In Chicago recently to present a program for nonprofit chief executives on board-CEO relations, I made a side trip to visit a well-regarded nonprofit corporation, Smith Crossing, a retirement community southwest of the city. During my brief visit, I had the opportunity to observe a master teacher – and leader – in action: Kay Sue Nagle, conductor of the Smith Crossing chorus, known as “Singers of Note.” Observing Kay Sue rehearsing her ensemble for an upcoming performance, I got to thinking – no doubt because of my CEO program the day before – about some of the critical leadership attributes that successful teachers and chief executives, including superintendents, bring to their leadership missions.
What came to mind first as I watched Kay Sue at work is Credibility: the quality of being trustworthy and believable. Credibility commands respect among those being taught and led, as my readers well know. Kay Sue and every other master teacher and successful superintendent I’ve observed over the years has earned credibility through both technical mastery – bringing the requisite knowledge and skills to the job – and dependability. You can trust what they tell you because they are both knowledgeable and dependable. They practice what they preach, walking their talk.
Kay Sue and the many other successful teachers and superintendents I’ve observed also bring Empathy to their work. They not only have an intimate understanding of the emotions the people they’re teaching and leading feel, they are also able to feel those emotions themselves and to tailor their leadership style accordingly. In Kay Sue’s case, she was obviously keenly aware that her leadership style needed to be more nurturing than commanding, in light of the fact that many if not most of her singers, not being professional musicians, would lack self-confidence and fear not measuring up. Kay Sue well knew that a brusque leadership style would only exacerbate those very understandable fears – at a needless musical price.
A third leadership quality that came to my mind as I observed Kay’s Singers of Note rehearse was theatrical in nature, what I think of as Stage Presence. While credibility commands respect, stage presence, in my experience, commands attention. This attribute is difficult to pin down, but it has to do with how a leader carries herself – how self-confident she appears. Outstanding superintendents look the part. It also has to do with a leader’s ability to use vivid examples and real-life stories to illustrate the lessons they want to teach. This is to say that all really effective leaders – both teachers and superintendents – are always on stage when they are leading.
So why are these musings pertinent to your work with your board? Primarily, I think, because the leadership qualities I’ve described are critical to your building a really solid partnership with your board that can withstand the inevitable stresses and strains at the top of all school districts.