Old Questions Will Produce Old Answers to the Problem of Education Leadership
I am heartened, these days, by the number of positions open for leaders of educational institutions. If a hundred people apply for each position (even with some people applying for more than one opening) and if the best person is picked in each instance, better days for educational leadership are surely on the way.
Yet, at the same time that this abundance offers reason for optimism, I think that there is also some reason for concern. I don't believe that we have grasped what qualities transform educational administration into educational leadership. I am concerned about the qualifications that we do not require of candidates for the top jobs in schools and universities. For example, I have yet to read an advertisement for a school superintendency, university presidency, deanship, or principalship that asks candidates to demonstrate all, or even many, of the following characteristics:
Minimum qualifications include imagination, intelligence, scholarship, compassion, honesty, courage, business and legal acumen, health, humor, magnanimity, as well as the usual requirements such as demonstrated administrative experience.
This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.
Certainly this is not a complete list; but these qualities are necessary supplements to the traditional skills we associate with the capacity to hold a position of trust and leadership. Why are such qualities important?
Imagination. The function of a school or university is to impart knowledge imaginatively, Alfred North Whitehead reminded us more than a half century ago. The more imaginative power a leader has, the more he or she is prepared for troubled times. In contrast to the person who is crisis-bound, the imaginative leader foresees change and prepares accordingly.
Intelligence. The leader must be a thinker who can help students—the technicians of learning—become thinkers ready to prepare for any vocation or profession. To make trenchant, incisive decisions, a school leader must possess broad knowledge, deep understanding, and a high level of adaptability.
Scholarship. Schools and universities serve society by producing and disseminating imaginative, intelligent scholarship. Since an educational leader sets the tone of the workplace, the leader who values scholarship sets an example that will be emulatedmdash;scholarship will be produced and, depending upon the reward system, disseminated. Students from all walks of life will respect its value, and the climate of classrooms will reflect their renewed respect. Whatever vocation students choose, they will become life-long learners and responsible citizens.
Compassion. People who have risen to the heights of their fields of endeavor often cite the importance of having had concerned teachers in their lives. If an educational leader pays only lip service to teaching, the faculty, staff, students, and future generations will suffer the consequences.
Honesty. The hallmark of a school or university is honest, intellectual freedom. A leader in education, like leaders in business, must encourage open exchanges of ideas among faculty members, students, staff members, and administrators.
Courage. Honesty without courage results in stagnation. It takes a great deal of courage to act (and to permit others to act) sincerely and truthfully. Does the candidate sway in the political winds? Does he or she have the courage to say and do what is in the best interests of the people he or she represents?
Business and Legal Acumen. In these economic times, it is imperative that a school or university leader have a broad understanding of what ideas, techniques, and actions common to the business and legal worlds are applicable, and just as important, not applicable, to education. Overlooking ideas from business can be as expensive as accepting them blindly. Acceding to legal arguments without question can be as foolish as oblivion to legalities altogether.
Magnanimity. The leader must be able to cope with small failuresmdash;his or her own and those of othersmdash;and be large enough in spirit to point the way to new successes that will reflect well upon the faculty, the students, and the institution.
Health. Clearly, as in so many other aspects of life, physical well-being and stamina are vital to providing vigorous direction.
Humor. Tempering the serious side of education with a touch of humor fosters mental and emotional balance throughout the trials of tenure in office.
How can these qualificatons be assessed in a candidate for a leadership position in education? Easily and simply. Search committees need only ask the appropriate questions. For example, ask the candidate what he or she has read recently. If the answer is, "I've been too busy," you will know right away that he or she does not value reading and does not know how to manage time and delegate tasks properly. Ask the candidate what he or she has written lately; ask to read his or her writing; and ask to read the reviews! (One of the gravest errors in education is to appraise the quantity rather than the quality of the writing of a candidate for a position or promotion.)
I would ask other questions, which, admittedly, reflect my own biases: Is the candidate willing to accept a salary lower than that of the highest-paid master teacher or professor? Will arrangements be made for incoming monies to be deposited daily? Will a recycling process for paper and nonpaper products be established if one does not already exist? The candidate's answers to these questions reveal his or her appreciation of the significance of teaching and of faculty and staff members, the value of interest on deposits, and the amount of personal and professional energy the candidate is willing to invest in the job for the sake of the institution.
I also would ask: What does the candidate do for fun and to maintain optimal physical and emotional well-being? Will the prospective leader encourage an annual review of his of her performance by the same people whose performance he or she reviews annually? Does the candidate know how to conduct productive faculty and staff meetings that do not extend beyond an established length of time? Does he or she understand that "burnout" is merely another word for boredom and that productivity, the opposite side of the coin, can be enhanced by establishing and fostering a challenging, creative—in a word, educational—environment?
These days we have the opportunity to select great leaders at all levels of education. To do so, though, we need to supplement old qualifications and questions with new ones. These are new times. Past experience doesn't predict future performance. The "demonstrated administrative experience" cited by advertisements is not enough; such experience doesn't signify that a candidate possesses the skills and attitudes necessary to meet new challenges. If we continue to ask only the old questions, we will get what we ask for: tired academic administrators who take no responsibility for crises even though they could have been foreseen and prevented. Teachers and students deserve better.
Vol. 02, Issue 06, Page 24