Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

The Top Ten: School Leadership

CJ Westerberg, June 5, 2012 11:50 AM


Classic:  The Daily Riff
Jumping from Good to Great

by C.J. Westerberg

Being on the search committee for a new school leader has made my bookmarks and bookshelves grow with various leadership books and writings - yet two of them seem to get the most feedback.

The first is a post, "Ten Big Ideas On School Leadership" by Mike McCarthy, a principal at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, with 30 years of "wisdom on how to run a school well:"  Excerpt: 

1)   Your School Must Be For All Kids 100 Percent of the

       If you start making decisions based on avoiding conflict, the 
       students lose.  . .

2)  Create a Vision, Write It Down, and Start Implementing It
      Don't put your vision in your drawer and hope for the best.
decision must be aligned with that vision. The whole 
      organization is watching when you make a decision, so
      consistency is crucial.

3)    It's the People, Stupid
       . . . Hire people who support your vision, who are bright, and
       who like kids.

4)    Paddles in the Water
    . . . At King, in times of crisis, everyone responds with paddles
    in the water.

5)    Find Time to Think During the Day
   They pay me to worry. . . . . . . .So, me, I am never going to
    have a good day --- just get over it.

6)   Take Responsibility for the Good and the Bad

If the problems in your school or organization lie below you and the solutions lie above you, then you have rendered yourself irrelevant. The genius of school lies within the school. The solutions to problems are almost always right in front of you.

7) You Have the Ultimate Responsibility
Have very clear expectations. . . . Autonomy is the goal, though you still have to inspect.

8)   Have a Bias for Yes
 . . . The only progress you will ever make involves risk: Ideas that teachers have may seem a little unsafe and crazy. Try to think, "How can I make this request into a yes?"

9) Consensus is Overrated
Twenty percent of people will be against anything. When you realize this, you avoid compromising what really should be done because you stop watering things down. If you always try to reach consensus, you are being led by the 20 percent.

10) Large Change Needs to be Done Quickly
If you wait too long to make changes to a school culture, you have already sanctioned mediocre behavior because you're allowing it. That's when change is hard, and you begin making bad deals.

The second most-discussed premise about leaderships came from the work of Jim Collins, author of classic #1 bestselling book, Good To Great, where he coined the terms "Level 5 Leaders" and "The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity of Three Circles)" which is about "transcending the curse of competence." One quote in particular as it relates to school, business and school leaders, which addresses a very heated national debate:

"We must reject the idea--well-intentioned, but dead wrong--that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become "more like a business." Most businesses--like most of anything else in life--fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great. When you compare great companies with good ones, many widely practiced business norms turn out to correlate with mediocrity, not greatness. So, then, why would we want to import the practices of mediocrity into the social sectors?

I shared this perspective with a gathering of business CEOs, and offended nearly everyone in the room. A hand shot up from David Weekley, one of the more thoughtful CEOs--a man who built a very successful company and who now spends nearly half his time working with the social sectors. "Do you have evidence to support your point?" he demanded. "In my work with nonprofits, I find that they're in desperate need of greater discipline--disciplined planning, disciplined people, disciplined governance, disciplined allocation of resources."

"What makes you think that's a business concept?" I replied. "Most businesses also have a desperate need for greater discipline. Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline--disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action--that we find in truly great companies. A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness."

Later, at dinner, we continued our debate, and I asked Weekley: "If you had taken a different path in life and become, say, a church leader, a university president, a nonprofit leader, a hospital CEO, or a school superintendent, would you have been any less disciplined in your approach? Would you have been less likely to practice enlightened leadership, or put less energy into getting the right people on the bus, or been less demanding of results?" Weekley considered the question for a long moment. "No, I suspect not."

That's when it dawned on me: we need a new language. The critical distinction is not between business and social, but between great and good. We need to reject the naive imposition of the "language of business" on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness."
What would YOU add to the list?

                                                                                            --C.J. Westerberg
Previously published The Daily Riff August 2010

  • All of these terms are so important to all of the teacher's in different school to know so that they will be doing a great way of teaching their students. Good leadership of a certain teacher can definitely give good learning to their student's.

  • Rosemarie kellinger

    Take the politics out of the school, prioritize,pick achievable goals, use and treat teachers with intelligence, and keep asking Why are we doing what we are doing and is it working.

  • CJ Westerberg

    Great comment - agree that "figuring out where to begin" also is a person who can prioritize. Also like when he talked about how disciplined thought and action eliminates the need for bureaucracy, hierarchy and excessive controls. As he said, "When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great performance."

  • I'd add that school leaders have to choose sound changes to push. They have to be things that will work for students and that are in reach for the staff.

    In Collins' terms, you can't just make up Big Hairy Aggressive Goals. You have to discover the BHAGs that fit your organization. It isn't good enough to just imagine/assert/wish that your school can reach particular goals. It has to be TRUE that your school can get there, and TRUE that particular approaches are the route that will work.

    Also, the problem for school change agents probably isn't the long-term vision. There's a pretty rich understanding out there of what a school that's really working well looks like.

    The problem is moving toward that, and especially choosing the first few steps right so that you will gain momentum. In Collins' terms, it's figuring out how to get the "flywheel" to make the first few turns. From one school to the next, those right first steps may vary a bit, and one of the distinctives of a great leader is figuring out where to begin.

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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