ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Honest, you can be an effective leader
by Greg Reynolds and Dennis White
Greg Reynolds is a visiting assistant professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Dennis White is a former Illinois school superintendent who now teaches in the School of Advanced Study, University of Phoenix.
A favorite son of Illinois once said: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
We believe Abraham Lincoln was saying that without direction an individual could wander aimlessly and perhaps never reach his or her objective. The complexity in leading a school district cannot be minimized, nor will shortcuts hasten achieving goals.
Leadership has been debated on many fronts and goes by many names: charismatic, situational, transformational, autocratic and democratic.
Leadership should not be static; the best leaders morph constantly to match the mission of the organization with the needs of those who follow. Good leaders influence others to do their job and do it well. In its simplest form, leadership is one person’s ability to influence other people’s thoughts and actions.
Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John Wooden, Nelson Mandela, Albert Schweitzer and Thomas Edison are used to measure today’s leaders.
But Joseph Stalin, Vlad the Impaler, Idi Amin Dada, Ruhollah Khomeini and Adolph Hitler also rose to be effective, powerful leaders. Long-held standards of traditional leadership were placed in jeopardy by their actions and uncompromising brutality. Leadership cannot be described simply as being able to influence other people’s thoughts and actions.
Honesty, morals, ethics and values are necessary for effective leadership, as well as avoiding intimidation or behaviors associated with power or position.
Typically, leaders use intrinsic or extrinsic rewards by providing increased responsibility, improved working conditions, programs that acknowledge accomplishments, new fringe benefits and pay increases as ways to effectively influence others.
In 1992, Stephen Covey stated that the most effective way to create positive and effective influence is through communicating powerful ideas in simple, direct credible language. Written and spoken language then becomes a primary tool to reach the needs of the individual and the mission of the school district.
Leaders who are perceived as trustworthy, competent and vigorous are more likely to be seen as credible sources for information. People want to believe in their leaders. And when leaders fail to understand how they influence climate and culture, it can be devastating!
Unethical behavior in business, politics, religion and society seems to have no end, and we never seem to run short of leaders making self-serving decisions that compromise the mission of the organization.
So, based on today’s standards, are ethics, morality, high standards, values, character, credibility and trustworthiness necessary traits to be an effective school leader?
Yes! And if school boards define skill expectations for their educational leaders, why not define expectations of values, ethics, standards, morality, honesty, credibility and trustworthiness?
Most leaders recognize the importance of ethical behavior, and they have a clear understanding of trustworthiness and honesty. School administrators and school board members display their philosophies in their actions every single day. It is impossible to act in a void and avoid displaying a framework of thought and deeds.
Leaders who are willing to join forces — administrators, school board members, faculty, staff and community — to work for the greater good of schools, community and children are in great need.
Leadership is hard work; it’s difficult physically, mentally and spiritually.
The complexity of decision making and a constant pressure to “do more with less” place today’s school district leaders in a position of potential failure on a daily basis.
School leaders must possess necessary skills such as relevant experience, sound judgment, strategic planning and policymaking, but they cannot be expected to be expert or possess technical command of each area or department within a complex, multifunctional school district.
An administrator with experience only in curriculum or school finance or history is at significant risk of failure if he or she depends on a singular level of expertise for cross-sectional decision making.
To be successful, administrators require extensive and relevant experience in policymaking, organizational planning, public relations, student services, school finance, curriculum, school law, teacher and staff relations, communication, transportation, and perhaps, most important, exceptionally good people skills. School board members can draw on their combined and varied experiences, as well as the competencies of their administrators to be successful.
Leadership is judged based on actions and behaviors. The leader can be the school visionary but, if values, ethics, trust and honesty are absent, these five elements will never be realized. Establishing a strong vision to build an effective team starts by establishing core values and never breaking them.
If, in fact, they are values — core values of ethical behavior, trustworthiness, honesty, etc. — they define a leader. Collective values define the culture, good or bad, functional or dysfunctional, of any group, team, faculty or school board.
The most effective teams respect and identify closely with core values. Where conflict and animosity arise, it’s usually because a team member’s values get trampled on and a core value of respect for others’ opinion is lacking.
During points of conflict, true leaders must have clear and undeniable skills of communication, logic, reasoning and fact-finding, but they also should possess the qualities that define the core values of the group.
What is said, what is done
Members of the team can’t see into the heart of the leader to determine thoughts and feelings. Thus, a leader is left with what actually occurs, what actually is said, and what perceptions are established … for better or worse.
Steven Covey claimed, “… what we are communicates far more eloquently and persuasively than what we say or even do.” If actions and deeds match thoughts and attitudes, trustworthiness emerges, and constituents are the beneficiaries.
The staff and community may not be able to see trust, but they know what it is … they feel it, and it is unmistakable if trust is broken.
In The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner state: “What leaders say they do is one thing; what constituents say they want and how well leaders meet these expectations is another.”
Kouzes and Posner began conducting worldwide research on leader expectations more than 30 years ago. Each time, they emphasize willingly as the key word. What leadership behaviors would the respondents follow, not because they are forced to do so via policy or procedures, rather following because they want to?
The results are startling because they have been consistent from continent to continent and have not shown a significant variance by demography, organization or culture. The same four characteristics of honesty, vision, inspiration and competency have been in lock step year after year.
As a school board member, superintendent, principal or assistant administrator, having a clear picture of what constituents aspire from those who lead provides the ground work for effective decision making.
In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Roger Fisher and William Ury claim that good agreements are wise and efficient, and improve relationships. Wise agreements satisfy the parties’ interest and are fair and lasting.
A person’s willingness to confidently follow a leader into battle, the board room, front office or any critical situation will only occur if they can assure themselves that the leader is worthy of trust.
The setting makes no difference; followers want to be confident in their leaders and confidence comes from leaders possessing strong character and solid integrity.
In Trust Rules: The Most Important Secret, Duane C. Tway defines three constructs of trust as “ … the capacity for trusting, the perception of competence and the perception of intentions.” He goes on to define the practice of ethical leadership as treating everyone with fairness and honesty. Thinking about ethical behavior is simply not enough; thoughts have to be directly connected with action.
Leaders face complex multifaceted problems each day. It can be easily argued the most serious workplace problem that leaders face is lack of trust, due to the loss of competency, compassion and core values.
If leaders fail to allow their values to be identified through their acts and behaviors, mistrust will be a by-product. Lack of trust then can create enough skepticism to halt productivity, thereby placing the advancement of every facet of an educational program in jeopardy.
New or experienced school district leaders must be well-versed in the traditional skill sets associated with success. It is no longer possible for success to prevail without effective credible communication that enhances believability.
The most successful school district leadership understands and practices a credible, moral and trustworthy manner while displaying high standards and values. But most importantly, leadership must maintain honesty at the heart of thoughts, acts and behaviors.
The job of a good leader is to extend trust first. Not a blind trust without expectations and accountability, but rather “smart trust” with clear expectations and strong accountability built into the process.
The best leaders recognize that trust impacts the organization all the time: every relationship, every communication, every work project, every organizational venture and every effort in which they are engaged.
It is reasonable to expect that as long as mission, philosophy, goals and objectives are in alignment, coupled with honest and trustworthy behavior, the collective intelligence of the organization will rise, and children will be in an educational institution that can truly meet their needs.
Stephen R. Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon and Schuster, Fireside Book, New York, 1992
Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Houghton Mifflin, New York: Penguin Books, 1981 (1991)
James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge, Jossey-Bass, 2008
Duane C. Tway, Trust Rules: The Most Important Secret, dissertation, 1993
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