THE SOUL OF A LEADER, REVISITED
Updated: Oct 30
This essay was originally published just over a year ago. Its focus was on studying leadership through a window into the soul of a leader. When I wrote, "While we are all technically in it together, it doesn’t always seem that way, as policy makers and local education agencies, school boards and superintendents, districts and their bargaining units, and even parents and students have created their own visions of what the future of education looks like, instead of a common one focused on a set of metrics we all can agree on," I was speaking to the challenge of sensemaking that thoughtful leaders face given the diversity of interests and myriad of influences and influencers that shape education.
I'm revisiting the essay because the future of education is now. As education scholar and President of the California State Board of Education Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in an opinion piece for Forbes on May 19, 2020, while school leaders are sizing up the variety of reopening school plans circulating worldwide, "This pandemic puts a stark light on an emerging truth—education as we know it is over, and we must think of “school” in deeply different ways." To actually think of school in deeply different ways we need a new lens to study it through. And leaders need to show the way.
The gap that structural-functionalism has bridged has positioned us perfectly to view open systems and its environmental dynamics with enthusiasm and confidence. That's exactly what my doctoral students and I will begin doing starting this week as we apply a variety of frameworks to conceptualize the work that school districts will be doing in anticipation of reopening schools this fall (most districts start in early to mid August).
If ever there were a time for leaders to interact with their environments to reinvent themselves in the image of what's necessary, it is now. It's not the brave sea captains courageously steering their ships to safe harbor that's necessary right now. Instead, it's the nimble-footed leader whose intelligent adaptation to experiences and opportunities encountered across time that will thrive in the era of COVID. The seagoing metaphor is courtesy of Russ Marion, an expert on complex leadership. Marion examined how organizational structure and behavior can be described as the products of idiosyncratic and irrational activity in Leadership in Education: Organizational Theory for the Practitioner. More than a scholarly exercise, the work he co-authored with Leslie D. Gonzales is useful, and informs action.
Their perspectives and arguments are necessary at a time when the stakes have never been higher (we talk about testing being high-stakes! How about COVID for some perspective?). Their ideas inform students of leadership and act as catalysts for deep dives into organizational concepts and ideas.
When I published The Soul of a Leader, it was not an organizational theorist I quoted, it was transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said,“No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object." No educator could have prepared for the COVID crisis in leadership and education. Making sense of it all is difficult because there are multiple lenses that the crisis is being seen through (i.e. educational, social, economic, cultural, etc...). Creating logic around events, even surprises, is a hallmark of Sensemaking Theory. It may be the most effective theoretical framework at this point as leaders reconceptualize collectivism in an era that challenges its reputation as warm and fuzzy as competing interests vie to advance group priorities.
There is little agreement on how to make sense of our current conditions and how best to lead people through them. But leaders can agree that it is nuanced and complicated as everyone constructs their own reality and tries to make sense of it all. I am of the opinion that the challenge in leading education organizations during this senseless period lies in the loose coupling that characterizes many school districts. Under local environmental conditions the organizational approach suits many districts well. But under current conditions there can be no isolation. The entire system has to be united. Systems thinking serves that purpose.
While leaders adopt and employ professional and organizational philosophies, their leadership souls lie in their core principles, beliefs, and values. Leading during uncertain and anxious times can shake a leader to the core. So that core better be principled. If not, it's likely lots of things are going to shake out and the light will shine brightly on them.
THE SOUL OF A LEADER Originally published May 12, 2019
My exploration of leadership in the education setting is in its third decade of existence. Its roots lie in my fascination with the topic as a result of my early exposure to education leaders during the formative years of my career, long before I had acquired either the knowledge to understand leadership as a social phenomenon or the tools to study it. Emerson said, “No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object.” Along the way I have come to view leadership as both an art and a science, given my observations of leaders who have kept pace with the fundamental changes of today’s complex and dynamic education environment by constantly reinventing themselves.
The leaders I’ve learned from know they cannot mandate change. They also know that change of any value requires changes in beliefs, which require changes in behaviors, which require new sets of skills, which takes time. They know it’s a myth that failed change efforts are due to an inherent resistance to change; instead, acknowledging that if any blame is to be assigned it should point inward. It’s the superficiality of most change efforts that’s to blame, if a finger must be pointed. Easy come, easy go best describes the history of failed reform. Making the next change effort that much more difficult.
In my leadership course this summer, we set out to debunk myths about leadership and break it down to its core principles as a social science concerned with observer-relative facts . Moving forward against the tide of institutional inertia requires a nuanced approach to leadership. While the jury isn’t out yet, many of my colleagues and I are finding the greatest challenge in education leadership is aligning competing interests into a common vision of the future. A common vision starts with core principles, beliefs, and values that an organization can agree on and build upon.
While we are all technically in it together, it doesn’t always seem that way, as policy makers and local education agencies, school boards and superintendents, districts and their bargaining units, and even parents and students have created their own visions of what the future of education looks like, instead of a common one focused on a set of metrics we all can agree on.
As we explore leadership theories, and the styles that emerge as extensions, we find at their core a basic principle or entity to structure the understanding and explain the theory in practical terms. Those principles unlock the mysteries of leadership. In the natural sciences, for example, where features of reality are observer-independent, principles include the atom in physics, DNA in genetics, and the tectonic plate in geology. I contend that in the case of leadership through the lens of social science, it is personality and character traits that act as the basic principle or entity. Over time, a leader's personality and character will reveal itself and emerge as the primary influence of leadership style and subsequent behaviors. A leader’s proclivities will eventually be the best predictor of future behaviors.
Successful leaders clarify their own vision, which then serves as the foundation for building a shared vision for their organizations.
Providing a deeper and richer understanding of the self through leader identity is among the primary goals of the CSUF doctoral program. Identifying desirable characteristics, such as humility, guards against unconscionable self-aggrandizement, the enemy of trust. Studying leadership through the social science lens provides students a window into the soul of a leader.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson lived by a set of guiding principles. Among them was to avoid the company of persons with whom you cannot be totally forthright. He recommended to be sincere or be silent; to speak the whole truth, as you see it, or not to speak at all. Leaders who expect to build trust would be wise to take Emerson’s advice.
 John R. Searle described features of reality that exist independently of us, features he referred to as observer-independent, and those features that depend on us for their existence, which he referred to as observer-relative. The social sciences are about observer-relative facts.