Education Opinion

Leading in a Democracy

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers — May 21, 2013 4 min read

Spring is election time for school boards in many states across the country. For every school leader, this is a significant time. The results determine what life will be like for the next several years. Board candidates are motivated by a myriad of reasons to run for office. As leaders we aspire to work with those who run for good will, for children and for community. Others campaign on personal vendettas or for a specific narrow interest or political agenda; these are less interested in service and more in self. Most of us still vote for board members, just as we go to the polls to vote for other local public officials. It is democracy in action. Once elected, the members join together, at least the majority of them, to become the governing board for the district. The board is ultimately responsible for the school district. In John Carver’s model, the board assures that the organization achieves what it should and avoids what is unacceptable. Boards will make district policy, set the vision, align resources with district priorities, and the employ a superintendent.

We live and lead in a microcosm of American democracy. It is sometimes an elegant form of governing. It is often messy. A board can become paralyzed by conflict among members or between the board and the community. It can also be lulled into complacency by a skillful leader when it needs to be awake. Isn’t the worst criticism that the board is a “rubber stamp”? It is from the school board table that students frequently learn about the democratic process. They are the immediate recipients for the impact of board action. Boards functioning at the highest level model how diverse opinions can be explored, through dialogue, respectfully, and lead to a vote that members understand and will support.

In his May 14th blog post, Peter DeWitt discussed successful leadership. There he stated, “There are many factors that go into creating a successful leadership experience and it begins with the relationships they create with students, staff and parents. Our positions are special because of the people we lead. It’s not the building that is awesome, it’s the people and children within in it.” We lead schools in which our relationships with our students, staff, and parents are paramount. Yet, a frightening assumption is made by almost all. Do people equally possess the skills of relationship building and relationship sustaining? Do leaders? Clearly, the answer is no.

There were no courses when we prepared to become school leaders on dealing with democracy in action. It was as if all who got to the system leader role would somehow just know how to deal with a board and how to develop that critical relationship between the school leader and board president. Rare is the superintendent whose board president has the longevity required to develop a real relationship. The same is true for superintendents in too many districts. Relationships take time and effort. Was there a course on relationships along the way? Actually, it seems we try not to discuss that secret to success. It takes us precariously close to the domain of feelings, treacherous ground for leaders.

We discuss how one got the budget passed rather than who did you need to be in order to develop the relationship that made the difference, to whom did you need to listen, how did you transform criticism to support? Those are the secrets. The generous, the mentors, the coaches share and develop all of us to make the magic of leaders’ relationships serve children. For most school leaders, we learned it while we were doing it or we didn’t. If we like clandestine dealings, if we are not comfortable with openness, if we value results more than the relationships required to achieve them, it is likely we will be found out and will be moving on. The boards will stay even if they are not on the board, they will be part of the community. They will continue to be part of the remarkable system of democracy.

A recent study, Research on Education, Deliberation, and Decision-Making Project, investigated the deliberations at over 100 school boards. As interviews were conducted regarding board dynamics and board culture, one theme consistently emerged. Trust was the thread identified as required for success in decision making. And, of course, isn’t it also the essential ingredient for relationships? Yet, school board members come to the table without having considered that they will need to trust the others for the board to be most effective. Yet, it is the case.

So when we go to the polls to cast votes for school board members, it should give us pause. The decision is more important than the sleight of hand to pull a lever or write a name. It determines who will lead our schools and where. It requires that someone be a community leader, a trust builder, an agile participant in group processes and that they are servants of the public on behalf of our children. If we select well, then democracy wins, too.

Education and Democracy

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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