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strategy and business
 / Summer 2005 / Issue 39(originally published by Booz & Company)


Leadership Principles for Public School Principals

“We try to build in these layers of action learning, to go back and apply it, and coach and mentor each other,” says Dr. Tichy.

At one summer workshop in 2004, principals in the academy’s on-boarding program were anxious about the impending delivery of 6 million textbooks, part of the new math and literacy curriculum. These textbooks had to be ready for students by the start of school in September. The Leadership Academy decided to use this single largest delivery of textbooks to introduce and develop a case study about process mapping, the analytical technique used in business to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of management and operational processes.

“Who will move them? Who will stamp them? It was a great way to teach process mapping,” says Dr. Tichy, who led those workshops. “I’ve never seen a group grab a tool so fast.”

Every session serves as a networking opportunity and a chance to share best practices with cohort members. Dr. Tichy recalls the enthusiastic response from the colleagues of one principal who told of his novel solution for liberating himself from transactional tasks in his office so he could do the big-picture thinking of an “instructional leader.” The reformers’ mission is for principals to spend more of their time in classrooms, observing instruction, modeling lessons, and developing teacher capabilities. So this principal hung a “do not disturb” sign on his office so he could slip out the back door to wander the halls and drop in on classes unexpectedly. Although finding time to observe students and teachers is important in developing new ideas for a school, it is precious time most principals don’t have.

Other peer-to-peer learning assignments are designed to spread best practices related to the new teaching curriculum. For example, at one session, a handful of principals pored over a fourth-grade math assignment they agreed was a good model for the everyday math and balanced literacy approach, because it required students to develop a word problem and articulate a strategy for solving it. More significantly, the principals were impressed by one teacher’s scoring rubric for the assignment’s pedagogical goals, such as manipulating whole numbers and writing a narrative account using correct grammar and spelling. Several of the principals said they would take the concept back to their schools.

Working with the reality-based problem scenarios, aspiring principals collaborate in teams to craft solutions to complex school challenges. For example, one typical exercise involves a fictitious scenario to “transform an intermediate school.” The scenario assumes an environment fraught with tensions between transient, immigrant students (many of whom don’t speak English well) and local minority students, and skeptical teachers and parents who are used to a “revolving door” in the principal’s office. A typical assignment might involve developing communication materials — speeches and letters — for parents that outline the school’s goals and the expectations of students and parents. Teams critique one another’s approaches.

“We’re trying to develop their collaboration skills, their negotiation skills, their conflict-resolution skills, and their distributive leadership skills,” says Leadership Academy academic dean Sandra Stein.

Although it is the training that most distinguishes the academy’s curriculum, the institution also emphasizes diversity. About two-thirds of the 2004 graduates were women. And a majority were black or Latino — a significant change in a system in which most students are minorities and, traditionally, principals have been white men. Also, the average age of the new recruits is 40, compared with 52 for current principals. For the 90 places available in this year’s class, the Leadership Academy had 1,300 applicants.

Leader as Teacher
Another seminal leadership training concept the academy borrows from business is one Dr. Tichy developed at Crotonville: The notion of leader as teacher. “Teaching is at the heart of leading,” Dr. Tichy affirmed in The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level (HarperBusiness, 1997), which he wrote with Eli Cohen. “It is not enough to have experience; leaders must draw appropriate lessons from their experience, and then take their tacit knowledge and make it explicit to others.”

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  1. Art Kleiner, “GE’s Next Workout,” s+b, Winter 2003; Click here.
  2. Randall Rothenberg, “Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2003; Click here.
  3. Anthony Alvarado, Richard Elmore, and Lauren Resnick, “Final Report: High Performance Learning Communities Project,” Sept. 15, 2000, University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center; Click here.
  4. Sandra J. Stein and Liz Gewirtzman, Principal Training on the Ground: Ensuring Highly Qualified Leadership (Heinemann, 2003)
  5. Noel M. Tichy with Eli Cohen, The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level (HarperBusiness, 1997)
  6. The New York City Leadership Academy: Click here.
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