Throughout the last fourteen years, I have often been asked, “Just what does the head of school do?” While there are many components to the job description for a head of school, two have always risen to the top for me – one tangible, the other more difficult to quantify. First, it is important to provide leadership that supports the mission of the school. The mission becomes the filter for every question asked and every decision considered – at the board level or in the classroom. Carrying out the mission is articulated most succinctly in the hiring process, the more tangible of the two key responsibilities for the head of school. It has always been my goal to hire the best possible person for each position at the school and give them the freedom to soar and the directive to question. Why the directive to question? Perhaps the following example will best explain the answer.
Recently I watched a documentary on Richard Zanuck, who produced movies such as Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. During the documentary, Richard spoke of his father, Darryl Zanuck, one of the most celebrated movie producers of all time. The elder Zanuck was best known for saying, “Don’t say ‘Yes’ until I finish talking.” I was dumbfounded by the message in that counterintuitive statement and how powerfully it captures a key component of effective leadership. Zanuck, as the co-founder of 20th Century Fox, was besieged by “yes” people – employees who wanted to be the first to tell the boss exactly what they thought he wanted to hear. But Zanuck didn’t want his ideas to be unchallenged; he wanted people who were mission-focused, thoughtful, and, most importantly, unafraid to offer a counter opinion.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, put it this way: “You need executives who argue and debate–sometimes violently–in pursuit of the best answers…” Isn’t this spirit evident in every engaging classroom? Don’t all great teachers and independent schools foster a healthy spirit of debate? Aren’t independent school graduates expected to matriculate to college and continue developing this enthusiasm for thoughtful examination? Thus, it is vitally important that school leaders model such an appreciation for vigorous, meaningful debate.
The administrative team at Walker is comprised of nine individuals who support the mission of the school, but are evaluated by and report to the head of school. Therein lies the temptation to acquiesce and the need for a “directive to question.” Fostering a spirit of inquiry produces lively discussions about learning, discipline, traditions and other mission-centered topics. As a result, there have been strong counter opinions offered and instances where my thoughts have been challenged. From there, some of our best work as an administration has begun and set us on a path to evolve as an even stronger school. Bringing the right people together to think, debate and implement new ideas that advance our mission is one of the most rewarding components about my service as Walker’s Head of School.