The Art Of Leadership

April 01, 1992 3 min read

Granville, nonetheless, has put in place an ambitious array of reforms--from pay for performance to ungraded elementary schools to increased teacher participation in decisionmaking. Despite economic hard times in the state, county commissioners and voters have supported increased budgets and passed an $8.15 million bond issue by a wide margin.

How has Granville managed to make changes that many richer and more sophisticated school districts across the country have been unable to make? The answer is surely complex, but a major part of it is leadership.

The turning point for schools in Granville coincided with the arrival of a new superintendent, Tom Houlihan, in 1985. He had an informed vision of what a school should be and was able to persuade his teachers and the community to buy into it. Mike Ward, who had been a principal under Houlihan and succeeded him as superintendent last year, shares and has expanded that vision.

Both of these men have succeeded in large measure because they understand the effective uses of power. Most importantly, they recognize that when people are involved in making decisions, they are more likely to be committed to implementing them. Given an opportunity to make decisions, Ward says, people will make decisions that work. Says one teacher, recalling his early days in Granville: “In my first meeting, Mike Ward came and actually asked the faculty for input about the budget. I was dumbfounded.’'

So highly does Ward value his colleagues’ opinions that twice a year he invites them to evaluate his performance as superintendent.

Adam Urbanski, the subject of this month’s cover story, is the controversial president of the teachers’ union in Rochester, N.Y. We chose to feature him in the second article of our foundationsponsored teacher-leader series because he has used the authority of his elected office to challenge his members and his community to take risks in the name of better schools. Anyone can take people where they want to go; Urbanski has struggled to take his people where he truly believes they ought to go.

Like Houlihan and Ward, Urbanski has a vision of what a good school is, and he has worked for a decade to extend his union’s concerns beyond members’ welfare to the welfare of public education and the children in the schools. Rejecting the traditional practice of adversarial negotiations, Urbanski and Peter McWalters, former Rochester superintendent, crafted one of the most sweeping and innovative school-improvement programs in the nation. The plan thrust Rochester’s schools--and Urbanski--into the national limelight.

After nearly five years, the reform plan in Rochester has fallen far short of Urbanski’s dream, and he has become the target of harsh criticism in his own home town. Some of that criticism is self-criticism. Urbanski acknowledges that there was not enough effort to make change where it matters most--in the classrooms. The failures hurt. “I have to eat what I cook,’' says Urbanski, and “sometimes it doesn’t taste very good.’'

One might conclude from reading about Urbanski and Ward that they are very different kinds of leaders. Urbanski comes across as outspoken, feisty, stubborn, tough, and determined. Ward is charming, open, flexible, committed, and persevering. But both men are nontraditional leaders; both are embarked on a mission to make tomorrow’s schools better than they are today, and they bring energy and passion to the task.

Much has been written about leadership. Indeed, in the past few years, students of organizational management have formulated new theories about the attributes needed to lead in our increasingly dynamic and unpredictable world. But it is hard to imagine that any observation about leadership could be more insightful than that of the 6th century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao-Tsu:

The wicked leader is he who the people despise.
The good leader is he who the people revere.
The great leader is he whose people say, “We did it ourselves.’'
--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Art Of Leadership