Educational Leadership and FEAR

Psychologist Susan Jeffers, recently passed away at the too-young age of 74. One of her most profound thesis was “If we wait to stop feeling scared before trying to [actually] do what frightens us, we could wait forever; pressing ahead is the only way to erase fear.” (Source is the NY Times report on Jeffers’ passing, November 12, 2012.) Jeffers’ thesis is instructive for educational leaders.  Here are some ideas where fear overtakes school leaders.
1. Elected school board members and appointed superintendents scared to entertain approvals, launching, growing, and closings of charter schools when evidence proves that moving forward to open new or close existing-bad charters warrants such action.  The possibility of getting fired (among superintendents) or getting defeated by the electorate (board members) is too overwhelming for far too many incumbents.  Typical rhetoric, is that the establishment is better off remaining part of the “traditional” system.
2. School principals moving too slowly (or not at all) on removing ineffective teachers from classrooms, and even the rolls of employment.  Even as we incorporate student progress into teacher evaluations, I worry that we will not see progress on this front.  True, firing is not a leadership strategy, but it is a management tool.  Typical rhetoric is that the “Union” is a problem, or “we have bigger problems that would be exacerbated if we disrupt the teacher ranks.
3. Schools and school districts trying to do too much of its improvement work without outside technical assistance or use of too much outside technical assistance.  I have witnessed some superintendents making poor strategic decisions all the time by using too little assistance (citing budget problems when the real issue is often the negative “appearances” such outsider assistance would generate.  Also evident is certain other superintendents making the opposite bad-call, in using outsiders (even my own Firm, Atlantic Research Partners) in poorly-managed, lingering roles.  When using outside assistance, the goal must be to borrow and buy capacity from outside experts to effectively build that capacity inside the organization.
I see evidence of fear playing through all sorts of educational leadership decisions (and lack of decisions).   Frankly, there are far too few positive examples of courage playing out in the leadership of our Nation’s schools.  We can do better.  We must do better!

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