Leadership and Slowness

If you aspire to lead schools, whether as a Dean or a Division Head, do yourself a favor, do your school a favor, and slow down.

Too many emerging school leaders seem to be in a rush to “climb the ladder.”  They want the next job. Or the job after the next job. (Yes, this even happens in organizations like schools where careerism is often seen as a dirty little secret.)

Move through your jobs too quickly and you lose the daily, fundamental lessons that will make you an exceptional leader rather than just a person who “got the job.”

In conversations with a few Heads of School, I have found that their paths to the “top” have been varied. Some of them have come up through the system as disciplinarians; others have a more academic or curricular background. But each and every one of them can talk, in almost mind-numbing detail, about a few big projects that they worked on or led along the way.

The “mind-numbing” part is important.  You can only talk about a project in “mind-numbing” detail when you have worked through it from every angle, when you have chewed through it and truly inhabited the work.Take, for instance, a Headmaster who worked to transform a dress code while working as a Dean of Students.  She would have met with everyone from the parents’ association to the sophomore girls who were most vocal about the change.  She would have made presentations to rooms that vilified her and rooms that cheered her.  She would have assembled and run committees.  She would have writtten the language in the dress code, revised the language, added a comma, removed a comma. . . . She would have developed elaborate metaphors to help the student body understand the importance of the dress code. And, as she completed these tasks, she would have learned about how schools function. She would have learned about compromise, about how to temper idealism with pragmatism, about the delicate dance of people that makes a school a school.

To fully understand what I mean when I talk about slowness as a prelude to leadership, think about each job at school — whether it’s a stint as a coach or a chaperoning gig on a class trip — as its own leadership novella.

The people committed to becoming the best leaders they can be take their time with each page.  They puzzle over the things that happen or fail to happen.  They follow character arcs and themes and red herrings and conflicts.   They read and reread and read again key passages in the work.  They gain a feeling for which sentences are workhorses for the plot, which sentences allude to other stories, which sentences help the narrator stall, and which sentences are just damned beautiful.  And they enjoy the process; they enjoy the science and art of close reading.

I worked at J.R. Cigars when I was younger, and I had the good fortune of spending some time with J.R. himself, a man who experienced tremendous successes in the business world, especially when the cigar trade was booming.  In some circles, he was, and still is, a legend; for me, he was the man who signed my checks as I tried to make some money before heading off to college.I came upon him once in the back of the store building.  I was throwing out some trash and he was hammering together cigar boxes that had fallen apart, a small stogie lodged in the corner of his mouth.

When I asked him why he was hammering the boxes together, he said, “I can sell em . . . or put cigars in em . . . and plus I just like the work.  It reminds me of when I was an up-and-comer.”

Up-and-comers, please slow down.  When you’re in charge, when you’re running a school and making crucial decisions about budgets and faculties and students, you’re going to want to know how to hammer together the cigar boxes.  You’re going to want to know the story of school, line by line and, as they say, by heart.

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