Failures of Leadership
Despite a tsunami of books, classes and ‘experts’ on leadership, countless school leaders struggle to do their jobs effectively…they fail to lead. Why is this? Why do some of us continually fail to reach the high expectations we hoped to achieve as we watched others lead, promising we wouldn’t make the same mistakes?
As I’ve spoken to different school leaders in international ED, I continue to hear a few major themes needed in order to be an effective leader. One of these themes is that effective leaders only become great leaders through experience and reflection. Like most things in life, experience is the key to mastery, after all you wouldn’t let a surgeon operate on you who only had textbook knowledge (at least I wouldn’t). Since it’s impossible to really learn without this experience, we should be gracious to those who are willing to step out and up into leadership roles.
On the other hand, as leaders we must honor those we work for and reflect on our experiences, so we don’t make the same mistakes over and over. I believe it’s this time of reflection that will produce the best results in our development.
As I’ve been thinking more about failures of leadership, I came across an article by Patrick O’Niell, President of Extraordinary Conversations. He observes from over 30 years of leadership experience that of all the major reasons leaders fail, there are four common themes: ” lack of vision, poor communication, tolerance for organizational fragmentation and character flaws.”
Although he is primarily speaking to a audience of business people, I argue that his four themes are just as relevant in international schools.
Lack of Vision
O’Neill mentions that in bullish times it’s easy to neglect vision because there is enough money and momentum to push forward and make mistakes. However, it’s in times of crisis or decline that an unclear vision becomes acutely apparent. He writes, “without a clear personal and organizational vision, we live in a reactionary world. We grab what we can to serve our immediate needs, and are driven by agendas that are not our own. A lack of vision leaves us in the dark, unable to navigate the complexities of the world. We’re incapable of seeing the pitfalls and the opportunities emerging around us.”
For many international schools, it may feel like a bullish time as schools in Singapore, Bangkok and China burst at the seams. Yet, as a prominent headmaster told me last week, it’s the schools with a clear vision, not the most students or deepest pockets, that will rise above others to demonstrate true learning, purpose and stability in a fast growing industry.
If you communicate with others in your school the same way today as you did 5 years ago, you probably are a poor communicator. Clear lines of communication between the front office and the school community have always been important, but as every year passes the demand for fast, effective and clear communication increases.
We currently exist in an odd generational transition with respect to communication. Although there are exceptions, there is a vast generational gap between the most senior educators and the youngest. Moreover as our current graduates move on to university and into the workforce they will demand, expect and create constant lines of communication using every form of media available. Working in this atmosphere for the most senior educators may be dizzying and cause more communication problems.
Tolerance for Organizational Fragmentation
Does your school have an unofficial power structure? Great leaders know that creating strong buy-in is an important step in instituting change and should always be practiced. Yet, some of our schools have so many turf wars and educational-warlords that it seems easier to avoid change in these areas. However, when we allow these areas, divisions and departments to mark their territory we handicap the school’s ability to unite, flex and change.
It’s often demanded of educators that they must act with the highest moral character, arguably more then most professions. Just as organizations need a strong vision for it everyone to follow, leaders need strong and clear values to guide their decisions. We all make mistakes, but it’s the magnitude of mistakes that often reveal our deepest character flaws.
O’Neill sums this up well when he writes, “leaders require strength of character to resist the temptations of worldly success, which seek to seduce us into believing that the rules were made for other people and that we are entitled to bend them. Of course, these transgressions usually end badly. Consider recent developments: John Edwards and Eliott Spitzer leaving politics in disgrace. Bernie Madoff awaiting trial. Conrad Black in prison. Abu Ghraib. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Manny Ramirez, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds disgraced by performance-enhancing drug scandals. Teachers and clergy charged with sexual misconduct. The list goes on.”