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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

When Leaders Leave

Where do you find stability when leadership changes? Planning for transitions and assisting with hiring are instrumental in ensuring quality.

Changing schools to promote better learning for students is complicated, exhausting, and uncertain work at best. Our partners in the Coalition of Essential Schools and in their districts remind us daily of the difficulties that arise from experimenting with new structures and practices. One particularly thorny, and frequently undiscussed, problem relates to leadership. When influential leaders leave, for whatever reason, it is not uncommon for all change efforts in progress to slip into a state of suspended animation. Those involved in the change wait, their nerves on a roller coaster of fear and hope. Will new leaders support existing plans—or dismantle them? Frequently, good efforts at change are dismantled and a new plan constructed, only to be taken apart when the next leadership transition occurs.
Schools undergoing such transitions are not unlike the garden around my house. Seven years ago, the owner landscaped the place. He wanted a no-maintenance garden with beauty bark, perennials, and shrubs. Three years later he moved, just as the garden was beginning to develop. The next owners, avid gardeners, wanted a Victorian garden with flowers galore. They ripped out shrubs, got rid of the beauty bark, and planted more flowers. They stayed two years, and then I moved in. I wanted a no-maintenance, shrub-and-flower garden. Over the past two years, I've planted some of the same shrubs as the first owner had, brought in a little beauty bark, dispensed with some of the flowers the second owner put in, and planted a few more perennials.
Had we been able to coordinate the garden design (which, of course, we could not) the whole thing would be lushly full by now (maybe even close to low maintenance). But with the constant changes in its basic plan, the garden has never had a chance to flourish. It's a similar situation for schools when their leadership changes.

A Tale of Transition

The following tale of school transition is a case in point. In a large suburban high school in the South, the principal and staff had explored various possibilities of educational change for a couple of years. A group of faculty members devised a proposal for an experimental project. The principal supported them wholeheartedly, giving them primary responsibility for organizing the project, including revamping the schedule to allow teams of teachers to share students. The principal continued to work with the rest of the faculty on the need for change. The project proceeded for a number of years, and each year more teachers volunteered to participate. A math teacher was given an extra release period to support and coordinate the program.
Then, one summer, the principal took another position outside the school system. The faculty was divided: Some hoped that the new principal would dismantle the experiment, while others hoped he would support it. The new principal claimed to be supportive and gave the teacher-coordinator a new, more official title. But he let the experimenters know that the schedule could not accommodate their plans and did not allow them to work with the schedule.
Midyear, the assistant superintendent, who was the major supporter of those who wanted to continue the experiment, quit, and the vice-principal was called up to serve in Desert Storm. The teacher-coordinator, of necessity, found herself doing disciplinary work rather than concentrating on curriculum and instruction. The teachers who had been working on developing new practices were told over the summer that it would be impossible to accommodate their requests for the following year. The coordinator, a strong teacher deeply committed to building an experience-based math curriculum, began negotiating for a position in a neighboring district.

Problems with the System

This school's story illustrates three important points about leadership transitions. First, frequent turnover must be expected. Second, time is an important factor in reform, and leadership transitions often interfere with project timetables. Third, leadership changes, whether expected or not, can disrupt projects drastically.
Commonplace turnover. We all know that educators in leadership positions move frequently. Teachers, principals, and central office staff move so often because the career ladder, weak in incentives, requires that they keep moving in order to gain salary increases or greater decision-making authority (Sykes 1987). In some districts, it is common practice to move principals every three years or so “to prevent mold from growing,” as one superintendent told me, or to “share the good leaders around,” as another put it.
In some parts of the education system, moving is not a matter of choice but a fact of political life. The work context for superintendents is so difficult that their term expectancy is around three years. Governors in many states have two-year terms. The terms of school board members range from two to four years, and state education officials are often appointees, dependent on the political cycle.
Time needed for change. Significant change in educational structures and practices takes far more time than is usually estimated. Teachers and principals in a variety of Essential Schools have clearly demonstrated that only so much can be accomplished in any one year and that the process of school change requires a significant time commitment.
For instance, when a schedule is rearranged for double-blocked periods, teachers frequently begin by concentrating on getting to know the kids better and coordinating curriculum. As time goes on, many teachers begin to blur course content in favor of a more integrated curriculum. This requires more curricular rethinking. Eventually, faculties begin to question their assessment practices; this requires even more time. And each year, staff committed to ensuring that students learn to use their minds well find new focuses for change.
Disruptive transitions. Our partners in school change tell us that more often than not, transitions in leadership wreak havoc on their efforts to change. The tale of transition above demonstrates that graphically. New leaders often wish to impose their own agendas. That is, after all, one of the perks of leadership. In forging the new, old projects are dismantled or diverted for a considerable time. When faced with a leadership change, staff involved in experimental projects frequently halt their work. Their energy goes, instead, into worrying and fussing over the uncertainty.
In cases where innovative programs are dismantled, good people leave. Where promises are not kept, distrust grows. When new leaders are supportive but uninvolved, projects lose momentum or are simply weighted down by the greater heft of traditional practices. A four-year ethnographic study of eight Essential Schools documents a number of the unanticipated consequences that can emerge when a principal leaves (Muncey and McQuillan, in press).

