Building an Engaged School: Get a Leader

Erik EllefsenInnovation4 Comments

jarmoluk / Pixabay

jarmoluk / Pixabay

In a blog from April I laid out that “Engagement Matters” throughout an organization for long-term success as well as short-term fulfillment.  Gallup continues to do research on employee engagement as they seek to understand the combination of personal enjoyment in work as well as business success overall, and they stated earlier this year:

“Though companies and leaders worldwide recognize the advantages of engaging employees — and many have instituted surveys to measure engagement — employee engagement has barely budged in well over a decade.”

Unfortunately, the research on schools in regards to faculty and student engagement is not all that different than the general business climate as a whole. In short, we know that educators are dissatisfied with their jobs, arguably underpaid in comparison to other professionals with similar credentials, and fewer young Americans consider education as a viable professional choice.

In future blogs, I will delve into increasing engagement throughout an organization, but I become impatient with the notion that students, parents, or the ambiguous culture should be blamed for this lack of engagement.  Likewise, I spend too much time talking with school boards and leaders who want to blame their teachers when there tends to be a host of issues at the upper-level of an organization that need to be dealt with in order to maximize the engagement of an entire faculty.

Leadership Matters: Some Thoughts for School Boards

I have never met a school board member yet who doesn’t want their school to be a success, and every school board I’ve ever met wants the best leader available. However, few school boards truly understand what they are asking for when they seek a dynamic leader to build, develop, and foster a great school.  So, here are a few thoughts based upon what I’ve told other school boards:

Stability Matters:

According to recent research 70% of principals have been at their school for less than 5 years and 50% will leave within three years.  Chaotic turnover in an organization destroys not only the consistent work in a school, but it also destroys the strategic plans of a school.  Spend some time at any quality organization and there is stability in leadership whether that be in schools, sports, business, ministry, or any industry. A lesson in contrast to school leadership chaos might be HBR’s research on the top 100 CEOs who average 15 years in leadership.

Develop Leadership Inside the Organization:

The same HBR research I quoted above states that 86 of the top 100 CEOs came to their positions through a traditional career ladder through the organization. This is unheard of in schools as we sign costly contracts with search firms, create unrealistic expectations for the next leader in a “Leader Profile”, and set-up our organization for natural deceit as we prepare for a rare combination of a private yet public courting process. If stability matters and if there is leadership within an organization commit to it and develop it with all of your resources.

Good Leaders are Expensive:

This is a pretty simple proposition, but I find that in education only a few school boards understand this general market concept. Good leaders cost a significant financial investment, but pay for themselves many times over. In contrast, leadership chaos usually costs an organization significant resources like students, financial support, high achieving employees, and general quality that would go to creating the engaging organization that a school’s mission says it strives to be.

Superbosses are Rare, Stop Chasing after them:

In his book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, Sydney Finkelstein shows that the great leaders who duplicate leadership within an industry are quite rare. I don’t suggest looking for these leaders, but if you have one you should support their work and development rather than placing limits on their work and style. Just imagine if the Cleveland Browns would have remained patient with Bill Belichick’s new way of building a football team like the San Francisco 49ers had done with Bill Walsh twenty years earlier. It is surprising how the “superbosses” in Finkelstein’s research were synonymous with a single organization or company.

School Leadership has changed:

I recently had the opportunity to golf with two friends who are accomplished school leaders, and our conversation on the course revolved around financial audits, state and federal employment legalities, county building codes and regulations, local demographic changes, and other non-education related issues. School leadership has changed so dramatically in the past fifteen years, but most school boards want their leaders to be both the organizational and instructional leader. I contend that this is nearly impossible in its traditional sense. I do believe that the school leader should set the educational vision and strategy, but the leader must have the freedom and ability to build a team (Managers Matter is the next blog) that will effectively create an internal environment of engagement.

Leadership Matters: Conclusion

We all want to develop and foster schools that are teeming with engaged teachers and students, so find a leader, commit to long-term hard work, and make the short-term work fun!


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

4 Comments on “Building an Engaged School: Get a Leader”

  1. Because we’re geographically isolated from other large private schools, we’ve historically developed leaders from within. I agree with the strengths associated with that approach, but i am also interested in research into the downside of too much “internalism” in leadership development. Any suggestions?

  2. Good article with some valid points. Developing from within is always a positive for an organization, but has its limitations in the early development of a school. However, one key component is the support and stability of the board.

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