Before I begin this post, thanks to all who have been reading the thoughts I've shared on this blog. As I write this, nearly 1,200 views from the US and abroad, have been logged since June 27th. That's not nearly as huge as some blogs, but it’s a good start and I'm grateful to all who are taking the time to read these words. I hope the information, ideas, lessons learned and stories told are useful to you in some way. Now on to the post ....
Prior to becoming RVSD’s Superintendent in August 2014, I proudly served four California public school districts in roles ranging from teacher to deputy superintendent. In all five districts (two of them hired me twice), I’ve been fortunate to learn from some truly gifted mentor-leaders. The confidence they placed in me over the decades and the awesome responsibilities they entrusted to my care, have never been taken for granted. On the contrary, the lessons of leadership and moral courage my mentors shared (and still do), light my own leadership path and serve as touchstones to inspire continuous reflection and improvement.
My first principal once confided in me, “Leadership is hard work and getting it 100% right, 100% of the time, is possible only for those who talk about it with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and no actual leadership responsibility or experience themselves.” As a first or second year teacher, I thought his comment was a bit cynical. But after years in a variety of leadership roles, where much has gone right and some wrong, my first principal (and mentor) was a wise man who spoke the truth. I miss you Mr. B.
That leadership is hard, leaders are fallibly human and their decisions will be criticized, is embedded within every leader’s job description. It comes with the territory. What’s fascinates me, though, are the elements of leadership that make it so complex and ultimately differentiate those who lead with purpose and moral courage from the rest of the leadership pack.
One such element is the notion that leaders may think they are leading, when in fact they are not leading at all - they are managing.
In 2012, while completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California, I was introduced to the work of Dr. Warren Bennis, distinguished professor of business administration at USC and a pioneer in the field of leadership studies. In his book “On Becoming a Leader” (first published in 1989), Dr. Bennis elaborates fully on what leadership is, what it isn’t and the challenges of leading with moral courage. Dr. Bennis wrote,
“I tend to think of the differences between leaders and managers as the differences between those who master the context and those who surrender to it. There are other differences, as well, and they are enormous and crucial.
Over the years a number of my mentors shared perspectives on leadership similar to those of Dr. Bennis, while also noting that some people prefer their school, school district, business or organization to be led by managers rather than leaders. That may be what some people prefer and I'm sure they have their reasons, but I did not choose public education as my life's work so I could become a manager.
- The manager administers; the leader innovates.
- The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
- The manager maintains; the leader develops.
- The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
- The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
- The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
- The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
- The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
- The manager imitates; the leader originates.
- The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
- The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
- The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
In fact, most education leaders I know have little interest in managing anything or anyone. Their interest and mine as well, is to lead ... not for the sake of being the leader, wielding power, etc., but for the sake of giving students true and equitable opportunities to reach their unique potential. Perhaps that sounds trite, naive, overly ambitious or a bit too much like a typical mission statement. Yet these are exactly the gifts many of us received through our schooling as we were growing up. We can all recall those special people, those leaders, who helped us find our way and didn't let go of our hands until we could safely navigate on our own. We are where we are because of them. What they did for us, we can do for the generations that follow. It takes bold leadership, not management, to make that possible.
I think the vast majority of us who willingly assume the responsibilities of leadership, likely aspire to be the type of leader Dr. Bennis writes about and we observe in the mentors who so generously share their hard-earned wisdom with us. And certainly, even the most skilled of leaders among us, temporarily lapses now and again into a manager mindset. Leadership is a constant work in progress for all who seriously engage in it. I too am always learning and while there have been, are and will be many leadership successes to celebrate, there are also leadership failures to learn from. Successes and failures are a package deal in leadership and you guessed it, they are also embedded in every leader's job description.
It is important to remember, however, that as Dr. Bennis explains, leadership requires a long-range perspective. Getting from here to there is a journey whose path will never be a perfectly straight and clear line. Leadership with a long-range perspective means having the moral courage to make hard, often uncomfortable and sometimes even unpopular decisions. Taking the long view is not easy, particularly in public education where our children are in classrooms right now and can't necessarily wait for whatever impact may be coming in ten or more years as a result of today's decision. Balancing short-term needs with a long-term perspective and making decisions accordingly, is what successful leaders do.
Every education leader knows the dynamics of this balancing act is a recipe for decision-making that will result in some level of disagreement and push-back. This too, comes with the territory and we accept it when we accept these roles. In the vast majority of situations, such feedback can be very helpful, insightful, constructive and yes, appreciated. Occasionally the level of disagreement goes beyond feedback and morphs into second-guessing, blaming, vilifying, personal attacking or worse. This is unproductive, of course, but it happens. On the rare occasions when it does, leaders take comfort remembering (even if others don't) that everything happens in context, that decisions are not made in a vacuum, that there is ALWAYS more to a story than whatever is printed in a newspaper or on social media and that those of us charged with actually doing the work have access to data and information others do not or cannot have. In short, my first principal was right ... unproductive and ill-informed attacks on leadership from the sidelines with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight is, plain and simple, just that.
A few weeks ago a parent asked me, "how do you do it?" She was referring to my role as Superintendent and all that goes on in a school district when one year is ending and everyone is deep in preparation for the year to come. I responded by saying that everyone in our district (teachers, staff, administrators and parents) has a lot on their plate. Somehow we manage to keep teaching, learning, parenting, continuously improving and above all, leading.
In reflecting on that conversation, I'm reminded that at USC, every single Trojan is practically tattooed with two words that I'm sure Dr. Bennis himself spoke to his many students. Those words are, "Fight on!" Far be it for me to challenge the fine traditions of the House of Troy, but if it were up to me, I think I'd change those words to "Lead on!" That, my wonderful blog readers, is how we do it.
Epilogue: I opened this post with a quote from a book titled, "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun," a book recommended to me long ago by one of my favorite teachers. Don't let the title fool you, as it and Dr. Bennis' book are two of the best books you may ever read on leadership!
- Bennis, W. (2003). On becoming a leader (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
- Roberts, W. (2007). Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun. Grand Central Publishing.