Leading from the Gyroscope

Leaders must infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into the work that those in their organizations do, sharing that same sense of meaning and purpose with all constituencies, and they must also make sure that the organization enables people to get their day-to-day work done to the satisfaction of those who make use of it.

Gyroscopeby Joshua D. Margolis

What can contemporary research on leadership say about what it takes to lead Jewish day schools?

As a day school graduate, current parent of a day school student, and recent member of a Head of School search committee, I feel deep gratitude and respect for the faculty and leaders who commit themselves to making our day schools such exceptional homes of learning and Judaism.

Looking outside of education for lessons from other sectors can be illuminating, even as we remain careful in transferring those lessons. For example, students and their parents, much like patients and their loved ones, are not really customers, though it helps sometimes to ask what we might see and do differently by casting them in that light.

What is especially promising is how lessons are now traveling in both directions, as some of the most exciting research in my field, organizational behavior, now focuses on what distinguishes the best social enterprises, schools, and hybrid organizations (those that pursue multiple objectives with equal vigor)and what companies might learn from them.

But regardless of the type of organization you lead, a number of leadership principles apply across sectors. One way to understand the increasingly demanding role of the leader is to imagine a gyroscope, the device used to navigate and maintain stability in a range of devices, from iPhones to airplanes to the Mars rover. A gyroscope can be used to assess movement in three directions – up-down (pitch), left-right (yaw), and rotation around the center axis (roll). Keeping track of each dimension of movement, and navigating those you’re directing through the vertiginous pulls and tugs, is now the pressing work of leaders.

The central axis of that gyroscope is organizational integrity: the underlying principles that distinguish one’s organization, what it stands for, what it aspires to do, and how it distinctively intends to realize those aspirations. The challenge leaders face with organizational integrity is that to remain true to their underlying principles and identity, organizations must periodically change patterns of behavior, cherished habits that have taken on symbolic value, and established practices and policies that once worked for solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and delivering results but no longer do.

The gyroscope also helps gauge change in contextual complexity: the forces outside the organization – technology, demography, competition, and needs – that shape the organization’s inputs, methods of completing tasks, and suitability of what it produces. The challenge that leaders face with contextual complexity is what my colleague Michael Tushman refers to as “organizational ambidexterity,” or the imperative to deliver goods and services that fit today’s context while working on what will suit future needs and demands. Efficiency, predictability, and reliability require different skills and practices from exploration, experimentation, and innovation.

The third source of movement that the gyroscopic leader must track is stakeholder pluralism: multiple constituencies with different expectations and time horizons. Those who provide funding to a school, those who send their children to the school, the children themselves, and those who will work with the children next (schools, employers, and other organizations) may all have some core common interests, but they also each have some strong needs and interests that diverge from those of other constituencies.

Each of these three dimensions of movement is tough to manage on its own. Now just imagine helping a school sustain its commitment to the underlying values and principles that define what that school stands for – what it seeks to be and achieve – in the face of evolving classroom technologies, innovative pedagogy, changing family demographics, and constituencies that have different concerns and expectations.

Where might heads of school begin in thinking about managing these three sets of forces? One of the founders of the field of organization studies and decision science, Jim March, observed that leadership is about poetry and plumbing. Leaders must infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into the work that those in their organizations do, sharing that same sense of meaning and purpose with all constituencies (poetry), and they must also make sure that the organization enables people to get their day-to-day work done to the satisfaction of those who make use of it (plumbing). So day school leaders must be equipped to approach each piece of the gyroscope as poet and plumber: providing direction, fostering commitment, and enabling execution.

Each head of school may have a different style for accomplishing these functions, but the functions need to be performed so that, as my colleague Linda Hill puts it, leaders simultaneously unleash the best in people and harness it toward a common set of purposes.

Getting down to tachlis, heads of day schools seem to face three pressing challenges:

First, they have to attract and retain top talent. After all, it is not the leader who will master the forces, but his/her entire team. Who do you look for in faculty and staff, and how do you attract them? Day schools need top-notch talent who can operate amid the gyroscopic forces and to attract and retain them. The leader must provide a compelling sense of the organization’s integrity – what it stands for, how it goes about its work, and why, in particular, that day school’s version of the what and the how really matter. Even as a leader imparts and embodies a strong sense of purpose and direction, the leader must simultaneously provide faculty and staff with the latitude, resources, and direction to deliver on the what and the how.

Second, day school leaders must create an environment in which people will explore and experiment – will stay in touch with emerging research on human development, learning, and new forms of pedagogy and technology, without succumbing to fads or sacrificing learning for novelty. This means sustaining traditional approaches that continue to spark curiosity and learning, while inspiring and supporting faculty to search for and pilot new approaches. That requires giving faculty cover, access to coaching where necessary, and bringing parents and funders into the tent of understanding to grasp the innovations, recognize that some will work, some will need adjusting, and some will flop – and provide them avenues of input and feedback.

Third, Heads of School must secure the resources necessary to make day school education that is at once vibrant and enduring, dynamic and committed, both possible and accessible. We can afford neither to let our schools get left behind nor to allow this form of Jewish education to become the sole privilege of the upper- middle class.

What does it take to keep the day school gyroscope from spinning out of control? We may well be asking our Heads of School to emulate the fortitude and courage of Moses, as he navigated B’nei Yisrael through sea and desert, in the face of periodic internal discontent and external threat. What we, in turn, owe those who take on leadership roles is the trusted counsel and support Moses received from his siblings – and, at key moments, the brave and trusting followership like that of Nahshon. Even as we ask how to equip our leaders for the challenge, we must ask how to equip ourselves to follow their lead into the depths.

Joshua D. Margolis is James Dinan and Elizabeth Miller Professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School and Faculty Chair of the school’s Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning. Joshua’s research focuses on the distinctive ethical challenges that arise in organizations, and he teaches courses on leadership, ethics, and organizational behavior.

cross-posted on the PEJE blog