HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


A Beit Midrash Model of Lay-Professional Leadership

by Yonatan Yussman and Maureen Dewan Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership

The authors contest that the prevailing model of head-board chair relations is too confining and unrealistic. They advocate a model of collaboration and mutual growth, with some overlapping areas of consultation and responsibility.

Unlike a car that won’t start (which requires a technical expert), schools are dynamic institutions that require a community of adaptive learners and problem solvers.

It is commonplace to read articles and hear advice that boards and heads of school should have distinct roles. According to PEJE, the first two of three keys to a successful board-head relationship deal with clarifying roles and boundaries between them. For example, boards govern while heads manage. Or, boards create the mission and heads implement the mission. Or, boards create policy while heads execute policy. Or, boards should not involve themselves in the daily administration of the school, while heads should be wary of stepping on board members’ toes. In this traditional model, highly differentiated roles exist between the board and the head of school.

Despite widespread agreement on these principles, the average tenure of a Jewish day school head of school is still between two and five years, according to articles by Larry Scheindlin and Barry Dym. While there are of course many different reasons why this may be true, we posit that one explanation is that the traditional model of board-head of school relationships contains significant problems.

In our experience and judgment, there are several problems with the old model. First, the reality is that many of the traditional board functions are done by the head of school, and many of the head of school functions are completed by the board. In our school, we are both co-leading the board retreat; we both are full partners in creating our strategic plan; the board solicits the head’s feedback in finding new board members, and in the selection of the new board chair; the head suggests policy discussions for board meetings; the head’s advice and counsel is solicited during all aspects of board discussions, and the head calls on board members all the time in aspects of daily operations—how to deal with a particular parent, for thoughts on whether and how an employee should be dismissed, all the way down to whether or not to cancel school on a snow day.

It may be nice and neat to think in more black and white delineations between board and heads, but the reality is that there are very few decisions that the head or board make in isolation from each other. Probably the only decision the board makes alone is whether to hire or rehire the head. And a wise head, who technically has power to make many decisions alone such as hiring faculty, will frequently want to get the quiet advice of board members before making key hires or decisions.

The second fallacy with the old model is that it supports the notion that boards should not meddle in day-to-day operations. However, as Peter Drucker, often called the creator of modern management theory, has written, “Boards should meddle. To begin with, there is no way to stop them, and if you can’t lick them, join them! ... They had better be organized to meddle constructively.” Besides, boards are usually organized to work directly with the school administration anyway, and in many cases without going through the head of school. For example, budget committees may work directly with a director of finance, development committees may work directly with a director of development, and education committees of various sorts may work directly with deans, principals, or department chairs. Board committees need to be given serious, strategic work to do in concert with key administrators.

Third, by pretending that there are neat divisions between the board and head, the potential for a dynamic, shared leadership may be missed. Some heads of school may have tremendous talents in strategic planning, policy development, board evaluation, or legal and fiduciary responsibility, and can guide boards. And some boards may have former heads of school, amazing educators, and talented admissions professionals, marketers, and development experts who can be of tremendous benefit to the day-to-day running of a school. Creating artificial boundaries between what a board or head can do may weaken shared leadership potential.

Fourth, schools aren’t linear. The old model assumes that schools are predictable, and that roles can easily be defined and demarcated. But schools are much more adaptive and dynamic. As noted by Ronald Heifitz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s JFK School of Government, many times we apply technical solutions to adaptive problems. Unlike a car that won’t start (which requires a technical expert), schools are dynamic institutions that require a new paradigm of leadership—a community of adaptive learners and problem solvers, made up of professional and lay leaders, working together for the success of the school.

At the Jewish High School of Connecticut, where we are putting this community of leaders model into practice, our common denominator for decision-making centers on one question: “Are we advancing the mission?” To that end, it often does not matter whether our weekly meetings are about “board matters” or “head matters”—the discussions are always about whether something is good for the mission or not. Every single decision we make reflects the mission.

Clearly, boards should not micromanage the head of school, and it is worthwhile defining boundaries. For example, a board should not become involved in student discipline issues, how teachers plan lessons, what book the English teacher should be teaching, or how the school secretary prioritizes her responsibilities. And a head of school must realize that the board is his or her employer. A good head of school needs to know when to “lay low” and let the board work things out themselves and make their own decisions.

Of course the basis of this new paradigm of board-head partnership requires plenty of communication and relationship-building. We officially meet on a weekly basis, but we email or talk by phone most days of the week. We are open and honest with each other about everything, and feel free to give each other feedback. We know that our opinions and decisions are not based upon private agendas—our only agenda is to advance the mission of the school. We are currently developing a comprehensive multi-year strategic plan with the entire community, and agree that decisions need to be made according to the strategic plan.

We also learn Judaic texts with each other once a month (which needs to be increased!). On the first Friday of each month, we have set aside time to learn. We invite others in the community to come learn with us, and the topic of learning often has to do with a current event, or something having to do with the development of the high school. For example, we studied talmudic texts that shed light on what institutions can learn from how the scandal at Penn State unfolded, and other sources that inform the economic crisis and how we can be better leaders in these trying times. These discussions focus us on Judaism, learning, ethics, strategic leadership, and our mission. It has been a pleasure when others join us, such as the founding board chair, parents and other community leaders.

Ultimately, this paradigm is the same one used in any good beit midrash. These are usually loud places of learning with many pairs of chevrutas. A chevruta describes two or more people who are bound to each other, and who strive to come to a deeper understanding of something holy—often a Jewish text, but in this paradigm it is the school. Chevrutas work hard at coming up with a common translation and understanding, look at things in a great variety of ways, and try to make logical arguments that advance a line of thinking. Chevrutas spar, laugh, learn, manage conflict, and successful ones know when it is time to be bold in offering ideas and when it is time to be humble in listening to others. The chevruta’s desire for truth, whether it is understanding Torah or advancing the school’s mission, is the basis for this new board-head paradigm.♦

Yonatan Yussman, EdD, is the head of school at the Jewish High School of Connecticut. He can be reached at yyussman@jhsct.org.

Maureen Dewan is the chair of the Board of Trustees at the Jewish High School of Connecticut. She can be reached at mdewan@jhsct.org.

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Attending the Crisis of Leadership

Day school leadership, especially headship, confronts all kinds of crises: regular school crises, driven by finances or parents; short tenure (averaging 2.5 years); limited pool of qualified applicants; and an impossible workload with little room for family life. These articles analyze aspects of the problem and offer remedies that professionals and lay leaders might implement in their schools.

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