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Reforming the Education of School Leaders

A series of proposals for reforming the practice of leadership and for strengthening schools of education that prepare future leaders

May 29, 2008
illustration of many "one way" signs going in different directions

In a special section on educating school leaders for the March 2006 Phi Delta Kappan, guest editor and Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jerome Murphy argues that "schools of education are slow-stepping elephants when it comes to leadership education — sluggishly adjusting to today's call for new blood, stronger content, more relevance, and higher quality."

Murphy goes on to identify three trends that may help — or force — schools of education to change: First, today's political climate introduces powerful external pressure for schools to perform and leaders to reform, and schools of education are under pressure to produce principals and superintendents who can ensure results. Second, viable alternatives (for example, the Broad Academy and New Leaders for New Schools) are emerging and competing with university-based programs to prepare administrators. And third, higher education, which has long been spared critical analysis by outsiders, is increasingly considered fair game (Murphy cites a July 2005 New York Times article titled "Who Needs Education Schools?").

After laying out the problem — and noting reasonably that education schools are increasingly attacked for irrelevance — Murphy collects and presents 13 writers' critiques and proposals for improving the education of school leaders. He concludes this special section on school leadership with a call to action:

"The challenge for Ed Schools is to establish and sustain three things:

  1. A carefully balanced dual teaching mission of preparing researchers and practitioners in redesigned programs that reflect the demands of the times;
  2. A research agenda that is truly designed to inform and improve practice; and
  3. Open lines of communication between their discipline-oriented and profession-oriented faculty members — a change that Herbert Simon advocated and likened to the challenge of mixing oil and water."

Murphy imagines a hypothetical model program called Administrative Leaders for Learning — ALL for short — that would be organized to spotlight and connect three overlapping domains of knowledge: instructional practice and learning theory, with a particular focus on high achievement for all students; the education sector, with a particular focus on schooling in context; and matters of leadership and management. In thinking about this third domain, Murphy borrows from Henry Mintzberg, who writes in Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development, "Managers have to lead and leaders have to manage. Management without leadership is sterile; leadership without management is disconnected and encourages hubris." Training school administrators to lead and manage would recognize that effective management today demands a focus on improving instruction, which in turn requires a focus on five basic tasks: managing oneself, managing relationships, managing organizations, managing context, and managing change.

Practicing what he preaches, navigating the swamp of leadership

In his own course at HGSE, called Leading and Managing Organizations, Murphy takes a problem- and case-driven approach to helping his students "try on the shoes" of top administrative leaders facing a variety of difficult situations in a wide range of settings. Cases emerge from education, to be sure, but also from business, government, and nonprofit sectors. Students learn the way that people learn to ride mountain bikes — they don't just read about bicycle mechanics and theories of riding, they get in the saddle, ride into difficult terrain, fall off, stop to make sense of their misadventures, and get back on the bike. How do you improve as a cyclist and as an educational leader? You learn by doing and by systematically reflecting on the resulting experiences.

Following the lead of Herb Kelleher, the famous long-time CEO of Southwest Airlines, Murphy takes the attitude that work is too important to ruin it by taking it too seriously. Murphy is skeptical of the myth of the heroic leader; he's much more interested in the unheroic nature of leadership. Talking with Murphy about leadership, you are liable to hear about hound dogs and cats when the question is leaders' temperaments, alligators in swamps when the question is how leaders deal with confusion, giraffes who start life by falling six feet and getting back up when the question is resilience in the face of disappointment, and lions and foxes when the question is whether to stand and roar or retreat and live to fight another day. A discussion of how managers can ensure that messes end up on the right desks is certain to include reference to Murphy's "goose theory of leadership": honking and hissing like geese, faculty and staff members will cruise into the boss' office, ruffle their feathers, poop on the rug, and leave. It then becomes the boss's job to clean up the mess.

