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The Hero Leader is Dead

We seem to crave hero leaders.

George Washington not only refused to lie about cutting down the cherry tree (why did he do that anyway?), he almost single-handedly led the colonies to victory over the British. A hero leader.

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. He was able to lead the country through its darkest hours and then started stitching the fractured country back together. Who knows what he would have accomplished if his life was not cut tragically short? A hero leader.

Steve Jobs saved Apple from oblivion by creating both the iphone and the ipad. A hero leader.

However, hero leaders are a myth. No-one can do it on their own. While that has always been true, it is even more true today.

The world is increasingly complex. No-one can master it all. And the best decisions are made collectively by hearing many different voices.

This is not to argue that the leader is not important. The leader must create a culture in which everyone understands the mission and what is trying to be accomplished. The leader must nurture that culture; keep it alive.

Patrick Bassett, the long time president of NAIS, talked about how the definition of independent schools has changed from each teacher in a school being independent to having each school being internally consistent and independent from each other.

When I was head of school, we received a huge compliment from a consultant who toured many schools. After looking around, he told us he had never seen such consistent pedagogy throughout the institution. The culture and our goal of having students being the lead thinkers had permeated every class and teacher.

However, I was not a hero leader who accomplished this on my own. To the contrary, all the leadership of the school, not just the academic leaders, came together and crafted a mental picture of what pedagogy would allow our students to become the type of thinkers we hoped they would be.

My job was to guide and facilitate the team as it debated and planned about what the teaching should look like and how we would make it happen. It was not the work of a leader hero but of a team working together.

To lead this way requires a high functioning leadership team. As we approach summer, perhaps, Heads should be strategizing on how to improve their leadership teams. It is critical work and requires thought and intentionality.


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