It’s All About Leadership

leadership_trainingBy Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick, Ed.D.

How often do we attribute the failure of an institution, poor organizational performance or institutional mediocrity, to a “lack of quality or ineffective leadership”? And, how often do we automatically associate institutional failure or crises with poor leadership performance – only to discover that there may in fact be a variety of other factors and variables which were the direct cause of an institution’s failure.

More often than not, this corporate/cultural disposition strongly suggests that the success and/or failure of our institutions – for better or worse – rests solely upon the shoulders of the “leader” or “head” of that institution – irrespective of other external factors or extenuating circumstances. This perceived rush-to-judgment default position or causal relationship is often anchored in the deep-felt belief and conviction that institutional success and failure are almost always “leadership-related.” To paraphrase President Harry S. Truman, “the buck stops at the top” refrain is real and at times palpable.

A review of leadership research and literature strongly suggests that there is a positive correlation or relationship between the quality of leadership and institutional success, effectiveness and impact. To be sure, there are far more ineffective institutions led by mediocre leaders or poor leadership than there are those led by high quality effective leadership … and, the inverse is also true – there are far fewer schools of excellence with poor leadership at the helm of these institutions. To quote a close colleague, “to say that school leadership drives performance is like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe … it’s obvious.” This contention is further supported by McKinsey research which consistently demonstrates that good quality leadership is a critical part of organizational health and growth.

In light of these realities, how do we understand and embrace the potential impact of leadership (or lack thereof) on the quality, effectiveness and impact of our Jewish Day Schools?

More often than not, the leadership structure in most of our medium-to-large size Jewish Day Schools have what I refer to as having a three-tiered model of professional leadership. This typical three-tiered leadership model may be comprised of the Head of School, Principal and Department Heads/Chairs. For purposes of illustration, we will use the three-tiered professional Jewish Day School leadership model.

High performing/successful Jewish Day Schools aka “schools of excellence” are by definition impactful, mission and vision-driven, results and goal-oriented, and best-practice focused. They also possess state-of-the-art educational thought-leadership and curriculum innovators. They are institutions whose leadership team is cohesive, like-minded and synergistic. They are comprised of committed professionals who have a shared sense of leadership empowerment which affords each member of the team to think and work interdependently and operate and lead as a cohesive team. They have a shared-vision and a skill-set which becomes interdependent when problem-solving or when creating new and exciting educational opportunities for students. And finally, they feel a shared, but equal sense of responsibility, transparency and leadership accountability to themselves, to their students, parents, board and to their community.

In light of this description, it may be fair to posit that a high performing Jewish Day School of excellence can be the direct recipient of a high quality leadership team, and not necessarily the exclusive domain of the Head of School. However, it is the Head of School who is ultimately responsible for establishing the team, empowering the team, nurturing the team; and finally the outcome of the team’s efforts. This dichotomy and differentiated relationship although easy to understand conceptually, represents a series of complex and interdependent organizational and behavioral variables which are not always evident or visible to the naked eye. For example, if a member of the team falters, whether it be the principal or department head, the entire team suffers, thereby, depending upon the circumstance, impacting negatively upon the entire school leadership landscape. The only exception is when the team is nimble enough to function in the temporary absence of one of its team members.

Although one can say that this is an obvious outcome for any organizational environment, it is important to note that in spite of the fact that the Head of School is ultimately responsible for the performance of his/her leadership team members, in the final analysis, how much control or influence the Head of School actually has in order to prevent a subordinate’s faltering depends upon a variety of variables. Was the faltering of the Principal the result of complacency; poor health; lack of support from the Head of School; an inability to maintain a strong bond or trust with other members of the team? Does it really and truly make a difference? All of these variables add to the complexity of what I refer to as leadership-impact transferability – the Head of School taking ultimate responsibility for the performance of leadership subordinates, regardless of reason or circumstance. Is it fair? Not always. But until we develop an alternative organizational leadership construct, practice or paradigm, the Head of School will always, with no exception, be responsible and held accountable for everyone’s performance below his position on the organizational chart. In other words, “the blame-game” has no place at the very top of the school leadership pyramid.

Another illustration can be borrowed from the ever-expanding field of “change leadership and change management.”

Critical to the success of any school related change initiative (resulting from a well-developed and designed self-study, internal review or strategic plan) is the unswerving commitment, buy-in, and shared-vision of the school’s leadership team, and of course the faculty, and concentrically, parents, Board, etc. This does not happen in a vacuum or overnight. It requires a concerted effort, skill-set and due diligence on the part of the leader (read Head of School) to encourage, motivate, and impassion and even incentivize his or her leadership team to become an integral and organic part of the school’s new vision and change process. “People support and celebrate what they help to create” – If this does not happen, the change sought in the school will in most cases fail. To be sure, 95% of strategic plans fail due to an inability to implement or execute the plan effectively. The realignment of the leadership team’s thinking, mind-set and understanding as well as other resources, is critical to the success of any school change being proposed.

Responsibility does in fact fall squarely upon the shoulders of the Head of School. How Heads of School actually prepare for these daunting leadership roles and responsibilities requires a conversation in and of itself.

The evolving role of Head of School leadership as it relates to school change (or transformation) is supported in a survey conducted by “Strategy and Change Management” (April 2008) which posits that “a successful transformational program is due more to the people initiatives than other variables” and that the leadership at the helm of the organizational pyramid is the most instrumental factor in effectuating change and transformation. Obvious? Yes. But, with this leadership role comes the responsibility to ensure success through a wide array of skill-sets, experience and strategic thinking.

The following are thirteen leadership characteristics which are essential in order for the Head of School to successfully demonstrate high level impact leadership:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Pursues important change with a sense of urgency
  • Assumes risks
  • Integrity of intent
  • A Clear Vision (vision-driven)
  • Persistence and patience
  • A Disposition for asking “the tough questions”
  • Strong relationships built upon trust
  • Leads by Example
  • A Clear Articulation of Core Institutional. Professional and Personal values
  • Knowledge

These aforementioned characteristics may appear obvious to the naked eye. But, in reality each of them are complex behavioral dispositions or attributes which require extensive training, mentoring, coaching, experience, and a little touch of “good-fortune DNA”.

So, in light of what we now know, think we know, and yet to know about impactful leadership (as it relates to the evolving role of the Head of School), one thing is certain – if we are truly serious about supporting the daunting task of impactful leadership in our schools, and its ultimate impact upon academic student progress and success, we must create the right conditions on the ground for these leaders to be exposed and trained in these critical areas.

In the final analysis, organizational effectiveness is indeed all about leadership. But, first and foremost we must be focused, clear and concise about our leadership expectations and requirements for our Heads of School. Then, and only then can we rightfully hold our Heads of School responsible and accountable for advancing and leading our institutions. And then and only then can we truly embrace and celebrate the impact and positive relationship between high performing leadership and school excellence.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick has enjoyed a wide variety of senior leadership positions in Jewish education, including the Principalship for Jewish Day Schools, CEO for Central Agencies for Jewish Education and senior educational consultant to Jewish Day Schools and Jewish communal institutions. He is the author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness” (Brown Books, 2011), and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Israel.