01/27/2023 by Seliat Dairo |

Most Sought Leadership Attributes of 2022: and What it Means for 2023 and Beyond

various tiles with images of leadership related traits

What makes an attractive, effective leader?

In 2022, Carney, Sandoe & Associates completed over 100 retained searches and even more contingency placements for educational organizations around the world. Those 100+ searches represent thousands of candidates interviewed and hours of conversations spent discussing the qualities that combine to form the best school leaders.

In these early weeks of 2023, I’m reflecting on the five most requested attributes school communities sought in a leader — particularly heads of school and diversity, equity, and/or inclusion practitioners — over the past year, and looking ahead to the qualities that will be most-relevant in 2023.

1. A healer

At its crux, a school leader is someone who can unite a school community. Today’s school communities yearn for a healer — a listener and unifier who can assemble the pieces of a community whose fractures have been exacerbated by the health and social breakdowns and breakthroughs of the past few years.

Different constituencies across school communities reported feeling isolated following pandemic-prompted social distancing mandates that inhibited the practice of school traditions and large social gatherings. What’s more, protests of Black and Asian communities against policies and institutions that undermine their safety and respect surfaced historic rifts and long-stewed transgressions, for which they sought retribution and reconciliation.

These large-scale global events prompted many schools to call for unity — but they are not the sole cause of that call. School communities with multiple grade divisions and/or multiple campuses of buildings (e.g., a PK-12 school that spans several buildings) similarly seek leaders who can help them unite, both physically and culturally.

Candidates may demonstrate an aptitude or skill for healing by developing programming that facilitates the collaboration of different groups, affinity-based programming for families, introducing or fostering restorative justice practices in a school, collaborating with department leaders or heads of division to create resources for adults and/or students in curricular or extra-curricular activities, and reference checks that highlight a candidate’s proclivity for listening and seeking feedback both before and after instituting a change.

2. A friend- and fundraiser

This type of person can foster relationships with multiple parties in the different rings of community relations: those on campus, those formerly on campus that include past parents and alumni, etc., as well as connections with local residents, schools, organizations, and businesses. Schools, which must reconcile a business model that relies on funds beyond tuition, need leaders who are both financially savvy fundraisers and true community partners. School leaders with a demonstrated ability to collaborate with multiple constituencies often gain a wider perspective on best practices for operations and curriculum. A friend-raiser can find benefits beyond the monetary; they can tell a community’s story and expand its narrative. Opportunities for exposure and cross-pollination of resources may prove just as, if not more fruitful to the reputation and reach of the school.

Opportunities to fund- and friend-raise include internship of volunteer opportunities with local organizations, inviting speakers to campus, hosting collaborative events for professional development, or student development between local schools, etc.

3. A DEIB actor

The past few years have seen continued development in what it means to be competent in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. We have moved beyond defining and understanding the lexicon of  inclusion and equity toward enacting the skill and practice of DEIB.

A true leader in this area can connect with people across different demographics and make decisions that incorporate a range of voices. DEIB practitioners are often called to respond to intraschool and societal issues and resolve conflicts. Leadership with an equity lens seeks to support the historically marginalized and under-resourced while moving the entire community forward.

The new frontier around DEIB competency will continue to ask candidates how have they worked individually and collaboratively to develop systems and opportunities that have led to a greater sense of belonging among all community members or specific community groups. Listening to podcasts and reading books alone will not do. Today’s school communities seek leaders who have put their education into practice.

4. A recruiter

A person adept in recruitment and retention not only attracts talented faculty and staff to the community — they keep them. These leaders seek to maintain continuity in the community by understanding its individuals’ motivations and ensuring opportunities for current faculty and staff to feel seen.

In 2022, language around the Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffling became more prolific. Schools had to think more proactively about what supports would be important or necessary to encourage faculty and staff to feel prepared and even excited to come to work when energies and morale were low.

Candidates should ask themselves: What programs or resources did you strengthen or introduce to attract current and new faculty to the community?

5. A crisis manager

School leaders must grapple with multiple concurrent tensions: mediating daily conflicts among students and faculty, thoughtfully responding to global and national crises, and navigating the often fraught relationships between independent schools and external groups, most notably family and media groups.

Today’s leaders face a challenge: how best to cultivate environments that encourage students and adults to develop skills that will serve them in a more global context while combatting external pushback on curricular and extracurricular programming. School leaders will need to be able to reconcile the need and internal call for growth in a more polarized and scrutinizing time.

Projections for 2023

Many of the experiences and attributes listed above will continue to be relevant in the year ahead, particularly work advancing inclusion and cultivating resources in financially fickle times, and in this constantly shifting world, other increasingly necessary skills will shine. In the coming months, there is likely to be rowing interest in:

1. A systems organizer

New leaders will have to wade through not only the systems developed by a school pre-pandemic, but also the policies and processes that arose as an urgent response to the pandemic. Today’s leaders must intentionally choose what practices and policies should remain and be strengthened, and which should be reconsidered.

2. A navigator

As the United States approaches the 2024 presidential election season in an increasingly charged political time, leaders will need to be able to prepare for, navigate, and quell the conflict that is likely to arise. These leaders will have to diligent balancing the impact of controversy that stems from public sphere and current events.

3. A developer

As evidenced by the expansion of administrative teams and growth of inaugural DEIB leaders, associate and assistant heads of school, directors of teaching and learning, etc., and other faculty now seek more opportunities for collaboration, guidance, and resources to develop their skills as educators of an increasingly informed generation. Students, parents, and employees are calling for accountability and clear policies that delineate what they can expect from their communities and institutions. Clear standards and mechanisms to gauge current standing and growth of competency are an increased call. 2023 will continue to reconcile the shifted role of head of school from a lead academic to chief storyteller and resource cultivator of the school.

It’s a particularly exciting — and challenging — time to be a school leader. It’s important for whole communities to extend grace as individuals acclimate to new school communities in an unparalleled time in history. While a leader is tasked at being at the forefront of a community, they cannot sustain or grow a community alone. It’s the role of every participant of a school to be a healer, supporter, DEIB actor, etc. CS&A is excited continue to support not only individual coaching, but holistic community support.

Are there other trends you would add to the list? Please share in the comments.

Seliat Dairo is a Consultant with the Search & Consulting Group, conducting leadership searches and DEIB consulting engagements. In her search and consulting work, she has worked with over 40 independent schools, colleges, and universities all over the world.

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1 Comment

Peter Barrett 2/8/2023 at 9:25am

Many thanks, Seliat, for synthesizing these conversations in such elegant fashion. The last few years have demonstrated, simultaneously, both the fragility of our schools and their power in the lives of children and families and wider communities. Recognizing that our culture asks a lot of our schools, public and independent, your article offers important considerations as schools seek to respond to those demands and remain healthy and vibrant places for young people.