10/03/2014 by Bob Regan |

Effective Catholic School Leadership: 5 Essential Attributes

As a search consultant, I am frequently asked to comment on executive leadership, and particularly whether there are qualities or attributes common to all effective Head of School leaders.

Entrance to yellow brick school building

Understandably, Search Committees are eager for certainties and seek persuasive and comforting counsel at the beginning of every launch. This is especially true today of Catholic school searches, since many of these institutions are undergoing enormously threatening (and promising) transitions – from religious to lay leadership, from mission-inspired to vision-driven strategies, from operational to entrepreneurial leadership, from a culture of entitlement and security to a culture of competitiveness and risk. Some schools are experiencing all of the above! Getting this leadership profile right is the most critical challenge facing Catholic schools today. This responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of governing boards that are confronting this situation for the very first time. The stakes could not be higher or the threats more immediate.

Without seeming presumptuous, let me begin our conversation by suggesting that there are probably five essential attributes common to all effective Catholic school leaders today. The first four are largely intangible qualities requiring sensitive and intuitive vetting, and the fifth is a matter of hard record and should never be overlooked or marginalized.

In no particular order of importance, Effective Catholic School Leaders:

1. See Current Threats as Opportunities

Undaunted by the massive market and demographic shifts that are putting their traditional business model at risk, effective Catholic school leaders confront challenges head-on and strategically. They don’t ignore them, resent them, or squander time finding someone to blame, but acknowledge them as challenges that need to be addressed.

To borrow from former Intel CEO Andy Grove, effective leaders also see the current crisis as a “strategic inflection point,” a timely opportunity to retool, reposition and renew their institutions. With quiet, reassuring confidence effective Catholic school leaders therefore operate with an appropriate sense of urgency, knowing that time is a precious and nonrenewable resource — and knowing their school communities may never be more ready or eager to be led in a bold new direction.

2. Have Passion for Mission (enriched by Vision)

Effective Catholic school leaders must personally exemplify, in their daily practice, the core values and traditions of the institutions they serve.  As such, Catholic school leaders must exude and honor mission while celebrating Catholic identity and welcoming families and students of all faith traditions into their communities. They also know, however, that mission alone, while necessary, is no longer sufficient.

Effective Catholic school leaders today appreciate that mission is the abiding, spiritual platform from which service and innovation emanate. They also know that mission enables, but vision inspires. They know the importance of creating and articulating bold new visions for their organizations. They also know, as stewards of wealth and tradition, that big gifts chase big ideas; small dollars reward small ideas. While vision fuels fundraising and wealth creation for Catholic schools, it does so on an enduring bedrock of mission.

3. Take Complete Ownership of Material Results

With contempt for excuses, today’s effective Catholic school leaders are viscerally and instinctively “generative”. They internalize what it means to be the chief executive officer of their institutions, and they make all essential things happen.  Whether enrollment management, fundraising, or other capacity-building activities — whatever it takes, they own!

This is especially important for under-capitalized schools with limited revenue generating infrastructures. Although mindful of the need to leverage the goodwill and expertise of others in the community, effective Catholic school leaders take singular responsibility for securing all resources necessary to sustain the mission of the organization and ensure its future. They don’t do it alone. But they figure it out, create a culture of accountability, and make it happen.

4. Engage with Stakeholders in a Joyful Communal Compact

Effective Catholic school leaders are humble, Christ-centered servant leaders who walk the corridors and playing fields, knowing every student by name and every family by its legacy of involvement with the school.  While leading and setting the agenda for success, engagement is distributed across the institutional footprint, ensuring a sense of communal pride, joy, and shared achievement.

Great Catholic school leaders don’t take credit. The “I” is subsumed in celebration of the “we”, the “now” in recognition of the “future.” They know their stewardship is temporal and builds on the cumulative efforts of their predecessors. They also know the future of the school depends on acontinuing shared legacy, and they will let go when their time comes, knowing the community has been renewed and a new generation of prideful participants has been engaged.

5. Know the Work

We cannot say enough about this quality!  Effective Catholic school leaders

  • Know the business of schools.
  • Know teaching, learning, and best practices.
  • Know mission, ministry, and the unique and awesome power of a community infused with faith and values.
  • Know and love children and can inspire faculty and families with their passion and sense of purpose.
  • Also know what good governance and family engagement look like.

This knowledge-based quality is especially important for Catholic schools that operate within the President/Principal structure. In this leadership model, the Principal assumes responsibility for the day-to-day operations and academic oversight, reporting to the President who functions as the chief executive officer and face of the school to the community. There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of some boards to swing too far toward the institution building qualities in the President anddiminish the importance of deep domain knowledge at the top of the organization. This is a risky solution that alienates faculties and skews the message to other constituents.

To anxious Search Committees seeking new leadership, I would suggest that this is an achievable and richly desired Head of School profile. This is the kind of servant leader who will make you proud and will provide your Catholic institution with a better chance of surviving the current threats, capitalize on emerging opportunities, and lead your school community to a sustainable and faith-filled future.

I hope you found this lengthy screed helpful and worthy of your time. It is my hope that this summary will be foundational to an extended conversation around the importance of effective Catholic school leadership – what it looks like, where we can find it, and how we can work together to produce and nurture our own. Please join me in sharing your thoughts.

Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice.  He can be reached at bob.regan@carneysandoe.com.

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