In "The Unheroic Side of Leadership: Notes from the Swamp" (Phi Delta Kappan, May, 1988), Murphy presents a contrast to the heroic ideal of the leader, looking out from the mountaintop and pointing the way toward the horizon. Real-life educational leadership is more like navigating a swamp. He recalls a poster he once saw on the wall of a seasoned administrator: "Notice: The objective of all dedicated department employees should be to thoroughly analyze all situations, anticipate all problems prior to their occurrence, have answers for these problems, and move swiftly to solve these problems when called upon — however — when you are up to your ass in alligators it is difficult to remind yourself that your initial objective was to drain the swamp."

Murphy summarizes the conventional wisdom about heroic leaders, citing six distinct expectations:

  1. Leaders possess and declare a clear personal vision that defines their organization.
  2. Leaders are knowledgeable and provide answers to the most pressing problems.
  3. Leaders are strong, courageous, and tenacious.
  4. Leaders communicate forcefully, using their knowledge to convey their vision aggressively and persuasively.
  5. Leaders amass power and use it for organizational improvement.
  6. Leaders are take-charge individuals who solve knotty problems along the way as they move toward achieving their personal visions.

Murphy goes on, in an attempt to restore balance, to present the unheroic side of these six dimensions of leadership: developing a shared vision (as well as defining a personal vision), asking questions (as well as having answers), coping with weakness (as well as displaying strength), listening and acknowledging (as well as talking and persuading), depending on others (as well as exercising power), and letting go (as well as taking charge). "These unheroic — and seemingly obvious — activities capture the time, the attention, the intellect, and the emotions of administrative leaders who often work off-stage to make educational organizations succeed."

Exploring the inner life of leaders, dealing with confusion and pain

Murphy's most recent thinking, writing, and teaching turns to the inner life of leaders. Writing about the pain of leadership (in a chapter for Out-of-the-Box Leadership, edited by Paul D. Houston et al., 2006), Murphy writes, "I've come to believe that it is common for even the most competent and well-adjusted managers to experience real psychological pain — even suffering — on the job." Educational leaders "are working at the frontier of social change, where it is easy to make mistakes and where our every move and utterance is scrutinized closely."

Murphy argues that leaders will inevitably fail to find the right strategies for every situation, make occasional public gaffes, renege on commitments in the face of competing demands, be caught off guard and flummoxed as they struggle in a turbulent world, be misunderstood and unable to respond because of confidential information, and be rejected in their efforts to promote change or adopt new approaches. He argues further that leaders often compound their pain by beating themselves up with "should have, could have" evaluations of their agonizing predicament.

Leaders often muddle through by trying to control their pain privately and hide it publicly. Quoting his collaborator and writing partner, Barry Jentz, Murphy notes that "the meaning of pain is failure to most of us." Given the pervasiveness of the myth of the solitary, heroic leader at the top, Murphy is not surprised that unheroic leaders — that is, most leaders — lapse into negative self-evaluations and conclude that they don't measure up. "In our hyperactive minds, some of us even create a Measure-Up Monster that emerges from its cave waggling a censorious claw in our faces as we struggle to do a good job. In our darkest moments, the Measure-Up Monster is always there voicing criticism and abuse — telling us we have no business feeling pain, and thereby making pain even worse."

In his teaching and writing, Murphy argues that avoiding pain intensifies it, and that the paradox of accepting pain, even embracing it, makes it bearable. For his students, Murphy provides practice in selectively admitting and revealing the confusion and pain of leadership, acknowledging in doing so that, while it may be futile to control the experience of emotional distress, it is possible to control its expression, and to use its expression to create credibility and trust and the opportunity to learn. Elsewhere, in "Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don't Know What to Do," Murphy and Jentz argue that confusion — they identify it as the "Oh No!" moment — is a frequent and familiar state for leaders of complex organizations, and that leaders who accept their confusion can turn a perceived weakness into a resource for learning and effective action (Phi Delta Kappan, January 2005).

Murphy would argue that school leaders today are under tremendous pressure as they work for social justice and navigate the uncharted swamp of high and conflicting expectations, limited resources, and unprecedented social problems. Confusion and pain are normal. After all, if the work isn't hard, if leaders aren't pushing toward the edge of what they know, they aren't leading.

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