Home / News / The Actions of Transformative Leaders: A Baker’s Dozen
transformative leader image

The Actions of Transformative Leaders: A Baker’s Dozen

by Jay Stroud
Former Director, NEASC Commission on Independent Schools

In our work with more than five hundred NEASC Accredited independent schools in New England, we regularly encounter schools that transformed from one school to a better one. Schools where both the qualitative and the quantitative measures clearly describe an institution that, simply stated, achieves higher goals in every corner of the operation. Student morale and accomplishment, school culture and climate, faculty creativity and longevity, Board engagement, admissions statistics, financial health, alumni support, community partnership — every facet of the school radiates optimism and energy.

Without exception, these schools mirror the dedication and ability of a true leader. I have taken to saying if there is a “formula” for school transformation, we see it at work in schools everywhere: a committed leader of genuine ability, imagination and energy who stays in the school for a long time. And who has a direct and clear mission: improving the school in every possible way. “Make my school better,” in one form or another, is the mantra of every genuinely transformative independent school head.

These leaders’ actions are clearly observable. While there are several more than thirteen, here is a Baker’s Dozen of the transformative behaviors we observe among leaders throughout New England:

  1. The Head’s job is to lead the Board while providing them with a sense of confidence they are in charge. This defines delicate balance. A great school Head helps the Board carry out its mandate for mission oversight, planning and financial management but is never in doubt that the school’s direction, long-range goals and evolving priorities are his/her responsibility. In practice, this subtle imbalance of power is essential to an effective Head’s leadership. And to a school’s true improvement. And the Head and Board Chair’s relationship is central to this endeavor.

  2. The Head’s own behavior, ideas and energy shape the school’s climate and culture and are the foundation of creativity, growth and initiative among the faculty and staff. The Head provides both a sense of security and a drive for imaginative approaches that infuses the entire campus with vitality and vision.

  3. The Head recognizes the absolute values of legal and ethical behavior and is forthright in articulating these to the school community. The Head recognizes that legal and ethical behavior brooks no compromise. Yet, that being clear, there will inevitably be moments that keep both a good Head - and a good lawyer – awake at night while stiving to find the right next step. Neither the law nor one’s ethical commitment always provides a ready solution. Transparency with the Board Chair when such a moment arises is paramount.

  4. Effective school leadership is always a team endeavor. The Head’s job is writing the page that inspires everyone to gather upon together. The more everyone on the team feels their mutual responsibility to the other members, the more effective the team will be. When the Head finds a way to be self-deprecating and balanced without losing the respect of his/her colleagues, the stronger the team can become. The Head can make mistakes – all of us do – and recover. Just don’t make too many. Truly empowering others to do their jobs independently is a crucial skill. As is always remembering that responsibility for all decision will ultimate come back to the Head. Particularly when something goes awry.

  5. The Head doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the room and likely won’t be. Knowing the right next thing to do and how best to articulate that step often requires a good deal of discussion. The effective Head knows how to listen, to give credit where credit is due and to celebrate insights and ideas that were not his/her own. But the effective Head must be decisive and take responsibility for action.

  6. The effective school Head knows there is no substitute for physical presence. The dining hall, the corridors, the dormitories, the playing fields, the classrooms and labs, the dance studio, the machine shop and the maintenance building and the local town meeting and police and EMT are frequent stops on the Head’s daily or weekly forays. The Head visits kids or faculty in hospital, speaks at alumni events and travels to distant lands. And sometimes arises at 2:00 in the morning when needed. There is no other way to convey commitment, interest and dedication and there is no alternative to strengthening the sense of community.

  7. The Head knows the name, something of the personal story and the relationship to the school of almost every person who is employed. Some school staffs may be so large as to inhibit this goal. To the degree possible, the Head follows up on life’s events – marriages, illness, the death of pets, the children’s college career – with nearly everyone on campus. It’s possible to fake some of this of course. But not a lot.

  8. The Head makes constant, personal and direct contact with students. Students never question how a Head knows something about them and the effective school Head makes many positive comments to kids every day – “saw you in the play last night,” “great goal in the game on Saturday,” “I heard your mom had an accident,” “what you said in school meeting was really good,” “let’s talk about that further.” Every day. That’s the establishment of “climate and culture.” Some Heads greet every student coming in the door in the morning.

  9. The Head makes hard decisions when they need to be made. An effective Head likely doesn’t relish personal confrontations with employees, students, families or alumni or trustees. Failing to be direct when necessary, unfortunately, causes a school to flounder. A school Head who has gained the trust of the community will find that most folks recognize a hard decision for what it is and understand why it had to be made.

  10. The effective Head works as hard as he/she can to keep the long view in mind. Kids grow up, money for buildings can be raised, faculty can mature, boards can become working teams. Change is often slow, but it does happen. An effective Head reminds that the sky doesn’t fall, and that disappointment is not crippling.

  11. Great Heads do something dramatic – literally – every once in a while. Not every week. Give a chapel talk effectively made up to be someone else. Act in the school play. Play a musical instrument – the banjo counts – in school meeting. Dance in the pep rally. Run a marathon. Heads usually advise students to “take risks” - but it’s hollow counsel unless the Head, him or herself, visibly takes one every so often. The Head needs to feel nervous enough that he/she is about to make a fool of themselves to count.

  12. If you plan on making real change, plan, also, to stick around for a while. We have seen schools truly transformed by effective school heads. But not usually in less than ten or fifteen years. At the least. I wish it were possible to be quicker about this, but we don’t see a lot of evidence for such hope.

  13. Stay well, mentally and physically. It’s easy to do this job every waking hour and a fair number of those that were supposed to be sleep. Email contains its own special imperative that is often difficult – ok, sometimes impossible – to ignore. But sometimes you have to. If the Head is effective, time away will be understood. As long as it’s not too long.