Avoiding Crises Through Values-Driven Leadership

David Wolowitz headshot
David Wolowitz
Of Counsel, Education Law Group
Published: McLane.com
September 20, 2019

Are You Leading Your School’s Culture Or Is It Leading Your School?

Co-authored by: Claude Marchessault, Strategic Leadership Group, Inc.

School leaders understand that today, more than ever before, nothing is more important to their school community than confidence that the students in the school’s care are safe. A single incident of serious behavioral misconduct, whether by a student, a teacher, or a staff member, harms not only the victim, but can severely damage the reputation of a school. Parents, alumni, and donors expect that schools are taking appropriate steps to promote and protect the health, safety, and welfare of students.

Not surprisingly, many independent schools are responding to these expectations with an increased focus on risk management. Many have implemented or enhanced risk management systems. These help schools identify conduct that violates the school’s policies, such as harassment, discrimination, hazing, bullying and sexual assault. However, while these systems are appropriate and essential to keeping schools safe, they are only a component of a systematic approach, not the entire solution.

Risk management systems are designed, as their title suggests, to manage risk, not to address the root causes of it. By their nature, they are reactive approaches designed in response to external forces, such as legislation, regulation and litigation. Their focus is compliance. But all too often, an increased focus on compliance leads to resistance manifested in surreptitious activity, whether by students or employees.  Employees and students tend to be heavily influenced by their peer groups which operate by their shared values and concerns. These powerful sub-cultures are self-centered rather than system-centered and can be frustratingly resistant to change. If they perceive compliance efforts as potentially adversely impacting their interests, such as changing the preferred status quo, they will not be receptive to them. Stated otherwise, an unhealthy culture can overcome the best efforts at achieving compliance.

How does a school avoid and break down unhealthy subcultures? It requires an integrated approach which combines engagement with enforcement. Engagement involves the whole school community developing, owning and communicating shared values and applying them to the everyday life of the school. Engagement is an iterative process that requires strong, values-focused leadership. Essential to this process is the development of a clear and simple articulation of behavioral norms in the form of standards, consistent with the school community’s shared values and expectations.

Whereas enforcing compliance is a management process that is reactive to forces outside of a school’s control, shaping culture through shared values is a proactive leadership process that utilizes forces within the school’s control.  When the whole school community is engaged in this educative process, students, faculty and staff can conclude for themselves, both individually and collectively, that the behavioral standards are in their interests as well as the school’s interests. Standards that reflect group dialogue are more likely to become socialized and integrated into the norms of the groups and to motivate the behaviors that ultimately shape a school’s culture.

Standards that are imposed by the administration, rather than developed through engagement, are not likely to be successful at breaking down unhealthy school subcultures. Successful engagement takes committed, consistent leadership. The ultimate payoff is significant in terms of promoting a healthy and safe school culture. In a school community in which student and faculty leaders identify with the school’s values, those leaders will influence their peers to conform with the widely accepted standards of conduct. Thereby, the likelihood that individuals, pairs or subgroups will make consequential behavioral decisions in isolation will be reduced.

Of course, some students, and even some faculty and staff, will inevitably engage in behaviors inconsistent with the standards. In a system in which the core values of accountability and responsibility have been socialized and become the norm through engagement, behaviors inconsistent with accepted standards are more likely to be identified and addressed before they develop into more serious transgressions which violate rules or laws and trigger a formal reaction to address the non-compliance. Schools will likely find it easier and more successful to address behaviors of concern at an early stage, prior to their becoming non-compliant, as part of an educational, rather than a disciplinary, response.

Once a school identifies and articulates a core list of succinct and clear behavioral standards, it must continue to socialize it at every opportunity to employees and students. For  employees, the respective behavioral standards should be referenced and reinforced at every stage of the employment process. Most schools focus employment actions on performance based criteria. But, the greatest risk of harm to a school is behavioral. Behavioral standards should be included and emphasized in job descriptions, interviews and reference checks, employment documents, training, evaluations, and discipline. This is part of the socializing process.

Similarly, for students, the standards should be referenced and reinforced at every key stage of the student’s experiences throughout their education, from initial application through graduation. The standards should be referenced whenever behavioral issues arise. Student leaders, in particular, should be selected utilizing the standards, and their training should emphasize the importance of modeling the standards. Student leaders are crucial to influencing and establishing behavioral norms for the student body.

To evaluate the efforts at leading culture, there need to be measurements. Without metrics, there is no way to measure change or progress. Two important areas which lend themselves to measurement are training and reporting. Keeping a database of all training relating to student health, safety or welfare should be standard procedure for every independent school. Similarly, schools should keep a database of internal and external reports of significant misconduct and actions taken in response. Key metrics should be routinely shared with school’s board. The board should have a committee whose responsibilities include oversight of the school’s culture.

Another way to evaluate the health of a school’s culture is to routinely conduct after-the-fact reviews of significant issues. Consideration should be given to when concerning behaviors were identified and how they were addressed. Particular attention should be paid to internal barriers to communicating concerns, especially so-called “information silos”. Lessons learned from these reviews will help to identify specific areas of concern and to inform future training and responses. Summaries of these reviews should also be shared with the school’s board.

Changing culture through leadership is not easy. But if a school does not lead the culture, the culture will lead the school. Serious behavioral crises, which severely harm students and damage the reputation of a school, typically involve a series of behavioral issues which progressively lead down the slippery slope of misconduct to disaster. Establishing clear, succinct behavioral standards which are accepted by the community makes it more likely that significant behavioral events will be identified and addressed at a much earlier stage so that disaster can be averted. Behavioral standards cannot simply be imposed. Gaining widespread acceptance of behavioral standards requires engagement. As with most significant educational efforts, successful community engagement takes time, commitment and hard work. Most importantly, it takes leadership.