01/12/2023 by Charlie Britton |

Collaborative Leadership

One rarely sees a head of school job posting without the desire for a “collaborative leader.” Since joining Carney, Sandoe & Associates as a Senior Consultant, I’ve heard the familiar refrain repeatedly while visiting schools. Nearly everyone interviewed desires a leader with a collaborative mindset and a willingness to engage with faculty and staff, administrators, students, parents, trustees, and alumni.

And why not? Collaboration builds trust, teamwork, and shared ownership. Healthy and vibrant schools have leaders who are visible and approachable, who listen, who communicate, who ‘get’ the culture and work with others to shape it, who admit mistakes, who aren’t afraid to show vulnerability, and who clearly demonstrate a desire to educate students in the best way possible. In short, they have leaders who can — and do — collaborate.

So why does a headship go wrong? Often, when heads of school find themselves struggling, you hear, “They lost the community.” “They moved too fast.” “They didn’t listen.” “They failed to read the tea leaves.” In short: they failed to collaborate effectively.

Nearly every head of school describes themselves as “collaborative.” They see themselves as reasonable, objective, and measured. When heads are disenchanted or in a precarious position, they frequently describe a host of obstacles: a difficult board chair, misguided trustees, an entrenched  faculty, unfair parents. These circumstances may all be true, but how do well-intentioned leaders — good people — end up losing the trust of their communities? Too often, failed headships result from a head’s failure to engage and persuade a school community.

There are several key ways to avoid the pitfalls of uncollaborative leadership. In my experience, I’ve found that truly collaborative leaders have the following five traits.

Collaborative leaders empower the community with their vision

Leaders want to take their schools to great heights. They dream of innovative new programs, teachers who willingly embrace change, donors who give generously, sparkling campuses, and highly supportive trustees.

Being human, though, school heads sometimes forget that “their” vision needs to be the community’s vision. Effective leaders take the time to listen to stakeholders and adapt their hopes and dreams to the realities of their school. They never lose sight of engaging the community in an authentic and meaningful way. They are willing to tailor their vision to meet the school community’s needs and expectations. They relish the opportunity to work with others to create a shared vision and work thoughtfully and pragmatically to execute it.

Collaborative leaders take time to build credibility and trust

In a rush for accomplishment, heads sometimes forget they need to lead and persuade. “Leader” is synonymous with ”educator,” and contextually, leadership is an educational pursuit unless we confuse leadership with authority. True leadership is defined by the practice of asking timely questions, listening, raising contradictions to a level of awareness, and at times wisely following.

Certainly, a savvy head of school engages with multiple parties early and often to build credibility for those occasions when, after all opinions have been heard, they must make a decision that does not reflect the opinion of one or more influential constituents. It is in those moments when a collaborative head of school can cash in a bank account of trust and credibility.

Collaborative leaders truly love school

It’s a truth that’s powerful in its simplicity: Great heads love school. They enjoy greeting parents in the carpool line, relish an afternoon walking among the athletic fields to watch games, smile at the “joyous noise” of a middle school band concert, take pride and interest in teachers’ and students’ daily work, and embrace the challenges of leading a complex institution with a healthy sense of humor, humility, and willingness to show vulnerability.

Great heads are visible and approachable because they love school and love their work. They don’t walk the hallways with a glum face, hide in their office, or fall prey to the perception of being aloof and brusque. People respect leaders who are passionate about their work and who demonstrate joy. In most cases, when tough decisions need to be made, the head of school who continually shows passion for the school and its mission will find support.

Collaborative leaders know that the “little” things are the big things

Email is endless and exhausting. I remember days as a head of school when my inbox was bursting. My natural inclination was to delay responding to those messages that didn’t require a timely response. My instinct, however, told me to answer every email expediently, even if the response was only a few sentences. Thankfully, instinct won over inclination.

A perception of indifference can get a head of school in trouble. An email that goes unanswered implies to the sender that the head of school doesn’t care or feels too important to respond. While there might not seem to be enough time in the day to respond to everyone, an approachable and truly engaged head of school tries to find it.

Collaboration means demonstrating a willingness to communicate and show others they are valued and heard. There are numerous small yet emblematic ways to demonstrate partnership and forge productive relationships in a head’s daily life. Responding in a timely way to an email from a teacher, staff member, student, or parent can build credibility and show you care.

Collaborative leaders know how to listen

School communities want a head of school to be an engaged listener. Day in and day out, listening to multitudes of people is no easy task. It’s hard, exhausting work — but a head of school must do it.

Superb listening skills are a prerequisite of the job that distinguish great leaders from average ones. Being an engaged listener demonstrates empathy even in the absence of agreement. An open-door policy indicates a willingness to engage and consider another person’s point of view. School heads can accomplish so much if the community perceives them as caring and collaborative.

Do you have what it takes?

If you aspire to be a school head, it’s vital to be honest with yourself. Do you truly want to be a collaborative head of school, willing to listen and learn, as an important dimension of the work of leading? To be an engaging and successful head, you must have the desire to engage others in meaningful partnerships. It’s not easy, but it’s immensely gratifying to know that as a leader, you have the support of others to help lift your school to new heights.

Since joining CS&A, I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous schools and hearing the hopes and dreams of school communities seeking a collaborative leader. Being a collaborative head of school takes time and energy, but the rewards are significant. There’s no greater joy than leading a school where voices are heard and acknowledged to achieve a common goal.

Charlie Britton is a Senior Consultant for the Head of School Practice, as well as a Senior Consultant in our Coaching and Mentoring Practice. If you're a school looking for its next leader, an aspiring or current leader in search of your next opportunity, or if you're seeking out guidance on how to be a more collaborative leader, email Charlie.

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