I watched the HBO "docudrama", Game Change, last night. The production portrays Sarah Palin as a charismatic leader who is seemingly clueless about foreign policy, national policy and geography. While the campaign staff is impressed with her amazing ability to connect with people, she doesn't seem to have the necessary credentials to lead the country. The campaign manager and his staff try to bring her up to speed by supplying her with canned responses to areas where she may lack the necessary knowledge and experience to answer a question. Whether it is true or not, we all know of leaders who are charismatic yet seem to demonstrate scant understanding of their field and you wonder, how did these people rise to the top?
It started me thinking about educational leadership. How many Principals or Head of Schools truly can not only talk the talk, but walk the walk? I have been fortunate to always work with leaders whose depth and breadth of experience and knowledge make their schools shine (my current school is a great example of this strong leadership). While one could contend that charisma is a necessary component of leadership, I would argue that knowledge, expertise, emotional intelligence, understanding of school mission and vision are of even greater value. The ability to understand how to bring a community together and lift everyone's performance is the magical stuff that I look for in a leader. Judging by low performance we have across the nation in education, perhaps we have set the bar too low. How many of our educational leaders have actually taught? How many of them continue to push themselves to grow professionally? How many of them can greet their students by name at the door? We seem to rate our educational leaders based on their school's achievement level in standardized test scores and college acceptances [or dropout rate depending on your educational environment]. Perhaps it is the way we assess and reward our educational leaders that put so many schools at risk through poor leadership?
Why don't we measure an educational leader's ability to:
- create a culture of professional learning and collaboration among faculty and staff?
- increase student, parent, alumni and faculty satisfaction in all facets of school life?
- demonstrate a consistent personal professional growth?
- ensure opportunities for all types of learners?
- demonstrate an understanding of programs and alternative assessments that truly promote critical thinking?
- convey a deep understanding of curriculum, learning styles and best practices?
- demonstrate a deep knowledge of his or her community?
If we agree that focusing on the wrong way to assess student success is how we are failing our children, then we need leaders who are knowledgeable, passionate, experienced and who are capable of steering their schools in the right direction for the betterment of all students. We need leaders who know their students, teachers and parents; who know what is going on in every area of school life because they are out there making those connections; and who are not afraid to drive change where needed. We need leaders who have more to offer than charisma.