A few months ago I wrote a front-page essay (“Leading to Greatness,” October 11, 2013) with the goal of bringing attention to what I perceive to be a serious issue within our community.
The concern relates to a high level of pressure, distress and turnover among senior executives in many of our communal organizations. I outlined how anxiety and transience are widespread issues at the foremost positions within our schools and institutions, and how such conditions fundamentally compromise growth and optimization. I went on to highlight two primary factors that contribute heavily to the problem: Experience and Expectations.
Experience reflects the pathway our leaders take to the top. Naturally, a substantial number of leaders ascend to their roles after serving in second-tier administrative capacities or in positions that can be viewed as legitimate stepping stones for more robust leadership opportunities. Many also pursue some form of advanced degree in organizational or school administration in preparation for their posts.
I can testify from experience, however, that despite such experience and/or training, top-tier leaders often begin their tasks unprepared for the rigors of their new position, particularly when the experience and training focused on instructional leadership (such as classroom observation and curriculum) rather than organizational stewardship and management.
Moreover, many leaders never had the benefit of one or both of the aforementioned. They rose quickly to the top after toiling successfully in classrooms, poring studiously over texts, or doing meaningful work “in the field,” but were never challenged in a manner similar to what they then experience as chief executives.
While common wisdom might suggest the exemplary competence they previously displayed in other capacities would hold them in good stead in their new positions, many such professionals soon find that not to be the case.
Of course, the shortage of meaningful, congruent training and experience is not limited to professional leaders. Lay leaders, despite successes in their personal careers, are often unprepared for their capacity as board members. They accept their duties as an opportunity to serve but lack clarity as to how they can be genuinely helpful in supporting professional staff.
I also wrote that unrealistic and/or unclear expectations were key contributors to leadership turnover. Our hopes when it comes to leaders and their organizations are greater and more varied than they’ve ever been. Not only do we ask more from our institutions – particularly of those in the educational realm – in terms of core production, standards and service, we also have higher expectations for them regarding professionalism, financial and fundraising skills, reporting, communication, and a host of other qualifications and competencies.
Even leaders with many years of administrative experience are bound to struggle with heightened levels of expectation, especially if they lack updated skill sets and experiences necessary to meet new demands.
Perhaps you are wondering why I continue to harp on leadership-related challenges. Maybe you think I am overstating the matter by labeling the aforementioned a deep and serious problem when it really isn’t. Granted, we do not look favorably on burnout, relatively high turnover, inadequate training and the like, but are they really such a big deal? After all, aren’t our schools, shuls, kiruv organizations, etc., functioning, growing and generally succeeding?
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Before I respond to those questions let’s first take a look at what research has to say about leadership and its impact on organizational achievement. In Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), author Jim Collins highlights what he terms “Level 5” leaders. These are corporate executives who have dramatically transformed their companies’ productivity and fiscal well being over an extended period of time.