At Partnership Schools, we believe that one thing that separates effective turnaround efforts from failed experiments is the ability of the leader to articulate a clear, coherent, and actionable vision for change. While talk of “leading with vision” may conjure up eye-roll-inducing images of vapid or vague mission statements or empty platitudes, it’s actually a critical (and sometimes under-valued) piece of the school improvement puzzle. That’s because without a clear vision—one that can be succinctly explained to faculty, staff, and parents and one that is informed by data, grounded in programs that have a proven track record of success, and supported by effective professional development and coaching—turnaround plans are easily derailed, undermined, or simply too vague to drive real, lasting results.
Partnership Schools, of which I’m superintendent, is a network of nine urban Catholic schools serving more than 2,300 students in New York and Cleveland. As we prepared to welcome students back for the new school year, we gathered our school leaders to reflect on what leading with vision means, especially in the face of the challenges our communities continue to face in this pandemic.
For us, leading with vision is more than an aspirational pep talk. It has significant implications for how we function as a network—and for the work of each principal, dean, and operations leader at our schools. As a school management organization, we have a strong model, shared curriculum, common pacing guides and expectations, and shared systems for functions like tuition. But we also have an ethos that tends to eschew mere compliance. We are not a network driven by a common sense of “command and control,” but rather a sense of “this is our why.”
In practice, that means that steering a Partnership School involves more than charismatic leadership or compliance-focused implementation. Rather, it asks three things of all leaders:
- Knowing your “why.”
- Mastering your “what.”
- Leading with conviction.
Know your “why”
Lately, I’ve been drawn to a video clip that illustrates how a mission-driven orientation—which is embedded within Catholic schools—has the power to drive change in ways that go well beyond what makes any sense given the resources we have and given the struggles we face.
In the video, when comedian Michael Jr. asks a music teacher to sing “Amazing Grace,” the version he shares when he is deeply grounded in his “why” isn’t just beautiful. It also moves the audience around him in a way that his first, technically proficient version does not. Functioning from our why can make all the difference.
As crucial as our emotional motivations are, when it comes to vision-driven leadership, knowing your why doesn’t stop there. It is also important to know why we do the things we do in the course of our work. Why do we ask teachers to follow a pacing guide in core content areas? Why do we have a dress code, or use a particular system for grading? Our picture of vision-driven leadership demands that we get clear for ourselves—so that we can communicate effectively to our teams—why we make the choices we do. Knowing the why is important for building buy-in and support for an improvement plan, and it’s essential for communicating with parents, particularly in these times of uncertainty.
But the “Amazing Grace” clip doesn’t just inspire us to know our why and work from it. It suggests that we need something more than a clear why to have the impact we seek.
Master your “what”
When watching that short clip, it’s easy to glide past just how technically proficient this “Amazing Grace” singer is to focus on the difference between the two renditions. Yet while the second song is the one that knocks us off balance, both versions show that this is a leader who knows his stuff.
When I think of the most outstanding leaders I’ve ever seen or worked with, what Boston College professor Dr. Ellen Winner calls a “rage to master” is at the heart of how they function. They may also bring charisma and inspiration. But first, they bring expertise and humility.
When I think about the expertise and humility that effective leaders need to drive improvement, I’m often reminded of a quote from Pablo Casals. When asked at the age of ninety-three why he still practiced three hours a day, the master cellist responded, “Because I think I’m making progress.”
When it comes to school leadership in general and vision-driven leadership, in particular, I think not of obsession or perfectionism, but rather a relentless focus on figuring things out.
In sports, we’ve grown not just to appreciate this type of relentlessness, but to celebrate it. As just one example that was profiled in the 2018 ESPN documentary, In Search of Greatness, a clip of American skateboard legend Tony Hawk trying to land the first-ever 900 in the 1999 X Games provides a master class in illustrating this “rage to master.” Hawk hopes to land the 900 during regulation play, and he fails repeatedly. But he just simply can’t give up. He falls, returns to the top, and makes tiny adjustments, learning with each failure. Finally, several minutes after the competition has ended, he lands the 900 and the crowd goes wild.
It isn’t just persistence that Hawk demonstrates. It’s a deeply curious, detailed, technical pursuit of his craft. While school leaders don’t need to obsess to that level on every detail of school management, effective school turnaround does require a similar relentlessness of focus—a commitment not just to launching a headline-grabbing plan, but to watching, learning, and making the kind of unsung tweaks and refinements that will ultimately drive real, lasting change.
Lead with conviction
The final piece of vision-driven leadership is the part that can be the scariest. Basically, it’s the moment when you have to say: “I know my what. I know my why. Everyone is looking at me to make a decision and to see it through.”
Of course, seeing a decision through doesn’t mean acting like a bull in a china shop. It doesn’t mean being stubborn and not listening to pushback. But it does mean that you must be willing to take a risk and make a judgement call—while facing the reality that you might be wrong and you might fail.
One of the things I appreciate most about working in a network is that you have peers in similar roles facing similar challenges who also need to make decisions. This makes leadership less lonely, but it doesn’t dilute the importance of you making decisions as a leader and seeing them through.
We know that our schools can tap into and unleash the greatness within our students because urban Catholic schools have been powerful engines of social mobility and flourishing for generations. As Partnership Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis described it to our leaders: Our work is similar to that of sculptor Michelangelo, who said that he “saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set it free.”
In a time when our children need a great educational environment more than ever, our ability to meet their needs means being even more grounded in a clear vision. That requires knowing why we do the hard work of running schools in a pandemic, pursuing the craft of educating with a relentless drive for excellence no matter what challenges we face, and having the conviction to act on behalf of the emerging angels who will walk in our doors in the next few weeks.