Managing Transition

Obviously, those involved in change cannot freeze the comings and goings of leaders. Indeed, many changes in leadership have positive effects. Still, some careful thought about how to manage such transitions might make it more likely that a project survives. Faculties or departments just beginning a significant project need to be especially prepared for transitions. The logical first step would be to examine what changes might affect them. Is the superintendent leaving? Are funds likely to dry up? Do the teachers suggesting a team know each other well enough? Has anyone recently finished a degree or a credential, which might be a prelude to a job shift?
If a change is imminent, two choices seem logical: Wait until the change has taken place, or plan in advance for the effects of such a change and where ongoing support for the project might be sought. For instance, if a new governor's position on school-based innovation is not known, a group just beginning a project might do some advance homework on the governor's likely agenda.
If a project is already under way, the considerations are different. When the leaving is not a sudden event, a good leader will prepare for the transition. Years ago that might have meant simply getting the files in order. In a school where change is in progress, it means considerably more. In a few Essential Schools, the principal planned far ahead, engaging staff in hiring a successor and then working as a leadership team for a year or more before the transition takes place. In other cases, staff members spent time clarifying the qualities they were looking for in a replacement.
While we all hope that transitions might be pleasant events, the truth is that many occur suddenly—deaths, nonrenewals, or financial cutbacks. Many leaders leave during the summer, when the job market is at its most frenzied. A summer departure makes it nearly impossible for staff to prepare. While it may be impossible to predict every transition, it might be better for all involved if leaders as a matter of course helped their staff prepare for unanticipated transitions. It also might be beneficial if school staffs examined leadership as part of their yearly collective assessment of their own progress. Staff members could articulate what they expected a leader to do to support them. This planning might begin with an assessment of their current work—what's under way, what needs to be done, what needs to be reconsidered—as well as a description of the kinds of activities the school, department, or team hopes to undertake in the next two or three years. Such information could be included in the annual report to the board and could also be used in developing job descriptions. A new leader hired into a well-established and clearly described change project would be more likely to foster continued growth than one who was led to believe that the school or the department would be open to new ideas.
For example, a group of teachers and administrators who had been planning a new school for several years recently met their new superintendent. Unfortunately, the board had not adequately explained to the superintendent the extent of planning that had already been done. In his first meeting with staff, the new superintendent rolled out extensive plans of his own, antithetical to the direction the planning committee had chosen. They felt defeated and stunned. The experience might have been avoided through more discussions about the plans under way.
When transitions do occur, it is always helpful if those actively involved in an ongoing innovative effort can participate in the hiring of a replacement. Most good personnel officers agree that staff members are much more likely to accept a new leader if they have had some role in the selection process. Experience confirms that leaders better serve the educational community if those to be led have a legitimate voice in the selection of new leaders.
In some of the Essential Schools' districts, faculty committees are actually charged with hiring. They make recommendations to the staff members, who then vote on the final candidate. In other schools, the staff makes two or three recommendations to the board, which makes the final selection.
In emergency circumstances, when leaders leave unexpectedly, staff might do well to quickly organize discussion groups to suggest what might be most helpful in the interim. A staff member from the ranks might move into the leadership spot temporarily and might be charged with organizing the preparatory information for the final candidates. Again, those involved should select the interim leader.
Transitions with elected officials are trickier. One strategy might be to make sure all candidates get adequate information on the direction and work under way. Then ask them to respond to the information so the group can determine its direction. Or, educators might schedule a series of meetings to bring the new leader up to speed on those projects, rather than waiting to see whether the new agenda will support the old.
I question the sensibility of transferring principals out of buildings where the staff is engaged in significant change just for the sake of “preventing mold” or “sharing the wealth” of the stronger leaders. Mold has little chance to develop in actively changing places, and places of change need as much constancy as they can get. If a transfer is taking place as a means of dealing with a problem leader, the leader should be dealt with rather than transferred to become a problem in another setting.

Defining Leadership

How we define leadership, of course, affects the way we prepare for transitions. Distinctions that separate leaders into transactional managers or transformative change-agents are not particularly useful because they are too boxy, too linear, too narrow. In places where the collective group is working hard to create a system where students really learn to use their minds well, leaders need to be able to sustain the momentum for change. They need to be able to keep the long view in mind while analyzing current projects for their fit (or misfit). They need to be able to analyze current progress in order to chart future direction. They need to vest their colleagues with a legitimate voice in decision making, and they need to be master constituency builders. Leaders who choose to move into an innovative setting need to be able to accept the overall direction the group has chosen and then support the staff by helping to further clarify and move toward its vision. Leadership for change requires skills of management, collaboration, and critical friendship—that rare ability to point out what needs to be done while sustaining momentum.
Changing schools is important work—desperately needed if our schools are to meet America's need for a well-educated, thoughtful populace. The traditional American school and its surrounding system wasn't built in a day; its redesign will require substantial commitment and more time than we imagine. Good leaders, so necessary to sustain innovative efforts, will eventually leave. But when they do, they should know that the change work begun will continue to grow from sturdy roots; and those who remain should know that their new structures, new practices, and unfolding dreams remain in fertile soil.

Muncey, D., and P. McQuillan. (In press). An Ethnographic Study of the Coalition of Essential Schools, 1986–90. Brown University: The School Ethnography Project.

Sizer, T. R. (1985). Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sykes, G. (April 1987). “Teaching Incentives: Constraint and Variety.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, D.C.

End Notes

1 The Coalition of Essential Schools began in 1984 as a partnership between Brown University and a dozen schools across the country. That partnership has since expanded to include the Re:Learning collaboration with the Education Commission of the States, seven Re:Learning states, and more than 200 affiliated schools. The purpose of the partnership is to support local efforts to rethink and redesign secondary schooling guided by a set of nine Common Principles. The principles emerged from a five-year research project, A Study of High Schools, whose results were reported in Horace's Compromise (Sizer 1985).

Patricia A. Wasley has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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