While this is somewhat true, and the shock value has dissipated, something more interesting has emerged. The chaotic has become the predictable. Based upon the patterns established over the last twelve months, political opponents, pundits, and the general population are now able to prepare for expected outcomes or actions and, rather than be thrown off by them, are ready to respond and counter. The club of the presidency has now become more like a Nerf bat!
You might be surprised to discover that school leaders can also demonstrate this kind of spectacular incompetence without being fired. There are a number of reasons for this Teflon effect whereby nothing bad sticks to the Head, and she or he seems to be gliding along untouched by the chaos that they have unleashed. There are five key factors that might allow a leader to escape real accountability for their misdeeds during her or his first couple of years on the job:
1. A lack of effective oversight: Far too many Boards are absentee landlords when it comes to exercising their fiduciary responsibilities towards the successful continuity of the organizational health of the school. The tendency is to focus on the easily measurable (balanced budgets, enrolment statistics, fundraising targets, etc.), rather than plunging into the murkier depths of leadership culture and staff morale.
2. The Honeymoon Effect: Everyone expects some disequilibrium during a period of transition and change. If the new leader says the right things about the positive impact that she or he is having on the organization, they can paint nay-sayers as traditionalists who are stuck in the past or as people who benefited from the way that the outgoing Head ran things and are now bitter about the “newer and fairer” regime. (Remember: “Drain the Swamp”?) All in all, most teachers and parents are generous in their thinking and sincerely desire to give a new leader the benefit of the doubt. This can effectively shield a Head from any form of close scrutiny in the short term.
3. A Jekyll and Hyde Approach to Leadership: In a large school, middle level leadership positions can often play a buffering approach between the Head and the school community. If a school leader plays the Dr. Jekyll role in public – thoughtful, positive, and interested in dialogue with all stakeholders – and only reveals his more authoritarian and dismissive Mr. Hyde attributes behind closed doors, then only his immediate reports see the full picture. They often get “credited” with the erratic decision-making and general sense of disorganization that can more rightly be laid at the door of the Head.
4. Extended Transitions: An unintended consequence of making major organizational change in the first months of a Headship is its impact upon the perception of leadership at the school. If the established leadership team stays the same for the first year of a Head’s tenure, then any changes (for good or ill) will rightly be seen as a product of the new leader’s influence on the policies and practices of the school.
As a result, poor decision-making, or organizational chaos in a system that was previously working well, will be generally seen as a product of the actions of the Head. On the other hand, if there are major changes in personnel, then the responsibility becomes diffused and you hear a lot of talk about “steep learning curves” and “rookie mistakes”. The focus shifts to the newbies and away from their leader.
5. Self-preservation: Over the years, I have worked with a number of Boards who have realized very early in a new Head’s tenure, that they had made a mistake. After having invested in an often quite expensive search process, and having engaged in a communications blitz praising and celebrating the resulting “outstanding” hire, Boards are often reluctant to issue a mea culpa statement – “Just kidding folks, our choice stunk!”
After a reasonable face-saving period of a couple of years the Head suddenly finds a new opportunity elsewhere and the Board cries a few crocodile tears and thankfully moves on. In fairness, I have noticed over the last decade that decade that many Boards have been moving much faster in this regard, taking advantage of probationary clauses in contracts or quality guarantees from headhunters to “cut bait” earlier.
This series of blog posts has been written as a cautionary tale with two distinct audiences.
For Boards, it is a reminder to pay attention to what is happening under the surface in the school under your care. These collected posts outline the sorts of danger signs that you should watch for as you exercise your stewardship over the long-term health of the school. If Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s that it is much easier, and faster, to destroy than it is to build. A few years of poor leadership can hollow out a well-functioning school by driving the best and the brightest out the door and bringing the school improvement process to a grinding halt.
For aspiring school leaders, this is a little reminder about what not to do! Stepping into your first school leadership role is a scary thing. Everyone before who has sat in your chair, was a star in their previous position and everyone walked into this office with a head full of plans and a heart full of hope for the future. Some made a real difference in the positive growth of the school, many did no harm, and a few tore down more than they built up. Don’t be one of the latter group!
My only advice to you is to take it slow; build on the experience of your predecessor and on the expertise and internal credibility of your leadership team. Be honest and open in your communications. Admit when you don’t know something and own up to your mistakes (because we all make them!)
Play the long game and you will probably last long enough to see the realization of your vision.