Leading with Head, Heart, Hand and Soul

Alex Pomson and Frayda Gonshor Cohen

In Search of a Compass

What distinguishes the most effective heads of day schools? How is it that at a moment when about half of Jewish day school heads and principals stay in position for three years or less, some individuals do so well that their schools don’t want to see them leave after 10 years or more? What do we know about these people? How much is their success about who they are? How much is it about what they know how to do?

These questions, and others like them, were provoked during the course of a study the Rosov Consulting team recently completed on behalf of Prizmah, with the support of The AVI CHAI Foundation. The study was published as "The Learning Leadership Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel.”

At a time when there are more programmatic opportunities than ever for Jewish day school heads and principals to learn leadership, the study was inspired by the following questions:

  • What leadership learning opportunities exist for Jewish day school leaders? What are their key features? To what extent are they likely to achieve their goals?
  • Are there leadership development needs specific to Jewish day school leaders that are currently going unmet?

Our first challenge in answering these questions was to navigate the bewildering number of assumptions about what it takes to lead a day school successfully. For example, a search for the term “school leadership” on Amazon yields 14,736 books on concepts including mindful leadership, collaborative leadership, renegade leadership, human resource leadership, ethical leadership, change leadership and more, just on the first screen. In similar fashion, programs to develop school leaders are shaped by widely varying assumptions about the abilities and personality traits needed to lead schools, let alone about how such competencies or characteristics can be developed.

To enable the comparison of programs conceived in often radically different ways, and to make possible the analysis of how day school leaders think of their own capacities and functioning, our team needed to bring some kind of compass to this study. We needed a conceptual framework of Jewish day school leadership to help us pick our way through different ideas about the learning needs of leaders and the roles that leaders perform.

This article concerns a special insight about the ingredients of school leadership we uncovered in the course of developing such a framework. We explain why we believe this insight can be of great value to the day school field. It brings into focus the dispositions of school leadership and the importance of cultivating such dispositions.

What Can Leaders Do?

After a review of the literature on school leadership, we found that there are four capacities extensively discussed across the conceptual and empirical literature on school leadership, and a fifth, less widely considered, but especially relevant to the day school sector:

  • Vision or direction-setting. Being able to develop, communicate and model Jewish and educational priorities.

  • Personnel development and empowerment. Developing and sustaining the capacities of staff, providing them with critical feedback, and creating a trusting environment where people will be ready to take risks.

  • Organizational management. Organizing, scheduling and coordinating operations, administration and finances, supporting and managing change and other complex projects.

  • Instructional leadership. Promoting rigorous content and curriculum, modeling best practices in teaching, learning and assessment, supervising and mentoring teachers, and enabling educators to impact lives.

  • Community-building. Building a culture of care and community in the school, promoting the school within the community, managing expectations of it, and navigating the politics and the interests of stakeholders.

The Ghost in the Machine

Pleased with our efforts to distill a flourishing literature into a set of five common categories, our next step was to test this framework with senior scholars and practitioners in the school leadership and day school leadership fields. This, though, is where we encountered a surprise. None of those with whom we talked disputed the categories we had developed. They appreciated their expansiveness and focus. Yet each interviewee expressed a sense that there was something missing. We had carefully, even comprehensively, depicted the mechanics of school leadership, but they argued that we had overlooked the soul of school leadership: the difference between being a competent leader and being an exceptional one.

The most experienced school leaders explained to us that in order to be successful as a head of school, it wasn’t only a matter of being able to do certain things, one has to be a certain kind of person, too. One has to approach the world in certain kinds of ways. As they experienced it, there were dispositions of leadership that were no less important than the capacities we had delineated.

The dispositions they had in mind (and that others started to call to our attention) included, among other qualities, self-awareness and reflectiveness, curiosity and creativity, honesty and empathy, and a calling and commitment to the Jewish people. The list proved quite long, but it became an important pillar in the conceptual framework we developed to guide our work. The common denominator in all of these dispositions is that they express who a person is, and his or her readiness and interest to take certain kinds of action. The capacities, by contrast, express an ability to take action.

The Difficulty with Dispositions

Of course, scholars are aware of these dispositions, but they are not front and center in most practice-oriented literature on school leadership. They also don’t tend to be an explicit focus of leadership-development programs. They’re not ignored or dismissed by programs, but for reasons we’ll consider below they don’t tend to be curricularized in the same way as the capacities are. Their cultivation is rarely identified as a central programmatic goal. Perhaps this is because it is assumed that, unlike the capacities, the dispositions can’t be taught, or, if they can be taught, they are not easily measured. Either they must be developed through experience, or they’re instinctive. It’s difficult to know how to cultivate them in group settings as opposed to one-on-one coaching relationships. To express these issues in metaphorical terms: Dispositions seem a kind of wild card. A bonus if you possess any or many of them, but not a deal breaker if you don’t. It’s tempting to think of them as the expressions of leadership that originate on the right side of the brain, along with creativity, spirituality and artistry. Over on the left side of the brain is where the capacities of leadership originate, the site of logical thinking and rational problem solving.

