Conditions for Successful Headship

Ilisa Cappell

Training programs and high-end degrees alone cannot guarantee a head of school’s effectiveness and endurance. A study commissioned by Prizmah, conducted by Rosov Consulting with the generous support of The AVI CHAI Foundation, entitled “The Learning Leadership Landscape: Experiences and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel” (, found four persistent conditions that make the context of leadership within our day schools so challenging:

Financial and enrollment pressures are typically attributed to the efficacy of the head of school, even when the circumstances are beyond the head’s control. For example, a drop-in enrollment may be due to families moving out of town. Rationally, we know the head isn’t responsible, and yet the head may well be blamed.

Toxic board cultures. Boards that lack clarity regarding its roles and responsibilities are generally unable to give the head the support he or she needs, and this often leads to toxic board cultures due to unfounded assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

Concentrated rather than distributed leadership. Research and experience demonstrate that successful school leadership teams have various skills, dispositions, and capacities distributed across leadership teams.

It’s the Wild West out there. There are few shared standards and expectations across day schools. Our leaders, both lay and professional, need support in giving effective feedback so that they can measure success and identify opportunities for growth.

As a follow-up to the study, Prizmah conducted focus groups with nearly 100 heads of school across the country. This is what we heard:

Our heads of school are driven by a deep sense that this work is holy and that they can contribute meaningfully to the Jewish present and future.

There are no dull moments in the life cycle of a school. The headship is in itself an opportunity for creation and creativity, and the complexity of the position is exhilarating.

Heads experience profound joy in the children and families they serve, in developing leadership teams, and in working with the community. As one head noted, with the same breath, “Some days it is hard to get out of bed” and “I can’t think of anything else I would rather do.”

Heads often feel they are required to be an expert in everything (instructional leader, business manager, community builder, and inspirational orator) and simultaneously serve as a role model in the community. The resulting disconnect between expectations and reality often deters heads from voicing their needs. Creating conditions and the space for heads to be vulnerable and speak up when they need guidance is crucial.

Heads do not work alone and cannot lead alone. They rely heavily on mentors, board members, colleagues, spouses and trusted advisors for support.

We need to strengthen our leadership and talent pipeline.

The one thing we heard consistently from all heads, across all denominations and school sizes, was how critical the lay-head partnership is to their success. Heads who reported high levels of trust in their boards felt more satisfaction with the work. Successful heads understand their responsibility to work together with the board as a fundamental part of their role and agree that board training is critical.

So yes, continue to invest in the head of school’s professional growth and development, but don’t stop there. Consider the following:

Invest in board training. Clarity around lay and professional roles and responsibilities goes a long way in ensuring effective boundaries.

Invest in the board-head partnership. Work on building trust. How will you support one another and effectively lead the school community together? What might shift in your practice if lay and professional leaders operated from the premise that one of a lay leader’s top priorities was to support the head of school?

Develop intentional practices for board-head communication. Think about how and how often you will communicate with each other. What gets in the way, and what support do you need to be able give and receive feedback? What norms will you establish for communication? For example, many lay/head teams have a rule of “no surprises” to ensure that they keep one another informed so that no one is caught off-guard when issues arise.

Shift our mindset on leadership. Instead of “finding” strong leadership for the school, look to cultivate leaders from within. What would our school cultures need to look like to support our professionals’ growth and development? How might our schools be better prepared for leadership succession when they have invested in a culture of growth and development for professional and lay leadership?

Invest in developing your talent pipeline. Prepare ahead, involve the community, and be explicit about roles/responsibilities for succession planning.

These practices are an investment that will pay dividends as you continue to lead your school from strength to strength.

We are excited to report a study in progress to explore what our lay leaders feel they need to be successful in their roles. We look forward to sharing the findings with you.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019