We often hear about the importance of collaboration when it comes to effective leadership. One way of viewing collaboration is through the lens of Steward Leadership—a distinctly Christian approach that takes servant leadership and applies the concepts of a moral owner and stewardship accountability.
Recently I’ve conducted research into how Steward Leadership manifests itself in Christian school leaders. School leaders view themselves in a variety of ways. In most cases, school leaders are, for all practical purposes, chief executive officers. Board structure and practice often determines the extent to which this is true. Larger, well-established schools tend to have less operational and more policy-driven boards that allow school leaders to be collaborators and team leaders.
But how prevalent is collaborative decision making, really? One way to address this question is to compare the perceptions of heads of school and their leadership team members. Through surveying a small group of US Christian school leaders and members of their leadership team, some interesting insights emerged.
When assessing their own inclusiveness, school leaders rate their own level of inclusiveness in decision making as “high.” They report that they use their leadership team in a variety of ways, most reporting a strong reliance on them as an advisory and decision-making body. Language used included “collaborative,” “deliberative,” “strategic,” and “advisory.”
However, on how others would assess this level of inclusion, there was more variation (even from heads of school), suggesting some expected disconnect between a head of school perception and the members of their leadership team.
School Leaders and their Teams
Interestingly, leadership team members reported higher levels of collaboration between them and their head of school than did the heads of school. Leadership team member reports seem to be based on high levels of satisfaction with their roles on the leadership team and its operation and team activities. Leadership team members used positive words to describe the role of the team and the effectiveness of the team in supporting the Head of School.
Leadership team members also report being supported by the Head of School. When asked how well they felt supported, most report “very positively.” Most leadership team members report that the Head of School seeks input from team members as advisors. Most reported that they are very involved in leadership decision making.
Even among less seasoned team members, there seems to be no real difference in how they perceive their role, how the Head of School interacts with them, and how well they feel supported and managed compared to longer-term team members. Newer members of leadership teams feel included and fully part of the deliberative process.
Leadership team meetings are perceived as collaborative by heads of school. Heads of school often mention relying on the discussion to reach decisions and consensus. The leadership team is viewed by heads of school as an important deliberative and strategic body.
Leadership team members concur, also viewing the team meetings as collaborative. Leadership team members take their role on the leadership team seriously and also use language similar to heads of school to describe that role. Leadership team members benefit from one another and the deliberative process that they describe. The level of satisfaction with leadership team meetings is also the same with both heads of school and leadership team members, suggesting agreement and similar experiences.
Leadership team member roles are also described similarly between heads of school and individual members of the leadership team. There is little difference in the level of importance of the various activities performed by leadership teams by both heads of school and individual leadership team members. Leadership team members describe their roles to include advice to the Head of School, strategic planning, major decision making, and head of school support.
It is significant that collaboration is reported by both heads of school and members of the leadership team. Descriptions of activities that reflect a collaborative environment include working together, working on big problems, and helping as needed. Heads of school accurately assess the collaborative nature of the leadership team meeting if one views the responses of leadership team members as confirmation.
As one considers a relationship between Steward Leadership and experience within an organization, there seems to be a connection. Steward Leadership approaches to decision-making is evidenced in the way school leaders operate with their leadership team and in leadership team meetings. The collaborative nature of the decision-making approach used by heads of school is evidence of their steward leadership approach. This approach is confirmed by members of their leadership team. The level of control that heads of school exercise in the decision-making process is viewed as appropriate by leadership team members—a good balance between collaboration and command.
There is also agreement that the decision-making approach is inclusive. This inclusion seems to be based on the level of competence and areas of expertise that various members of the leadership team bring to needed decisions. A relationship also seems to exist between length of tenure on the leadership team and the level of comfort participating in broad decisions outside of these members’ main areas of competence.
School Leaders and Collaboration
Heads of school seem to create an environment with their leadership team and in leadership team meetings that contribute to collaborative decision-making. The organizational structure of leadership team meetings that contributes to this collaborative decision-making approach includes allowing participants to contribute to setting the agenda as well as creating the sense that members of the leadership team serve as advisers to the head of school. This sense that members of the leadership team play a genuine advisory role is another area where the view of leadership team members seems to be in agreement with the views of the heads of school.
One would expect there to be a difference in the degree of agreement between leadership team members and heads of school on the issue of collaborative decision-making if the heads of school were mistaken in their perspective of their level of Steward Leadership practice. However, leadership team members do not report the difference in their perspective versus the perspective of the heads of school. There seems to be a practice by heads of school to include members on their leadership team who can contribute beyond their main areas of core competency, suggesting that the criteria for being on the leadership team is beyond one’s own area of expertise. Their benefit as a member of the leadership team is greatest when they contribute beyond their assigned role. This cross-functionality allows the leadership team to be more collaborative and inclusive while also maximizing their advisory role to the head of school.
Heads of school seem to be in agreement about the benefit and advantages of operating their leadership team in this collaborative and inclusive mode. The advantage of a collaborative and inclusive approach within the leadership team setting and within leadership team meetings specifically is that it further communicates a steward leadership approach to the entire organization. This leadership approach seems to have a multiplying effect. When members of the leadership team are involved in collaborative decision-making and advising to the head of school, the same participants seem to operate with similar approaches within their own divisions or areas of responsibility. When the leader practices Steward Leadership, the entire organization is impacted in positive ways.