Less Barn Dancing, More Foxtrotting: Boards and Heads on the Dance Floor
I’m heading to the Midwest over the next few weeks to speak at three Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) leadership conferences on… you guessed it: Board Governance. For such a seemingly dull topic, it sure grabs a lot of attention.
It has been more than ten years since I was a head of school with my own board. Some of my most vivid professional and personal memories, still, are of interactions with boards and board members. In the best circumstances, they encouraged and elevated the quality of my work. In the worst situations, I wanted to curl up in a corner and quit.
And it’s a two-way street. Over the course of a career, heads of school can’t always be at the top of their games. I surely wasn’t. There were times when board members gushed with praise for my work. There were times when my leadership lacked, and I needed to hear that, too.
When I took my first head of school position twenty years ago, the conventional outlines of roles and responsibilities seemed pretty clear. More experienced school leaders and mentors described the bright lines that separated my job from my board’s. The boundaries, I was taught, were absolute and expressed in those terms. “Boards should never do such-and-such.” “Heads should always have the freedom to do such-and-such.” The paradigms, developed by professional educators, were usually biased toward my latitude as a head.
The floor on which heads and boards moved felt a lot like a barn dance. You dance over there. We’ll dance over here. We’ll check in once a month, then go back to our sides and do what we do. Watching us work together, you might envision lines of dancers busting their moves on opposite sides of the room, occasionally meeting in the middle to high-five, but not really dancing together.
But time and circumstances intervene. As the world has flattened, so have attitudes about leadership and organizations. As previously assumed financial certainties creak under strain, serious doubts emerge. As parent-consumers consider educational options in novel terms, the responses careen chaotically. As competition emerges from seemingly infinitely funded public systems, alarm bells sound.
For those of us who have been in private education for some time, the new realities can feel downright dystopian. Have we entered an era, we are prompted to ask, in which the most optimistic goal for independent and parochial schools boils down to mere survival?
From my vantage point, helping schools to understand and navigate recent upheavals—economic, political, and social—our circumstances are less post-apocalyptic than a sensible, predictable reality from which many private schools and school associations hid for decades. We ran our schools, organized our boards, nurtured our communities, raised our money, and built our campuses with little heed for norms that were shaping the world around us.
We did things the way we did them, because, as far as we could tell, it was working. On paper, our positions legally, financially, and otherwise might have looked strangely risky, but people kept coming, and money was flowing, and one year led to another, and we were still here.
What does this have to do with boards and heads and the perennial dance? If we’ve learned one thing in the past decade or so, it is that the schools best positioned to successfully traverse the emerging landscape have done so intentionally. They have considered themselves strategically. They have examined the relevance of their missions. They have worked to understand the mindset of a generation of parents who will dominate their communities for the foreseeable future.
And they have, in many circumstances, re-configured the relationships within their leadership structures. Less competitive, more complementary. Less attention to traditional forms, more to results. Less about distinct power centers, more about integrated assets.
Some of the old rules still apply. Lines of authority and communication need definition and care. Organizational charts still should accurately describe how things get done. Practically, there are things that only boards can effectively do, as there are for heads and their professional teams.
But times have changed, and the various fogs of alternate reality that once protected our schools have lifted. Governance and leadership structures that promote honest assessment, strategic decision-making, and transparent ownership will provide the most solid bases for future security.
Heads and boards in effective partnerships will lead the way. Less barn dancing. More foxtrotting.