Learning From Giants

Learning From Giants

I’ve had four very successful international school headships over the past two decades.  I’m fortunate to be able to say I hold the longest serving tenure as a school head at two of those schools, while I provided successful leadership during political, economic, and labor crises, a sexual abuse crisis, a natural disaster, and a school start up situation at the other two schools, not to mention the varied challenges of the past couple of years around the world and in Myanmar in particular.  There are a number of factors I can point to that have contributed to this success.  I’ve had some incredible colleagues who have shared the same vision for education that have worked with me at different schools, I’ve had the opportunity to support some amazing teachers who have been adaptable and flexible in providing incredible learning opportunities in the classroom, and, of course, at international schools we work with a student and parent population that is committed and motivated to be successful.  However, the one thing that stands out for me above all else is the respect I hold for those giants who came before me as international school heads and the lessons their experience and knowledge provide.

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to get to know a very successful head of school, someone who had gone into a school that had a troubling history of rotating through heads every couple of years.  Yet this head went to this school and survived for a number of years.  At about his fifth year I connected with him and had an opportunity to chat with him.  I asked him why he felt he had been successful when so many others had not.  He said to me, “Greg, I never forget who I work for.”  This was an interesting comment.  As a head of school, we have many constituencies – students, faculty, staff, parents.  Yet, there is one group our contracts clearly state we are responsible to – the board or ownership of the school.  This comment really helped to instill in me the importance of working with the Board or ownership of the school that employs me to make sure we have an understanding of each other and are pursuing a similar vision for the school.  I once commented that I see my most important role in a school is working with the Board / ownership to maintain that focus and ensure I am in sync with those I work for.  If I can do that, everything else can fall into place and the whole school can focus on learning and a conducive climate for students.  

Similarly, about this point in time I ran into another head of school who had recently left a school he had been head of for over a decade.  I remember that his departure was a shock to many in the international school community as his name had become synonymous with the school he led.  I asked him a similar question, inquiring what had led to his departure.  His response was very thoughtful as he explained he had become overly confident in his position and had come to believe the school couldn’t survive without him.  One day he was in a board meeting where the Board was making a decision different from what he recommended.  He told them that if they made that decision he would resign from the school.  He really expected them to back down, but instead they called his bluff and accepted his resignation.  In explaining this to me he said there were many times during his career he was tempted to resign on principle, but this was not one of them.  He indicated he regretted his actions.

This second situation has really stuck with me over the years.  There have been many times that I have been worn out, torn in many directions, and felt completely exhausted by everything I am juggling and then had a board member / owner come along and throw a curveball in my direction that left me gasping and wanting to threaten to walk out the door.  In those situations I’ve stopped and thought about that head of school and the regret he felt.  I then ask myself if this current situation is the one I’m willing to sacrifice it all for?  When I think about everything we are doing for students, the learning taking place, the programs we’ve developed, is this the issue that I believe all of that needs to be given up for?  In two decades as a head of school the answer to those questions has only been “yes” one time.  And, that one time occurred only after having walked away from the situation and spent a full summer thinking about it.  Fortunately, after that amount of time, the board chair ended up agreeing with me and it worked out in the end.  This is an important lesson I learned from that head though, and it has guided me through many difficult challenges and decisions.

Back when I was teaching I had the opportunity to work for some very good school heads.  One in particular provided some guidance for me in my future career in school administration.  He was an extremely level headed individual who always appeared calm and composed.  I asked him about that one time, and he explained that when things were challenging he always grounded himself by remembering what it is about education that gets his juices flowing, in other words, why is he in education to begin with?  He told me that when he puts that question out there, and checks himself to make sure he is remaining true to that purpose, then he can be comfortable with the decisions he is making.  This is another one of those axioms that has guided me through some incredibly difficult times.

Another time I went to this same head of school and told him about some rumors I had heard about the school at a recent social event I had attended.  He explained to me he believed there was nothing wrong with a rumor.  Talking about things is how people process new information, changes, or things they question.  He told me that until an issue actually shows up at your door, it is simply a rumor and needs to be left alone.  Besides, he once said, sometimes silence is one of the most effective tools we have.

When I decided to make the jump into administration, I received a lot of guidance as I sought that first job.  My natural tendency was to apply for everything I saw, assuming I could adapt myself to any role.  Instead, I was encouraged to think about my skill set and to really question schools about their needs to determine if it was a match for my me.  I was told that nothing cuts a career shorter than a head in a position that isn’t a match for them.  For example, I have a few skills that I believe I’m really good at.  One time I interviewed for a really top notch school.  However, with a clear sense of my skill set I quickly realized the school and I were not a match and I pulled out of the running.  That’s another thing I think we sometimes forget.  The interview process needs to go both ways.  Just as the school wants to make sure they are getting the best match for the school, we need to make sure we are checking out the school to make sure it is the best match for us.

Another thing I’ve learned along the way, but can’t remember who from, is the idea that schools go through cycles.  At different times in the life cycle of a school it needs different leadership with different skill sets.  As a school head, it is important to recognize when our skill set is a match for a school, but just as importantly, is to recognize when our skill set no longer fits a school.  It is always better to realize that and make our own decision to seek something new with glowing references than to overstay our welcome and have to leave at an undesirable time.

I sat in a workshop at a conference one time and listened to a presenter I had a lot of respect for talk about the idea of having the right people on the bus.  There is a lot to be said for that concept, while right along with it is making sure that within that group of people we have people who can do the things we can’t.  I once sat in an interview for a headship where I talked about the things I saw that needed to be addressed during the period of my interview visit.  One of the board members commented, “that’s a pretty big list, how can you have the skills and knowledge to do all of that?”  I responded that I don’t, but I have the skills and knowledge to hire the people who can, and then provide the oversight to get it done.  I ended up getting that job.  Several years later, when that board member was leaving the school, she reminded me of that statement and commented that she could now clearly see that this was a skill that had contributed to me being successful as head of that school.

Finally, as I prepared for my first headship I spoke to a consultant who has long been a mentor to me.  He told me that my spouse should rightfully always be my best friend, but that close behind should be my board chair.  That is probably one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever received.  I’ve been very fortunate to have had some amazing board chairs.  Every single one has become a good friend.  During times of crisis, I have found myself having daily conversations with them, seeking advice, talking over options.  At other times we check in with each other, they help me to frame and reframe the issues, and I keep them apprised of the things I am doing.  I believe the board / ownership should never be surprised or caught off guard by anything.  This is doubly important with the chair / owner, and in this way they are best able to support me and the school.

I once read that being the head of a school is one of the most challenging positions that exists as there are so many constituents who need to be looked after.  One head I know once stated that on any given evening a head of school can rest assured there is some dinner table in their community where their name is being mentioned as a part of the dinner conversation.  Thinking about this makes the job seem incredibly daunting.  However, there are many giants who have led schools successfully before us.  I believe that by listening to them, observing them, and learning from them, we all have the ability to improve the odds of our own success. 

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

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