We think the dispositions deserve a different, more systematic look. In fact, the dispositions may be more important as components of successful school leadership than any of the capacities. As dimensions of leadership, the capacities can be distributed across different members of a senior team. One team member might be a superb organizational manager, another an exemplary instructional leader. Dispositions can’t be distributed in the same way. One person cannot excel in honesty but fall short in terms of humility, another modeling curiosity but not so much integrity. Dispositions must all be present in a school leader. They’re essential and integral to how heads or principals function as leaders. They determine how a leader leads and is perceived.

A Dispositional Typology: Head, Heart, Hand and Soul

We propose that there are four kinds of leadership dispositions:

Intellectual. These dispositions express a readiness to think more than one move ahead, to see beyond the present moment and to de-center, that is, to see things from other points of view. They signal self-awareness and a willingness to think critically about oneself, indicating a readiness to learn more and to be ready to do things differently.

Emotional. At the core of these dispositions are the facets of emotional intelligence, to be comfortable in one’s own skin especially when under assault, and at the same time to be sensitive to others or empathetic, being aware of how one presents oneself as a leader.

Ethical. There is, in a moral sense, a right and wrong way to lead. Ethical leadership expresses integrity and honesty, and thereby builds trust. It presumes humility and a capacity to set aside one’s own ego in the service of a larger cause.

Practical. The dispositions of self-regulation and time management are no less critical even if they seem mundane. They are key contributors to resilient leadership. These dispositions might be a key contributor to the longevity displayed by those exceptional heads we mentioned above.

Our informants identified one more disposition not incorporated in this generic typology. It can’t be subsumed under other dispositions and is surely a vital element in exceptional Jewish day school leadership: a calling and commitment to the Jewish people. This disposition, existential in quality, reflects an appreciation that one’s work is part of something larger; that whatever its challenges, it has a larger purpose and value, one that relates to the place of the Jewish people in the world. In a day school context, in any Jewish communal context really, this disposition has a different valence from the other dispositions. It is particular rather than universal. And, it can’t be reduced to other categories.

One doesn’t have to be a head of school who’s Jewish to feel such a calling, but, we imagine, it helps. Day school leadership is both exquisitely challenging and rewarding. A sense of calling to the Jewish people helps heads of school face down the hardest challenges, and it also deepens the rewards in their work when seeing the difference their efforts make to the lives of children, parents and educators, and to the Jewish community. This calling infuses all of the dispositions: one’s capacity to look beyond the present moment, one’s relationships, one’s humility and even one’s readiness to maintain oneself physically. In a sense it is the soul of Jewish leadership—its neshamah. The soul, in this sense, breathes life into the acts of one’s head, heart and hands.

For sure, these dispositions are found not only in leaders. But when enacted by heads of school and principals, they make a profound difference to their leadership capacities. That’s what makes them so important, especially in the day school context. To take an example—one that takes us to the distinctive heart of the day school enterprise: Our review of leadership development programs found that few programs invest attention in the capacities associated with building community within and beyond the school. This capacity barely figures in the broader literature on school leadership. Yet for day school stakeholders, this capacity is one of the most critical dimensions of day school leadership, especially in smaller communities where the day school can be, and often is, at the heart of Jewish cultural and social life.

Enacting this community-building capacity is one of the most challenging dimensions for day school leadership. We surmise that the dispositions of empathy, emotional intelligence and commitment to the Jewish people can make a profound difference to a head of school’s community-building capacities. They transform a leader’s capacity to cultivate relationships among the different circles of individuals touched by a school. In this instance, and in others too, select dispositions decisively facilitate the enactment of the capacities. They do not exist independently of them. They sustain and enhance them.

Developing the Dispositions

Our study reported that “leadership learning programs, whether or not under Jewish auspices, focus almost exclusively on developing capacities rather than dispositions. It seems that the design of programs is predicated on the notion that dispositions can’t be taught, no matter how critical they are to the effectiveness and endurance of school leaders.” We found that, although leadership learning programs are interested in cultivating dispositions, they rarely express this interest as a programmatic goal, and they rarely make the cultivation of dispositions a prominent or explicit part of their curriculum. In the best cases, they’re an implicit part of what they do, especially within mentoring and coaching relationships.

We believe that it’s a mistake to view the dispositions in this way. They may be personal, but they have profound professional consequences. And just as personal coaches can help individuals become more self-aware, more empathetic and more inclined to adopt an inquiry stance, whatever their personal or professional context, there is good reason to consider how, through coaching and other interventions, school leaders can be helped to develop these dispositions, especially those that enhance the building of community in schools. In fact, we wonder how the conversation about day school leadership might be changed if the dispositions became a more explicit feature of leadership development programs too, if they were explored in public settings, and not only in one-on-one coaching conversations.

The dispositions, we believe, constitute the soul of Jewish day school leadership. They should be named and nourished.

Useful Books on Leadership

Bolman, Lee and Deal, Terence E. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership.

Coles, Robert. Lives of Moral Leadership: Men and Women Who Have Made a Difference.

Collins, John. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t.

Heifetz, Ronald, Grashow, Alexander and Linsky, Marty. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.

Leithwood, Kenneth, Seashore Louis, Karen, Anderson, Stephen and Wahlstrom, Kyla. How Leadership Influences Student Learning.

Sergiovanni, Thomas. Moral Leadership.

Spillane, James and Diamond, John, editors. Distributed Leadership in Practice.

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HaYidion Leadership Dispositions Winter 2018
Leadership Dispositions
Winter 2018