Why I Am Betting on Distributive Leadership

distributed leadershipBy Rina Zerykier

[This is the fifth article in our “effective collaboration” series, written by alumni of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Davidson School recently launched the Leadership Commons, which is a project of The Davidson School dedicated to building educational leadership that works together to create a vibrant Jewish future.]

As I write this, it’s Erev Sukkot and my kids are hanging flowers and homemade crafts in the sukkah without me. Instead, I’m sitting at my desk, working. The classic school leadership complaint is about the 24/6 workload, and the consistent refrain is, “Such is the life of a school leader.”

Here’s the classic model: We work to the bone. Only do what we can. Fear the new. Don’t take on new initiatives or special programs. We get stuck in the day-to-day management – hiring, interviewing, observing, and planning programs.

As the founding principal of a new and rapidly growing high school, I have been offered sage advice by many. “You need an assistant principal!” they counseled. Knowing that I did need something, I spent the time exploring different leadership models. If I wanted to eat, sleep, and perhaps see my husband and kids – getting the new model right was critical.

As Jewish educators, we are inspired to change the world. While our schools are not driven by shareholder profits, we have a lot to learn from corporate management and the business world.

I noticed that many schools have associate or assistant principal (AP) positions, but feared that hiring an AP was both expensive and merely a “Band-Aid” for the problem. The responsibilities were too big for one or even two people to manage effectively. I needed to get out of the thicket defining day-to-day management and into fresh air to plan the big-picture strategic goals for our school. I needed to lead by letting go. I needed to lead through effective collaboration. I made a list of all the big projects that I was coordinating. From instructional leadership and professional development, curriculum mapping and design, teacher accountability and management, teacher recruitment and support, school systems and schedules, student activities and event planning, technology advancement, cultivating school culture, admissions and recruitment and building design, budget planning and more – it’s no wonder I wasn’t getting any sleep!

I needed a team, but as a start-up high school, I could hardly justify an expensive administrative team. I needed to collaborate. I had to empower others to take ownership and leadership. This fit perfectly within our school mission of empowering young women to become their best selves. What better way to model that than by empowering our new faculty to lead? I mapped our future leadership team. Every teacher who was hired was tapped for their talent and skill set. I consistently asked our star teachers, “In a perfect world, what would be your dream job?” It’s amazing what they answered. Our math teacher was tapped to handle systems, scheduling, teacher management, and human resources. An old colleague and thought partner on curriculum development took on professional development and instructional leadership. Our new engineering teacher was offered a position in Ed Tech leadership.

We are creating an incredibly flat and collaborative leadership model. We are bringing different people together who are already on our team to create something special, something fresh, and a system that might someday allow me to also see my family and get some rest! This is still new. It’s October. Yet, here’s why I’m excited about this model of distributing and collaborative leadership:

Empowered people are invested. Research shows that opportunity and positive work culture, especially with millennials, significantly influence job satisfaction and commitment.

True collaboration. Genuine teamwork involves multiple and diverse talents working together toward a shared goal. If everyone worked together on something they were passionate about – how incredible would that be? One plus one can be exponentially more than two (i.e., this new whole is greater than the sum of its parts).

Better bang for your buck. This model allows schools to afford high-quality teachers and specialists. We are essentially distributing administrative roles and salaries, enabling our small, start-up high school to hire more full-time invested faculty and staff.

An investment for the future. The more people who understand the big picture and school culture and can take on leadership roles, the stronger our foundation will be for future growth. There may come a time when some of these leaders will need to take on their leadership roles full-time. In that case, our school will be ready for their growth and they will have been trained, in-house, for that position.

Growth mindset culture. With a leadership team that is invested in the positive culture and future of the school, there are multiple people who can mentor, support, and create a warm academic environment. It is my hope that new teachers will similarly seek opportunities for new projects and growth.

This system is far from simple and comes laden with challenges. Here are some that we are working to overcome:

  1. Too many cooks. With everyone eager to participate, it was very easy to have many collaborators and no leaders. I quickly learned that all projects need one person to own, lead, and hold accountability.
  2. Letting go is hard. I so often hear the little voice in the back of my head that tells me that if I just do it myself, I can do it faster and better. It’s not true. There are only so many hours in the day. The “I can do it better” model leads to martyrdom and details slipping through the cracks. As Sheryl Sandberg’s refrain goes, “Done is better than perfect!” There is no better feeling than when someone else runs a spectacular project, and, with time, proper coaching and management, they often surpass even my expectations!
  3. Teachers are busy with teaching and are not always available for administrative responsibilities. It is hard to get around this other than with advance planning, patience, and backup plans. Yet I have found that the adage of asking “busy people to do more things” is often true, and if they are inspired to perform their new tasks, they begin to find balancing priorities plausible.
  4. Redesigning the communication tree. Parents feel connected to me personally and see me as the face of the school. They quickly circumvent our systems and reach out directly to me. I am torn between wanting to quickly reassure and connect with parents and protecting my time and the system. This is ultimately part of my work to let go when and where I can.

I often look back and wonder if the assistant principal model might have been much simpler to manage. But then I stop, reflect, and realize that the skill-based, role-defined model is the best investment for our school’s long-term growth and staff health. This is also the first chol hamoed in three years that I will spend with my kids.

Mrs. Rina Zerykier is the founding high school principal of Shulamith School For Girls in Cedarhurst, New York. She is a graduate of the Day School Leadership Training Institute at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.