Organizational agility has long been praised as a means to accelerate innovation. It is a term that emerged to characterize changes within the software industry over two decades ago and has since expanded well beyond into other fields. A November 2020 article published by McKinsey goes so far as to suggest that “to survive and thrive in this more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, leading companies are reaping significant benefits by embracing agility at scale.” Their research shows that “agile companies have outperformed others in adapting to Covid-19.”
Agile organizations are made up of individuals committed to a common purpose. To strengthen our organizational capacity, we must invest in strengthening ourselves as leaders, prepared to tackle the challenges, in partnership with one another. One key lever we can pull on is rooted in our emotions and in our awareness of how our emotions impact on our leadership. In short, strengthening our emotional agility will not only strengthen our individual capacity, but also ultimately our effectiveness as a team. (See the article by Sandra Nagy on page 60 for a view of agile leadership in action.)
Susan David, an award-winning psychologist, defines the concept of emotional agility as “a process that allows us to be in the moment, changing or maintaining our behaviors to live in ways that align with our intentions and values.” To increase the effectiveness of school leadership—both professional and volunteer—we need to invest in growing self-awareness and strengthening our own emotional agility.
HEAD AND BOARD: GAPS AND OPPORTUNITIES
A recent study conducted by NAIS and the University of Pennsylvania, "Survey on Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure," found that there are key areas in which the head of school’s and the board’s perception of performance differ, including fundraising, professional support and prioritization of goals. It is in this gap of perception that we also see great opportunities for growth and development.
The study found that heads of school are 22 percentage points less likely than board members to say that the board adequately supports the head in fundraising efforts. The gap is 18% between board chairs and heads, 95% to 77%. Some heads of school do not feel supported. And though 94% of board chairs report that the board provides feedback and allows adequate time for heads to realize those goals, only 66% and 77% of heads agree, respectively. At times, heads and boards perceive their performance very differently. Not surprisingly, in an NAIS survey of new heads, more than one in five found the head-board relationship to be the most difficult aspect of their transition into headship.
At Prizmah, our experience working with schools on governance and leadership development has taught us that what gets in the way lends itself to a technical solution. Systems and structures are critically important in ensuring success for school lay and professional leadership teams, but alone they are not sufficient. Research conducted by Prizmah in partnership with Rosov Consulting demonstrates that structures and systems, culture and norms and capacities and dispositions of lay and professional leaders all have impact on the lay-head partnership. For example, giving difficult feedback is sometimes elusive not because we lack the mechanisms or tools to collect it from direct reports and other stakeholders, but owing to discomfort and avoidance of hurt feelings.
We regularly see day school leaders struggling to respond to emotionally sensitive situations:
A stressed head avoids a conversation with her board chair about fundraising and the concerns she has about how they can work together to engage the board more deeply in development.
A board chair avoids a direct conversation with a head about performance because he is not sure how the head will react and how to say something that may be perceived as critical when he knows the head is working so hard in the midst of a pandemic.
When a board member asks about best practices in term limits for a Jewish day school board, behind the question may be a real concern about transitioning a long- serving board member into a different role and ensuring there continues to be a way for the valued individual to contribute to the life of the school. The individual may be a major donor or someone with deep ties in the community. It may feel like a desire to improve governance practices (follow best practices in term limits) is at odds with the dynamics and structures of the current board and what is best for the school.
These can be difficult situations that can be complicated to navigate. Emotional agility can help us to become more effective in how we respond. Prioritizing this type of work as individuals as well as a team is a key lever to strengthen our capacity to lead our schools.
EMOTIONAL AGILITY IN ACTION
We are leading at our best when we pay attention to the role our emotions play in our work. By behaving compassionately with ourselves and observing the patterns of our emotional reactions, we can unlock our ability to navigate challenging and pressing circumstances. By contrast, a reluctance to acknowledge our feelings prevents us from showing up as authentic partners committed to a common purpose; we inhibit our ability to fully connect with others; and we risk losing the opportunity to create work environments that invite others to thrive.
As a leadership coach, I was privy to a story about a school board member who was preparing to assume the role of president, and who in his work led a nonprofit. After a board training, he said to me, “In my professional life, I know how to handle employees who are having a difficult time or are not the right fit for the job, but I do not know how to have these conversations and lead a group of my peers who are also volunteers.” His willingness to be vulnerable in this moment, to express his unease at his new assignment and feel both the hope of what is possible and the weight of the challenges, was an auspicious starting point for the work moving forward. The training was not solely about getting the right structures in place to ensure committees were working effectively; it was about naming the fear of having to have difficult conversations with peers who may not be the best fit for serving on the board.
This dynamic is complicated, especially when our professional and personal lives are so connected in our schools. Our ability to hold these complex emotions, to name what is actually going on and then to identify the choices we can make to take the next best step forward, enable us to create trusting relationships and environments that will attract talented lay and professional leaders. The work of strengthening our emotional agility is an investment in the health and future of our work and our well-being.
In her book Emotional Agility, Susan David offers concrete strategies for strengthening this muscle. “Effective leaders are mindful of their inner experiences but not caught in them. They know how to free up their internal resources and commit to actions that align with their values.” She advises:
- Recognize your patterns. You have to realize that you’re stuck before you can initiate change.
- Label your thoughts and emotions. Labeling allows you to see them as transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.
- Accept them. Respond to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude, paying attention and letting yourself experience them. They may be signaling that something important is at stake.
- Act on your values. Is your response going to serve your organization in the long term and take you toward being the leader you most want to be?
This is work we must commit to in an ongoing way. Relationships take time to build and nurture. When setting up a lay- head partnership, whether you are new to the job or have been working together for a while, discuss how you will work together, what the behaviors look like that demonstrate you are in it together, and spend time getting to know one another. Consider being candid about where you need support and how you will communicate if something is not working well.
CULTIVATING “SOFT SKILLS” AS BUILDING BLOCKS
Prizmah believes the lay-head partnership is core to a thriving school. We believe in developing the capacity of professional and lay leaders alike to lead in environments that are built on trust, vulnerability, and open and honest communication. The work of fostering our self-awareness is integrated into all of our leadership programs, including YOU Lead as well as our Coaching Institute.
We call our work in leadership development Deepening Talent, because we believe this is work that requires us to go deep within. The work of leadership is not about finding quick solutions to complex issues; it is about our willingness to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We believe that courageous curiosity, cultivating awareness and compassion, and recognizing that we always have a choice in how we respond are dispositional skills that we can get better at over time. No longer dismissed as mere “soft skills,” these are fundamental building blocks for strong leadership.
The stakes are high. Leadership requires action in alignment with our internal selves, tocho ke-boro (matching our outside with what’s inside). Our schools and our leadership will be stronger when we work in partnership with one another, bringing our full selves into this endeavor.