Schools in transition - What is required of leadership?
We have read, heard and watched many commentators bemoan the dearth of leadership today. They say, while managers are in plentiful supply, we have very few true leaders who can lead organizations, communities, and even countries into the unknown and unpredictable future that stretches ahead of us. These same commentators hold up examples of presidents and prime ministers who seem to epitomize an obsession with self rather than a desire to serve those they were elected to serve. Whilst I do not disagree with their evaluation of the current leadership crisis in the world, I do think that these commentators seem to forget that society creates leaders in its own image. Just like a child contains the genetic blueprint of her/ his parents, so our leaders bear the societal blueprint of what we have chosen to reproduce.
There can be no doubt that to be a leader today is a difficult task. To be a leader of a school today is a monumental task. There are powerful societal forces that push leaders into moulds pre-created by the society that they have grown up in.
It will take a special kind of person who is able to resist these seismic forces and create a school that doesn’t simply reproduce what was before, but creates something that can transition that school into something that is fresh and life-giving. A school that creates opportunities for a better future for all South African children and doesn’t simply perpetuate the inequalities of the past.
If you are (or wish to be) such a leader, what kind of leader do you need to be during this time of transition in South African society?
I would like to suggest four places to start.
1. Clearly define what the end result looks like for your school. So much has been happening in our country that the end result we may have had in mind a few years back has likely now shifted or is no longer relevant. This clarity of vision needs to be developed in community and not in isolation. Do not be vague about this. If you cannot explain it clearly enough so that all of your community members understand it, you do not understand it well enough yourself.
2. Once you have set a clear destination, define the path you will follow to get there.But once you have defined the path, hold it lightly in your hand as a transitional leader. You and your school are in a time of transition. Transition, by its very definition is navigating unknown and unknowable territory. Embrace agility. Be willing to adjust your plans in light of new information and arising circumstances. One doesn’t sacrifice the destination for a particular path you hold most dear. Maintain core values, jettison everything else.
3. Communicate often using different methods of communication. The greatest challenge during times of transition is that your community will be filled with fear and opposition. There will be those who are part of your community that fear change so much that they will seek to sabotage it because control is more important to them than growth. Sometimes the people who oppose are unexpected, they will not necessarily come from your stereotypical source of those entrenched in privilege by the past. Why? Because even those oppressed by a system, will have found familiar ways of coping with that oppression and ‘using’ it for their benefit. The familiar is far more comforting (even if it is negative) than the unknown. The only way to offer some form of bulwark against this, is to communicate frequently with your community that you are accountable to. Use different methods, use different people, use different moments. This will not silence all the fears and dissenters, but it will give less fuel they can use for their fire.
4. Be willing to lead with a multi-generational perspective. In other words, be prepared to lead your school on a path to a destination that you may not be around to enjoy or benefit from. When you make your leadership about what you will enjoy whilst you are still in that position, you will be tempted to take short cuts, to do things for the pat on the back you crave rather than for the best interests of the community you serve. If that kind of multi-generational view leadership doesn’t start with you, with whom will it start?
No doubt, transitional leaders are hard to come by. But transitional leaders are what we need at this time in this country. Even if you were not born one, you can learn to be one because that is what the circumstances require of you. There are many school leaders who see their leadership style as set in stone and that the rest of your organization must simply adapt to it or leave. These leaders are dinosaurs, the last of their kind and are just not aware of it yet. They need to step aside and make way so that the transitional leaders we need can step into the breach.