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Getting Real About Leadership

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Wanted: A miracle worker who can do more with less, pacify rival groups, endure chronic second-guessing, tolerate low levels of support, process large volumes of paper, and work double shifts (75 nights a year out). He or she will have carte blanche to innovate, but cannot spend much money, replace any personnel, or upset any constituency.

This is the ad I imagine when reading the loftily phrased job listings in these pages ("We seek a dynamic leader with vision for the 21st century"). My ad, though it will never appear, is more real than most that do run. In the chasm between them lies a crisis in school leadership. Born of relentless rises in expectations and misapplied models of management, this crisis threatens the success of every promising school improvement: We are disempowering and burning out the people who must lead reform. Pushed by accelerating problems and pulled by appealing proposals, we keep raising our aspirations for innovation, seeking no longer just to improve schools, but to radically reform them, even to make them self-renewing "learning organizations." How will they accomplish such a profound and unprecedented change? More immediately, who will lead it? Or more accurately, will we make it possible for them to lead it?

School leadership has two faces. Its public face is all about change, challenge, and competence. Like the job listings, the talk and the writing in the field rhapsodize about the new: new potential for innovation, new paradigms for practice, new lists of skills for leaders. We know more about leadership than ever; more administrators have doctorates than ever. We should be entering a golden age of executive competence in schools. But something is wrong. A number of schools are functioning better and some are innovating rapidly, but not nearly as many as we would wish. And few principals and superintendents are feeling more effective. On the contrary, though they are working harder than ever, they are feeling less successful than ever. When they gather at conferences the air is often thick with frustration, cynicism, and despair. This is the personal face of school leadership: Just when we most need enthusiastic change agents, far too many leaders are exhausted. They approach restructuring not vigorous and stimulated but vulnerable and stressed. Principals and superintendents everywhere acknowledge that their jobs have grown much more complicated and much less satisfying. Their sense of professional efficacy and their personal well-being have been steadily eroded by relentless changes, both planned and unplanned. Unless we attend to their burdens, the prospects for our schools, no matter how brilliant our designs for reform, are grim.

These problems begin with a truly extraordinary escalation in expectations. Over the past 35 years the number, range, and complexity of tasks imposed on schools have made quantum leaps. We have vastly increased both the volume and sophistication of content taught between kindergarten and grade 12. We have assigned to schools most of the child-rearing functions that the family has abandoned. And now we are asking them to accomplish all this with the entire range of a school-age population that is more diverse than any in the world and more disadvantaged than it has ever been. Even as they oversee these tasks, school officials must contend with the social fragmentation that has disempowered leaders in all sectors of America. Leading schools, which reflect society far more than they shape it, is hard enough when shared values, mutual respect, civility prevail; it is nearly impossible when they don't.

Though restructuring seeks to address some of these very problems, it brings pressure as well as promise. Reformers have combined strident attacks on schools with calls for broad, rapid improvement that are naive and contradictory. The "restructuring agenda" is a farrago of rival plans. Most districts, unable or unwilling to choose among them, are awash in "simultaneous multiple improvement"--five or six concurrent projects (curriculum revision, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, site-based management, technology, inclusion, etc.) competing for dollars and allegiance. The rising tide of expectations outstrips not only the growth of budgets but also the readiness of people. Administrators face an enormous human-resources problem: to make new schools with older teachers. Most faculty members are in midlife and midcareer, have been teaching for decades, and tend to be tired and skeptical, not eager and optimistic.

A superintendent sums it up: "We make some progress and the horizon recedes even further. The first question is whether I can keep doing it all. The second is whether it's worth the cost."

Attempting to do it all, leaders have tried working harder, then longer, then learning time management--only to have their workloads expand each time their "productivity" improved. The relentless increase in courses and seminars has failed to keep pace with, let alone solve, the complexities of leading schools. On the contrary, it has exacerbated them through two fallacies. The first is the "corporate fallacy"--a blind acceptance of private-sector management models. Most school-leadership theories are imported from business. Often, they are misapplied, either through slavish rigidity--failing to modify the model to fit schools' unique characteristics--or false clarity--adopting the form of the innovation but not its true substance--and then discarded in favor of a new panacea. Education is littered with their corpses. Total Quality Management, so recently "The Answer," is already being eclipsed by "re-engineering."

The second is the "technical fallacy"--the assumption that with enough technique, leaders can get their staffs to implement anything. School administrators have long been urged to value situational flexibility, to manage and maneuver different kinds of people by developing a range of "styles." Expertise is important, but treating leadership as primarily a list of techniques is counterproductive. It means trying to be all things to all people, which is enormously draining, and the list is endless--as the demands of school life multiply, experts keep enlarging the catalogue: more tasks and techniques; more training seminars for the overscheduled leader.

These real-life leadership problems have no quick fixes. We must look to help leaders cope better but first reduce the pressure on them. Three beginning steps can help:

  • Broaden the perspective. We must widen our lens on school improvement. We concentrate heavily on goals--benefits for students--and somewhat on the needs of teachers who must achieve them, but rarely on innovation's consequences for leaders. Those who propose new roles and tasks for schools need to ask themselves not just, "What do students need?" but, "How will this change affect the school's 'leadability'?" and especially, "How do we empower leaders to fulfill the tasks we assign?"
  • Sharpen the focus. Empowerment, like innovation, begins with purpose, not technique. Too many schools have too much vision and too little focus. Simultaneous multiple improvement disables leaders, no matter how many skills they study. This does not mean reform must be modest. It can be complex and comprehensive, as it is with accelerated schools and the Coalition of Essential Schools, but it must have clear priorities, fit coherently under one conceptual roof, and be unhindered by unrelated initiatives.

Both of these measures require simplifying the reform agenda, saying "yes" to some improvements and "not now" to others. Innovation triage is hard; it disappoints some constituencies and risks conflict. Yet, there is a high price for avoiding it. Public mistrust of schools has been intensified by decades of overpromising. The entire educational community needs to start helping the public understand that the problems facing schools are extraordinarily complex and that even with hard work solving them will be difficult, costly, and slow.

  • Recenter leadership. Leaders need to concentrate on building teachers' commitment to reform, a task which begins with establishing their own. Teachers cannot be manipulated into lasting change or maneuvered into self-reflective practice. They must become self-managing participants in innovation. For this they need leaders they can follow, that is, leaders who change first, who preach reform and practice it, whose consistency inspires trust.

Successful change agents work outward from their core commitments, not inward from a management theory of interpersonal technique. This requires that a district's administrative team, especially its principals, be able to thrash out questions of commitment as they plan reform. All those responsible for an innovation need a chance to get on board before it is adopted--to ask themselves "what do we really want?"--and to stay on board, to revisit their answers periodically during its implementation. These steps take time, to be sure, but to skip them is a false economy that reduces "vision" and "strategy" to empty shells and leaders to deceiving their constituents.

"Real achievement," says the management expert Frederick Herzberg, "requires a task that makes it possible." The idea of rapid radical school reform has powerful appeal. But it is a truly extraordinary goal. It requires a tremendous amount from educators, especially leaders--far more than they can possibly manage if we don't help them with the core dilemmas they face. Even if we do help, we need to temper our expectations about the speed and scope of their success. The best way to do this is to keep the real-life dimensions of leadership firmly in our sights. It will remind us that to create better schools we must empower good leaders and give them possible tasks.

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