While preparing for a workshop last fall, I had the opportunity to talk to several leaders of both Christian and secular organizations; I asked them what causes leaders of schools to stumble. These executive directors and superintendents gave the following six areas that are consistently causing school leaders to stumble.
Challenges in dealing with the board of directors included failing to connect with new members, not understanding the relationship between the principal and the board, the relationship with the board chair, a loss of trust in a principal by the board, different expectations, and an unwillingness to help a board of directors understand their role as governors.
Long gone are the days when a principal was finished after presenting his/her report at the board. These days, a principal and a board work as a team, with the principal leading the board and being accountable to the board. It is a very unique relationship that requires authentic communication and transparency to maintain a healthy balance.
Feedback from the superintendents I surveyed clearly indicated that this was an area where principals are running into serious challenges.
Loss or Lack of Passion, Loss of Confidence
The common theme under this heading seemed to be the importance of maintaining a hunger for the vision of Christian education. When leaders lose that passion often what follows is a loss of confidence in the job and indecisiveness when making the hard calls. In his book Courageous Leadership, Bill Hybels challenges leaders to do a yearly check- in that includes questions asking if one’s passion is alive, one’s pride is subdued, and one’s heart is connected to God. Often when leaders lose that fire, they also lose the hunger to make a difference, which can lead to paralysis. Passion is contagious and sets the tone for the entire organization. A loss of passion has the same effect, but in a negative direction.
Not Being a Reflective Practitioner
Over the years, I have maintained that as long as principals ask for an evaluation every three years, at the very least they will get consistent feedback to stay on track. After listening to the feedback in this research, I see now this is not enough. Constant improvement has to be a way of life and is an approach to good leadership.
In his new bestseller Great by Choice, Jim Collins says all great leaders have several common denominators, one being productive paranoia. Leaders need to be constantly looking under every rock in the organization looking for ways to improve. The Holy Spirit can only breathe fresh winds into organizations if we open the doors and windows to new ideas. Productive paranoia and being a reflective practitioner means a leader is in constant motion, trying to help an organization reach the next step. In a practical sense, this means parent surveys, staff feedback, board feedback, reviewing mission and vision statements, and asking for feedback on ones leadership. Good schools never fall out the sky; they are painstakingly shaped on the anvil of reflection while constantly asking the question: How can we do a better job of this next year?
Not Being Able to Handle Conflict Well
Another consistent theme that challenges our leaders is how they handle conflict. Leaders can either be too aggressive or too passive. If the leader is too aggressive with handling conflict, relationships are strained or damaged in the process. If the leader is too soft with handling conflict, the community gets frustrated that there is no closure on issues and situations do not get resolved. Conflict goes underground when it is not dealt with, but rarely goes away.
It is hard, but very important to stay centered by being firm and caring when processing conflict. I am convinced that leaders can make or break community by the way they deal with conflict. Trust, patience, character, and integrity all have a chance to shine through conflict. For years I had a statement on the back door of my principal’s office that read, “Conflict is the opportunity to learn something you did not know before.” Not all conflict is bad.
Often our leaders make the mistake of being office-bound and separating themselves from the community they work in. Longevity in leadership is connected to visibility. Unfortunately, when challenges come up, our human nature tugs on us to go into hiding, when that is the very time leaders need to be visible. When tough calls are made or when the community is buzzing with some unpopular news, that is the very time a leader needs to be interacting and helping people process their thoughts.
Often principals struggle with the balance between paper and people. Yes, the paperwork has to be done, but leaders can’t shortchange the interaction with people, as that is just as important.
Lack of Understanding between Management and Leadership
The final item that I discovered through this research was that we, as leaders, still struggle to understand the difference between management and leadership. You need both in order to run a school, but leadership will take a school to the next level, where management only can leave a school at status quo for years.
My sister-in-law explained it very well when she was giving me advice on how to run my first marathon. She explained how the short runs during the week are important to keep the fires of good running burning, but you will never complete a marathon if you can’t do the long runs on the weekends. Management is like those short 5–8 km runs, in that they maintain the level of your running. Leadership is like the 14 km, then 16 km, then 18 km runs you do on the weekends to push your body to the next level in preparation for the marathon. For the sake of the kingdom, schools need to be taken to the next level.
The above areas are not an exhaustive list at all, but they do give some insight into what our Christian school leaders tend to stumble over. At the end of the day, Christian school leadership still remains a challenging career, but is always balanced with wonderful rewards. We never walk alone and the Father has left us the Holy Spirit to shape us into the leaders he longs for us to be.
- Collins, Bill. Great by Choice. New York: Harper Business, 2011.
- Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.