The Secret Mandate

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“And that’s when I knew there was a secret mandate …” he said.  A colleague was passing through town.  I had heard the news a few weeks prior – news that comes all too frequently in Christian School circles – another head of school departing prematurely.  “Tell me your story,” I asked.  And he did.  It was familiar.  All too familiar.

It is not a new thought that Christian schools are facing challenges as traditional models are becoming less and less sustainable.  In order to thrive, institutions need to find ways to honor decades of history and stand firm on core values, while at the same time leveraging new variables.  In order to do that, schools need seasoned and savvy leadership, an appetite for change, and a willingness to take a fresh look at what is becoming the new normal – an environment impacted by shifting demographics and values, and driven by pervasive consumerism.

The interesting thing is that to some extent, boards, or at least some part of them, are coming to understand that things can’t stay as they have been.  The rub seems to be that often there is no consensus on what to do or how fast to do it.   At the same time, any school leader worth his or her salt is paying rapt attention to the trends as this continues to be the theme of many conferences, professional development workshops, and informal conversations, ensuring that many are receptive to a change mandate.

So, a Christian school needs a new leader – perhaps a long tenured head retires, or flames out, or sees a different opportunity.  Since there has been no clear consensus on what to do, factions emerge, each with its own agenda vying for prominence.  The combination of a search and the impact of these aforementioned cultural shifts contribute to forming some sort of a change mandate that becomes a palatable part of the hiring process.  The new leader is energized by the mandate and begins to pursue what is understood to be first order priorities.

Here is the problem … and why I describe what has occurred as the secret mandate – everyone isn’t included in the loop!

As the new head gets to work, it becomes clear that not only was the mandate not widely communicated, it has opposition.  Sometimes that opposition isn’t evident at the time – there is a honeymoon after all – but soon enough, resistance is met.  And the new leader pushes, believing this is the expected course.  More often than not, the cost of pursuing the secret mandate is higher than its proponents understood and so support erodes and opposition continues to mount, but the need for change is real and necessary for the school to effectively pursue its mission.  The problem is not the mandate itself, rather it is that it is secret and the onus for pursing it is left to the new head – often with poor results.

The consequences of not addressing the secret mandate are much too costly, resulting in ineffective organizations at best or self-destructing organizations at worst at a time when it is becoming increasing difficult for institutions to thrive.

Even seasoned Christian school leaders can misdiagnose and misread the signs and the best intended boards can lack the insight necessary to articulate well.  Yet, sustainability for effective leadership rests on clarity among key stakeholders.  The simple answer of how to resolve this issue is to get everyone on the same page, but if you’ve experienced this before you understand that this is anything but simple or safe.

Here are some suggestions about resolving the challenge of the secret mandate:

  • During the search, consider that the potential head of school should interview the school as much as be interviewed.  (If that makes folks uncomfortable, that might be a sign).
  • Ask for a short list of key issues from the search committee and then test those broadly in conversation with staff, students, and parents (if they look at you funny, then that might be a sign).
  • If you sense a secret mandate exists, then have an honest conversation with key board members.  It will require the school leader to be vulnerable and open.  Regardless of the outcome, the school (and you) will be better for it – but keep your resume current.
  • Be open to the possibility that the mandate you thought you had is actually the wrong one! If that’s the case, help folks figure out the right one – that is part of your job.
  • Finally, recognize that this is a process.  It may take time to unpack and to understand the dynamics.  The school leader is much more likely to see this clearly than board members.  It will require courage and fortitude to address.

2 comments

  1. Paul says:

    Joel, thanks for this. Good read and a helpful set of suggestions at the end. My observations, confirm much of what you’ve described here. One thing I’d add, or maybe ask for your thought on, is this, to what extent is the potential success of a mandate and a “change agent” undermined by actaully identifying the new person as such? It seems like it can become a bull’s eye–causieng those who arent in on the plan to resist and those who are to make one dimensional assesments of success. Leading effective change is much more nuanced, don’t you think?

    • Joel Satterly says:

      I agree, leading effective sustainable change is very nuanced – it is a very strange alchemy indeed. Perhaps the more lucid point is that the extent to which key stakeholders understand that change is necessary and even desired matters – especially with regard to a new leader. Having a more public mandate is not license for the leader to be sloppy or careless nor does it give permission to cause unnecessary harm.

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