Each week One Schoolhouse offers a “Pulse Survey” on a topic of relevance to our work as educators. Last week’s question was, “As an academic leader, what leadership skills do you most want to develop?” Participants were asked to pick one from a menu of choices.
Any survey reveals more than numbers, and this one was illuminating and not a little puzzling to your authors, suggesting patterns in conceptions of skillful leadership that leave difficult questions either unanswered or answered in worrisome ways.
“Communicative” and “Inspiring” led the responses, with “Consensus Building” and “Decisive” making a kind of odd couple in second place. Bronze went to “Courageous” and “Visionary,” with “Patient,” “Serving,” and “Innovative” bringing up the rear.
But your authors were struck by some entry choices that were completely unchosen. One can rationalize why these options might have been unpopular, but their omission might also point elsewhere. We can grant that “Empathetic,” “Flexible,” and even “Stable” might be worn out after the emotional roller-coaster of being an academic leader in the pandemic. But, we do wonder. And the absence of “Equitable” and “Inclusive” has us utterly stumped.
The unchosen responses that struck us hardest, however, were “Honest” and “Accountable.” We see honesty and accountability as two sides of the same coin, where one cannot truly exist without the other. Is everyone already prepared, so confident in the overall integrity and efficacy of their work in their institution, to take on difficult conversations about difficult topics, to confront hard things with courage, moral certainty, and an honest willingness to own the challenges and the failures? Are we finished with this work?
If we’re not, shouldn’t that mean that honesty and accountability remain as major areas for work—not just on one’s personal leaderly chops but on how one’s school fosters an ethical culture and accountability to its own constituencies?
In all the work of schools, most critically in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice, accountability must come first. We must acknowledge and hold ourselves accountable for the hard reality that systemic biases differentiate the experiences of members of marginalized groups in our communities from those of students and staff who are members of traditionally privileged groups.
Academic leaders must be accountable themselves and create pathways for their institutions to hold themselves accountable. A readiness to do the difficult work well begins with a willingness to own accountability not just for what is but for our successes and our failures on the journey forward. There are mountains to be climbed, but we have to crawl and then walk up to and through our challenges—in our situations and in ourselves—before we can begin the long, hard run to the problem-solving pinnacles to which we aspire. Leaders are exhausted, yes, but we must sustain our personal and institutional climbs to the mountaintop, no matter how tired we may be or how determined the resistance we encounter.
It will be schools’ successes in these areas that can inspire and bring together our communities and hopefully our world, making the most commonly cited areas for work noted in our survey happy by-products of accountability and honesty. In many indigenous communities, leadership is recognized as something that is earned, and here are ways in which aspiring leaders can demonstrate their worth.
We know. It was just a quick survey, and people are busy. But of late we have heard so much from schools and educators eager to take on systemic inequities and other challenges in their schools and curricula, and as an industry we have ballyhooed our commitment to these battles. We must fight them as hard and honestly as we can and accept the fruits of our labors.
We feel every day the overwhelming tide of good intentions within our community of educators, and we call upon each of us—not excepting ourselves, believe us—to double down on making our schools not just programmatically but ethically worthy of our independence.
The future will hold us accountable. But so must we ourselves, starting now.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)