Weigh In: Where'd you get that leadership style?
Five administrators share the book that's made the most difference in their approach to leadership.
"The book I'm most taken by is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High," says Charles Garrett, superintendent of New Albany School District and Mississippi's Superintendent of the Year (SOTY).
"The book talks about the kinds of conversations that administrators don't like to have, or don't know how to have, but have to have to make the organization better. Difficult conversations are necessary for any district to improve, and they are more effective when managed with skill and tact. This book guides administrators in that effort.
"A large number of educators enter this field with a passion to teach and desire to work with children-not to deal with conflict and controversial issues. This book is valuable because it can teach these administrators how to approach conversations skillfully, without being defensive and without letting the other person in the discussion take the subject personally. The conversations become productive rather than adversarial.
"Although the book is geared toward conversations with other members within the system or organization-superintendent to principal, principal to teacher—I have also found that it can be very helpful when wanting to engage tactfully in tough conversations with parents and even politicians.
"All of our administrators have studied this book, as well as Good to Great by Jim Collins and The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. We then post quotations from these books on the wall for reference during our administrative meetings. It's a good way to bring certain lessons back into our consciousnesses as we work together to continue to improve our district."
"One book that has had commanding influence on my leadership is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki," says Elizabeth Osga, superintendent of Region 18/ Lyme-Old Lyme, and SOTY in Connecticut. "The Wisdom of Crowds is engaging and thought-provoking. Through numerous stories drawn from history, politics, and other fields, Surowiecki convinces readers that collective wisdom is a powerful force to be reckoned with. He shows that even expert predictions can be bettered by added minds. What a powerful and important lesson this is for school administrators who can become dulled to errant or dissenting voices!
"Because of this book, I now have a renewed interest and investment in people whose ideas are different from those that spring from my own experiences. Rather than dismiss what doesn't harmonize with what I know or believe, I look for the truth that I have missed. Often that search brings new understandings to the decisions needed to lead a school district through very challenging times.
"I've not only read and reread The Wisdom of Crowds, but I've used it with a very diverse board of education and with my leadership team. We've worked the constructs embedded in the book and retold some of the anecdotes that ground the ideas in real-world experience. Together we've come not only to respect, but also to value, different perspectives in the belief that better decisions evolve from collective wisdom."
"Early in my career I happened upon Principle-Centered Leadership, by Stephen Covey," says Tom Trigg, superintendent of Blue Valley School District and Kansas's SOTY. "For the first time, a book put into words what I believed to be the essence of leadership: principles of character. Covey explains not only why leaders need to be principle-centered, but also how leaders can center their beliefs around what he calls ‘true north' principles such as integrity, kindness, patience, and dignity. Once these principles are at the center of one's life and decision-making process, the foundation for success is laid.
"More recently, the philosophy in Jim Collins's Good to Great has resounded with me. Collins discusses the need for disciplined people, thought, and action. His doctrine has impacted not only my own philosophy, but also that of many leaders in our school district. Collins describes the most effective leaders, whom he calls Level 5 Leaders, to be those who listen carefully, anticipate future needs, work constantly to engage others in leadership initiatives, and are led by the principles of personal humility and professional will. Level 5 Leaders are also those who are able to face the facts about an organization and work together with their colleagues to find solutions and direction for the future. With these skills and dedicated persistence, a Level 5 Leader can propel an organization from ‘good to great.'"
"Several books have influenced my ‘servant' approach to leadership," says Scott Staska, superintendent of ROCORI Public Schools and recipient of SOTY in Minnesota. "They are The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell, The Exemplary Husband by Stuart Scott, Uncommon by Tony Dungy, and The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. All of these books discuss the main tenet of leadership that I strive to follow: that service to others must be a leader's highest priority. I have come to refer to this approach as ‘servant leadership.'
"To be a servant leader means being a cheerleader, encourager, or facilitator of others. It means giving others the credit in times of success and being willing to accept responsibility when things do not go as intended. It means being flexible in order to best meet the needs that are expressed. As Rick Warren states in The Purpose-Driven Life, ‘You develop a servant's heart when you're willing to do anything needed.'"
"Two books have helped round out my leadership style," says Beverly Hurley, superintendent of Buckeye Union High School District and SOTY in Arizona. "I have used Strengths-Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie to help me identify my own strengths and the strengths of our district's other administrators. To be a successful leader, you first have to have a clear vision of what makes you effective. The book's survey identifies your five greatest strengths. Once you know your own strong points, it's important to know the strengths and interests of your administrative teams. This way, you may understand and meet the needs of those looking to you for leadership. You may also make sure you have the right people in the right places. You don't need a team in which everyone thinks the same way; you want to diversify your team so that it is as strong and effective as it can be.
"I have also extensively referred to The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. This book identifies five areas of leadership: model the way; inspire shared vision; challenge the process; enable others to act; and encourage the heart. I'd like to focus on that last one. The secret ingredient to success is staying in love. This is not what the authors expected to find when they set out to write the book, but it makes sense."
Jacqueline Heinze is a contributing editor at Scholastic Administr@tor.