior administrative team (Head of School, Principal, Dean, Department Head, Executives) to work together, in order to lead, inspire, influence and promote a shared school vision, philosophy and direction. This mindset, is anchored in a shared belief system and value proposition which positions the school’s best interest and “reason-for-being” at the very core of a leadership team’s existence. It requires the team to provide an unswerving commitment to team-building, trust, and self-confidence.

In Carol Dweck’s popular 2006 book entitled Mindset: The Psychology of Success, she describes the difference between individuals who exhibit a “fixed mindset” versus a person with a “growth mindset.”

Simply put, a “mindset” determines how we think about and respond to situations; the decisions we make; our emotional reactions and the actions we pursue. It impacts on the interactions we have with others, the quality and sincerity of our relationship, and finally the manner in which we lead.

A “fixed mindset” (according to Dweck) is usually evidenced when the individual is compelled to prove him/herself continuously, over and over again; his/her way is the only way; there is very little, if any elasticity, resiliency, change or flexibility in her/her thinking, leadership style or position; you stick to what you know in order to be in a “safe-zone;” it’s all about the outcome; and that you are who you are with very little, if any opportunity to take risks or explore other options, perspectives or opinions. As such, fixed mindset leaders are satisfied with the status quo and believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time and energy documenting their intelligence, accomplishments or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success without too much effort. Simply stated, it’s a relatively “static” leadership quality or characteristic.

A “growth mindset” on the other hand, focuses on the leader’s belief that her/his abilities can be improved, expanded and developed; as professionals; they are continuously evolving and their learning, insight skill and intelligence can grow with time and experience. Moreover, the “growth mindset leader” maintains confidence by always making sure that he/she is engaged in continuous learning and self-improvement; is committed to mastering valuable skills regardless of disposition; views failures as temporary detours and learning experiences and; is always focused on a variety of outcomes; and has a “can-do attitude.” And finally, a growth mindset generates positivity, optimism, a forward thinking disposition, and an attitude which encourages, promotes and embraces positive change.

Creating a School Leadership Team Growth Mindset

So how does the Head of School create a growth mindset (through his/her school leadership team) which is meaningful, planful and above all, sustainable?
Developing and sustaining a professional leadership team growth mindset requires a cadre of professionals who are passionately devoted, dedicated and committed to the school’s growth and development, quality, accountability, transparency and impact. The team has a shared-vision, a clear understanding of the school’s mission and value proposition and a resilience that embraces and celebrates academic excellent, character development and religious commitment as articulated in the school’s charter and/or By-Laws.

If the team does not possess this knowledge or disposition, it is essential that the Head of School create an environment (at the top of the organizational pyramid), which engenders these attitudes, skills and knowledge. This is accomplished via individual supervisory meetings, professional development opportunities and group conversations; and finally, hiring the right people.

The following are seven (7) ways to help create a Leadership Team Growth Mindset:

1. Attitude, culture and value proposition:

  • Ensure that each member of the team has identified clear, concise and measurable goals;
  • Provide team members with ongoing feedback and support; and with an opportunity to engage in reflective thinking,
  • Ensure that each team member feels safe and secure;
  • Provide the team and its members with continued review of the school’s current and/or evolving mission and vision statements;
  • Ensure that the team is afforded opportunities to engage in creative expression as a whole and as individual team members.

2. An Opportunity and Permission to Fail:

  • Reduce threats and repercussions associated with failing at a task or making mistakes.
  • Each member of the team should feel a sense of confidence and security that if he or she makes a mistake, these mistakes will be viewed as a learning opportunity or as “lessons learned” by the entire team, as opposed to being ostracized or alienated from the team.
  • Overemphasis on success is not always a good thing. Yes, we must continue to encourage and celebrate victories and success. But, equally important is our ability to learn from our mistakes.

3. Professional Development:

  • View professional development of the team as a whole and individual team member as an essential ingredient for teacher effectiveness and success;
  • Ensure that the professional development program focuses upon developing growth mindset skills and understanding. Make sure that each member of the team embraces a growth mindset;
  • Allot sufficient time for professional growth and development;
  • Ensure that each member of the team maintain a “growth mindset” professional development portfolio, created specifically in response to the needs of the team and team member.

4. Recruitment and Engagement:

  • Make “growth mindset” characteristics an integral part of the leadership team recruitment process and job description for senior team members;
  • Ensure that interview questions are anchored in “growth mindset” best practices; and a focus upon how candidates view failure, philosophy of collaboration, personal and professional perspectives relating to the candidate’s resilience, grit and determination.
  • Ask for examples of how candidate(s) embrace, applies and celebrates growth mindset opportunities in a school setting;

5. Evaluation and Assessment:

  • Measure growth mindset results and accomplishments via performance evaluations throughout the year;
  • Group and individual feedback must be consistent and continuous;
  • Determine how growth mindset manifests itself in the leadership team member’s relationship with teachers, students and parents;
  • Identify those measurable and/or tangibles which clearly document growth mindset processes and outcomes;
  • Allow 360 type evaluations to help inform the impact of the team (and its leadership) on specific aspects of the school;
  • Make career growth opportunities in the school dependent upon visible and measurable performance appraisal results which places growth mindset at the core of the evaluation and assessment process.

6. Parent/School Partnerships:

  • The concept of growth mindset may be somewhat foreign to parents. As such, it is incumbent upon the leadership team to work closely with parents in order to ensure a better understanding of the concept, its applications and benefits;
  • Parent education as it relates to student growth and academic achievement can be offered via workshops, seminars, parent/teacher conferences, and other venues and opportunities which reinforces the school’s growth mindset philosophy.

7. Student Learning:

  • In order to create a student-centered growth mindset environment (which positively impacts student learning and achievement) all school personnel – teachers, administrators, office staff – must become part of the process. This therefore requires an ongoing team effort and commitment to fostering, promoting and embracing a growth mindset philosophy and culture in the school;
  • Growth mindset conversations with students, teachers and parents must permeate the classrooms, hallways, lunchroom, faculty meetings and via student consultations;
  • Student assessments and performance can be enhanced and improved by providing students with positive energy, positive reinforcement, a sense of accomplishment and directionality, and high levels of self-confidence and grit – all of which comprise a teaching/learning environment with a growth mindset.
  • Help students develop a sense of responsibility for their actions as well as respect (read derech eretz) for one another, anchored in Jewish values; and to take responsibility for their actions and decisions.

At the end of the day, Heads of School, Principals and members of the school’s senior management team, are ultimately responsible their school’s culture and direction. They set the leadership tone for the entire institution and influence organizational behavior as well as the school’s norms and standards. To be sure, the manner in which leadership leads, the actions leadership takes and the policies they develop and follow, greatly impacts on student learning and achievement, parental perception, instructional effectiveness and institutional viability.

The challenge for effective school leadership is to develop a “collective and collaborative growth mindset” philosophy which permeates the school, inspires student learning and maximizes academic achievement and excellence.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School, Margate, FL, organizational consultant and executive coach. He has served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership positions on the local and national levels. Dr. Botwinick is the author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.