The Top Five Truths of Leadership

[eJP note: While this post speaks about leadership in day schools, there are important lessons applicable to ALL organizations – regardless of mission. Substitute Head of School for CEO, parents for stakeholders, etc.]

By Jane Taubenfeld Cohen

I am privileged to work with schools all over North America and to have a view of leadership in our day schools that spans denomination, school size, and age. I work with new Heads of School and experienced Heads of School and I learn so much from each interaction. The following are some of the most important things I’ve learned:

1. The leader sets the tone.

No culture is ever perfect, but a leader’s impact on culture is profound and his or her control over it cannot be overstated. If the leader is calm and patient, views his or her faculty as learners and teachers, and understands that change takes time and that learning is a process, then all that will permeate into the school’s culture. However, if the leader is anxious or short tempered, that too becomes part of the culture. The extent to which a leader trusts his or her faculty filters into the classrooms and influences the way teachers trust. If you are the leader, intentionally think about the tone you want to set and work your behavior towards that. If you are anxious, get help. If you are angry, work through that outside of school. Think about it as if you are a classroom teacher and the school is your classroom. What do you want that classroom to feel like?

2. The Lay Board’s support of a Head of School is critical to his or her success.

When the Board of Directors (as a whole and as individuals) understands that the leader will make mistakes and helps him or her reflect on those mistakes and grow, the leader will grow. When there is a constant sense of disappointment and lack of patience, the leader will become anxious and will not only not grow, but will create an anxious culture. Learning to have open, honest, and supportive conversations between the Board President and the HOS builds trust and can impact the tenure of the Head, the success of the school, and experience of parents and students.

3. There should be more training on how to give and receive feedback.

Feedback is an essential part of working and growing. When feedback is given for growth and with skill, it can really change behaviors and practice. When it is given in a punitive way, it does not always work and can have a negative impact. In addition, how we receive feedback is a huge part of our leadership presence. I have often said that defensiveness is the biggest flaw that I see in the field. Let me be clear, I am not saying that we do not feel defensive. I am saying that we have to learn how to respond by acknowledging that we hear and asking questions to further understand in order to take the feedback in. That means that we are willing to learn. It means that we do not destroy relationships by our reactions. Even when the feedback is wrong or insensitive, we can answer in ways that are professional. When we don’t, our reaction is all that is remembered from the conversation.

4. Leading in a Jewish day school is really, really hard work.

The number of stakeholders and their expectations are difficult to manage. The day to day often gets in the way of the strategic implementation of goals as urgent needs could take up every minute in the day. Heads of School often receive hundreds of emails a day from parents and must get back to them as soon as possible. Teachers are looking for support for real issues that arise when working with children. The growing understanding of instruction, innovation, social/emotional, and spiritual needs are staggering. The intensity of recruitment and fundraising is overwhelming. Leaders need to learn to delegate and need to be able to decipher what is good enough and what to pay attention to. It would be excellent to have someone to work on that with who understands the pressures and can help. When leaders are transparent about the decisions they are making, and are delegating what they can, they are more successful. When they have a good support system, including an assistant who is a gatekeeper, they are more successful. When they learn to go home to be with their families at dinnertime, they are happier, and thereby more successful. The work will still be there. Finding the time for family and for exercise is essential. (BTW, if there is someone in the school who makes sure that the leader eats lunch, drinks water, and does not spend all day in the office, that would truly help!)

5. Although this list could go on and on, I am going to end with transparency.

Openly sharing how decisions are made, what obstacles the school is facing, and the feedback the school is getting, builds trust and builds a sense of all being in it together. That leads to loyalty, which is really essential for success, in my mind. BUT – there is a line between transparency and over-sharing. A leader needs to maintain the confidentiality that is an essential part of the job. A leader needs to share not to get things off his or her chest (or to share how hard he or she is working), but to bring others into the process. There is a big difference! A leader needs to frame things in a way that leads to the possible and not a sense of gloom and doom. Within that framework, transparency is powerful.

I know that there are many, many other areas to discuss. These are my top five. What are yours?

Jane Taubenfeld Cohen is the Director of Capacity Building at the YU School Partnership and a sought after leadership coach and consultant. Her ability to build consensus and positive culture helps schools develop towards their vision. Jane can be reached at:

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