Leadership Lessons Learned--The Hard Way

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It seems that every week we read about some educational leader under fire, whether a superintendent, headmaster, principal, or higher education president. Usually the fire turns into "fired." I know how they feel. Two years ago, people in 76 countries put me under fire. I happened to survive.

I work for the Secondary School Admission Test Board, which sponsors the test of that name. The SSAT is like the SAT. It is an admission test--not for colleges and universities, but for secondary schools. The preparatory schools of the world, almost 600 of them, use this test as the common evaluator for their applicants. Well-known schools like Exeter, Taft, Deerfield, and Lawrenceville, as well as many other boarding and day schools, depend upon the scores of the SSAT to help them make admission decisions.

These schools have relied upon the SSAT since 1957, when the test was first administered to 5,000 students by the Educational Testing Service. For over 35 years, the ETS developed, administered, and scored the SSAT for our organization, just as it does the Scholastic Assessment Test for the College Board. The ETS did the backroom operations; the Secondary School Admission Test Board sponsored the test and directed policy.

This relationship worked well for the first 20 years. By the late 1970s, however, the SSAT board of directors, which was made up of school people, decided that an independent office was needed to monitor the ETS work and contract. The SSAT program simply was growing too large--by then it tested over 40,000 students annually. So in 1983, I was hired as the watchdog. I did this for 10 years, but increasingly we found the ETS tail wagging the dog. In 1991, the ETS and the Secondary School Admission Test Board mutually agreed that the two organizations should go their separate ways.

Most any other small test organization that had been sent on its way would have hooked up with another one of the large test contractors, like the American College Testing program, Psychological Testing Corp., or McGraw-Hill. The SSAT board, however, is made up of independent school educators--and they don't call them independent without reason. After much planning, writing business plans, and obtaining funding, it was decided that technological and software advancements, and the small size of our test program, would allow us to operate on our own. School people would control their own destiny.

The words of my doctoral adviser, David K. Cohen, written in 1978 for an article in The Harvard Education Review called "Reforming School Politics," were recalled more than once. In this essay, David wrote of the genuine problems of political responsibility--"namely, the movement in school decisionmaking away from formal democratic control toward private power." He saw a growing political and fiscal power of "politically irresponsible agents" and even named the ETS and the College Board. This was not going to happen to us. We would turn the reins of the SSAT program back to the school people. We would be adaptable to our customers' service needs. We would be innovative. We would be accountable. So much for good intentions.

The first year was a disaster. Many scores were late; some even incorrect. Admission tickets did not arrive on time. A few test-center supervisors on our list had been dead for several years. Our new computer system crashed on call. Our telephone system, which was built to handle 1,500 calls a day, received 18,000 in a 24-hour period and 80,000 in one working week. We were besieged. I was returning phone calls from a pay phone across the street so as not to tie up a phone line. Parents were irate, school colleagues were calling for me to be fired, and my board adjourned to executive session.

There are a few lessons that I relearned through this experience that I would like to share.

  • People want apologies, not explanations. They really don't care why it went wrong. They are tired of people telling them the malarkey that it wasn't really anyone's fault. They want the leader to own up to the mistake.
  • People tend to swim away from sinking ships. Staff quit. Constituents organize against you. Parents curse you. Board members yell at you. Everything now becomes suspect. Even the most successful operations or events are looked upon in a different light.
  • You must learn to listen better. I went out that spring around the world and visited with 300 schools. They were mad at me, but eventually they began to talk with, not at me. I wrote down what they said and tried to apply it.
  • Underpromise, overdeliver. Too many times leaders get caught up in their own rhetoric. Test scores will rise. Racism will end. Children will want to learn. In the end, we must deliver more than we said we would. For most of us, that means promise less than you think you can deliver. Then work your tail off to deliver more than you promised.
  • People expect operational excellence. They may say they want innovation and customer service. They do. But if you cannot deliver operational excellence, all else is suspect. That's a lesson we see in all education. How many times have we seen this or that innovation announced; or this or that change in participatory democracy or governance? All the while, parents simply want very effective schooling.
  • You must go through it to get to the other side. You truly do learn more about yourself and your leadership abilities under adverse conditions. There truly are opportunities in the worst situations. You also may tend to age more, especially at middle age, but there is the other side of the crisis.
  • There is no substitute for hard work, but hard work does not solve all problems. I had always thought the first half of this to be true. I realized two years ago that no matter how hard we worked, not all problems would be solved. Teddy Roosevelt was right. It is much better to be battered in the arena than not to have tried at all. The risks we took did pay off, just not as fast as most people would like.

Two years later, we have had back-to-back successful testing seasons. My board came back split from that executive session and directed me to clean up the mess. They monitored operations very, very carefully with quantifiable performance objectives. We cleaned it up and met or surpassed all the objectives. Now, we test more people than ever. The scores come back three times as fast as before (and they're correct). We haven't had to raise the test price in three years, and we make enough money to do more test development in two years than we did the previous 10. We are responsive to the customers. I still visit with all the schools in the spring. Moreover, we are accountable and we are living up to our good intentions: School people run this test organization. And, incidentally, I am much more understanding when my bank thoroughly messes up my monthly statement.

Vol. 15, Issue 39, Page 39

Published in Print: June 19, 1996, as Leadership Lessons Learned--The Hard Way
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