Educational Leaders Who Fail Us

I have become increasingly worried about a too-large group of educational leaders (presidents; superintendents; chancellors; provosts) who are failing at their jobs and those failures can take many forms. In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of them. But with the benefit of now more than half a dozen years and a well-cleaned rearview mirror, I am seeing things that need remediation. And, a recent experience at a college pushed me to write something fast — before the harms grow exponentially.

The mistakes of educators come at a critical time in our history. In a time of the Pandemic, racial and ethnic, and gender tensions, and a disquieting political arena, our educational leaders need to be their very best. Their failures are hurting all our students. We need them to step up now more than ever.

To that end, I wanted to share a “do not” list. Many people might share a “to do” list but I was taken by a recent article addressing what NOT to say to those who have experienced trauma. Sometimes, if we eliminate the negatives, the positives can shine through. Call it winnowing out the bad. How Trying To Help Your Loved One Who’s Healing From Trauma Could Be Ruining Your Relationship With…When someone you love is going through something traumatic, the first thing you want to do is be there for them, and…

Here are the top six items on my list. For leaders out there who are reading this, if the shoe fits, wear it. And yes, I will send this to at least one educator who needs to realize all six “do nots” apply to him, although he would surely not see that.

1. Today’s leaders should not make snap judgments about students (or anything else for that matter). There is a reason that lawyers rely on facts and spend time fact-gathering before a trial. One needs to know ALL the facts before one takes steps to resolve a situation. Educators are, sadly, prone to hear one side of a story, assume it to be true and gravely serious; then, often with unneeded speed, they act without getting more information. Big mistake. Here’s why: when people report to leaders, they do not always tell the full story; they may be angry; they may be venting; they may be mistaken but feel right. When I was a college president and students would report something horrible was done to them by a faculty or staff person, I sided immediately with the student. I would get outraged. Then, I would launch without hearing other sides of the incidents. Unfortunately, the student truth — heartfelt to be sure — was not the full story. It took a couple of such situations before I realized that it was way wiser to listen to the whole story because rushing headlong into a solution. It took restraint and a tad bit of time but it yielded vastly better outcomes.

2. We are in an era of leader turnover and many leaders are just starting out. That is, generally speaking, a good thing. But, if one is young as a leader (under 50), one needs to recognize that something valuable does come from decades of experience: wisdom. And, there is no shortcut to getting that wisdom. Acting as if one knows, acting without listening to the views of others, produces leaders doing what we often warn about: they reinvent the wheel and repeat history because they did not learn from it. Admitting that one does not know something is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Acting tough and rigid and doctrinaire is the sign of a youthful leader who actually isn’t wise; those who are wiser have softer edges and less confrontational tones. They aren’t threatened. Many moons ago, when I was a professor and was asked questions in my first year or two of teaching, I often spoke faster on topics as to which I had less understanding; I just pushed through rather than acknowledging that the students were asking good questions upon which I needed to reflect. Reflection….that’s a needed thing many leaders fail to do enough.

3. Sadly, in the name of rightness and adherence to principle, too many leaders say “it is my way or the highway.” Now, that just isn’t right on many levels. Often, situations are nuanced. So are people. To suggest that those who do not agree with you are idiots or wrongheaded or stupid is not a pathway for cooperation and growth. I recently encountered a leader who said that those who did not share his views concerning systemic racism were idiots. Blockheads. I tried to point out that while I recognize the trauma of systemic racism (even though I speak as a white person), there were others who did not see this issue as the only or the central explanation of what accounts for current human behavior or disparate healthcare delivery. I shared with him an assigned article suggesting that reparations would have eliminated health disparities from the pandemic; I said it was controversial. “No, it isn’t controversial,” he replied. His view: Those who don’t believe that systemic racism accounts for deep healthcare inequities today are totally wrong headed. Gee, I said, I think many smart people have different views as to what accounts for human behavior. Students need to see that controversy, not ignore its existence. I cited the late Justice Scalia; I could have cited those with deep religious explanations for the state of our world. I don’t agree with them on central principles. But, calling people idiots isn’t a strategy.

4. Leaders can’t deflect criticism by saying things in the “we” form, as if to ignore the “I” embedded in the “We.” If a leader takes a stance, own it as one’s own. Don’t say “our office believes….” Seriously? An office doesn’t believe. People do. It is way easier to take positions and spread the “blame” or “result,” as if individual action was irrelevant. Here’s a tip. Leaders can share successes but they need to own controversial decisions. They need to take the blame for failures, whether or not they caused them. In other words, the “buck stops” because there is an “I” who must own institutional decisions. It is wimping out to do otherwise. It also models poorly to students, faculty and staff. And, by the by, don’t be rude either; it demeans the speaker.

5. Leaders today need to be nimble and flexible and open to needed changes in education and our society. To that end, leaders taking positions such as: “this is our way” or “this is how we do it” or “this is the tradition” are not helping their institution. Whatever successes one has had don’t go away but those same successes (or new successes of a different sort) may require different approaches on a go-forward basis. In education, to assume one “has the right formula” fails to recognize the changing context in which life (and education) are happening. Openness cannot be in words only; it needs to be reflected in deeds. Being “cutting edge” isn’t fixed; the edges are moving, like it or not.

6. Leaders need to do more self-reflection. Defensiveness is hard to detect in oneself. Overreaction is too. The need to act quickly because of a perceived crisis is often a knee-jerk response. The failure to pause, the failure to reflect, the failure to contextualize, the failure to acknowledge the knowledge and experience of others: these are all harmful to students, faculty and staff. Higher education is experiencing tough times; anyone who thinks that they have all the answers doesn’t. No one does for that matter. It is the absence of that recognition that dooms a leader. Ask questions and listen. That would go a long way. Expand the tent of those with whom one confers and trust many voices, not just the voices of the selected few (like favored students or staff).

I would welcome hearing from others — leaders included! Share positions or strategies to avoid. And, if we get those “do nots” out there in the conversation, we may find the “do’s” rising to the top. That would be a very good thing indeed. We need our leaders to be their best selves now more than ever. Getting rid of the “do nots” is a good step in the right direction.

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