by Susanna Jones
Self-reflection is a critical quality of leadership, and I do a great deal of reflecting about leadership generally and about my own actions specifically. I have served as a senior administrator in independent schools for twenty years (a fact I find rather hard to believe!), and those two decades have given me ample opportunities to consider the qualities that define effective leaders, as well as practice leadership in a variety of settings and situations. Over the years, I have read a number of books and articles and listened to speakers on the topic of leadership and even helped develop a leadership course. From all that, three works stand out. First is an article by Theodore Sergi, Connecticut Commissioner of Education, about servant leadership. I can’t find this article anywhere, but the idea that a great leader really serves the people s/he leads, and not the other way around, made a deep and lasting impression on me. More recently, Patrick Lenceoni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Jim Collins’ Good to Great have significantly influenced my thinking.
Years of studying and teaching history and the historical figures who populate those pages have truly determined my definition of leadership. I particularly admire Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership styles. I admire Queen Elizabeth for her ability to affect compromise and create relative harmony in dangerously contentious situations. She also identified talented people and gave them freedom to do what they were good at – Sir Francis Drake comes to mind. But most of all, I admire the way she toured her realm each year, making sure that she went out and met her subjects. Abraham Lincoln I admire for his ability to capitalize on his opponents by embracing them instead of marginalizing them. He also knew when to compromise, when to be firm, and how to use the system to his advantage. He was as savvy a politician as has ever served as President. He employed humor and stories with great skill, but most of all, he was a person of unshakable integrity. Though stunningly political, he never compromised his principles about what really mattered, a quality that gave him strength and credibility during our nation’s ultimate test. Finally, FDR gathered around him a disparate group of people who generated a range of ideas and solutions, giving Roosevelt a variety of options for solving problems. He wasn’t afraid to experiment nor did he shrink from abandoning an ineffective program to replace it with something he hoped might work better. Finally, during the fight over the Supreme Court, he observed that, at one point, he turned around and realized no one was following him; he had lost the popular support. You can’t be a leader without followers.
So as you can tell by this digest, there are several core qualities and behaviors that I believe effective leadership demands. None of these characteristics alone makes a leader, but rather they are necessary in the aggregate. For example, one can be a person of integrity, but not a leader; however, a leader must be a person of integrity.
Integrity: A leader must have a moral compass on which to rely, especially when faced with difficult challenges. S/he must always do what’s right, even if doing so risks being unpopular and even when others may not be able to understand one’s actions. You have to be able to know in your heart that you did the right thing. Sometimes the right course of action is not obvious. In these cases, I try to think about the people affected – what will the impact on them be; how will the decision reflect on the institution; and most importantly, in the context of school, I always try to put the interests of the students first.
Courage: Being courageous is harder, I think, than having integrity, but equally essential. Sometimes the courage required is no more than overcoming the anxiety of making a speech. Other times, one must steel oneself to take on a tough challenge; have a hard conversation; hold someone accountable; or make a difficult decision. One must be ready to engage with – even reach out to — people who disagree with you, and to listen to criticism. When appropriate, one must also acknowledge and take responsibility for mistakes. Mustering courage takes tremendous emotional energy, but summoning that energy from a strong ethical core – one’s integrity – makes it easier.
Commitment to serve: While people often think of leadership in terms of power, I believe that power, at least on the part of the leader, is quite unimportant. Not to sound corny, but leadership is really about empowering others; or about leveraging power to realize a vision. Exercise of personal power undermines true leadership. Instead, I think about leadership in terms of serving the people, particularly the students in the case of a school, and the institution. This is where the Theodore Sergi article I can’t find comes in, but the idea of servant leadership has gained much currency. A key component of this philosophy is never asking others to do something I wouldn’t do. It also means that the tough jobs are mine, not someone else’s. I put the students and the school first, that is whom and what I serve, and to the extent I have power or resources, they should be employed towards those ends.
Vision: The ability to develop and articulate a vision often sets leaders apart from others. To move an institution or group of people forward, the leader must have a vision, a description of the future that others can understand and get excited about. To be successful, a vision needs grounding in the institutional or group culture while also moving the institution to a new place.
Effective communication: A vision has no value if it isn’t communicated. In addition, all the human relationships that form the basis of communities and teams, depend on effective communication. Effective communication, in turn, depends on understanding the culture and community so you know what resonates. One gains this understanding through careful observation and listening. I also find that Dan and Chris Heath’s theories about change and the need to manage both emotions and rational thinking extremely helpful in developing effective communication.
Listening and Compassion: Effective listening enables effective communication, and it also conveys a sense that the leader cares about people, their thoughts and their concerns. Though it’s very unlikely that everyone will like a leader, and it may even be hard to get everyone to respect you, through listening and showing compassion you build trust. Each of us is an individual with likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, and a leader builds a stronger community and greater commitment when people feel that the leader cares.
Collaboration and ability to build a team: I firmly believe that more heads tackling any problem will devise a better solution than one person. So whenever possible, I try to collaborate with colleagues. For this reason, I also believe in having a team approach to management and leadership. Team building is therefore another important attribute of leadership. Trust undergirds any effective team, and trust develops through open, honest communication along with support among teammates. This is a cyclical process that demands commitment to building a team on the part of members. The leader needs to offer encouragement and advice to ensure that the process keeps moving forward.
By no means do I feel as though I embody all these characteristics, but I certainly try by constantly reflecting about my leadership. I strive every day not only to do the best job I can, but a better job than the day before.
Susanna Jones, Head of School, Holton-Arms School
Susanna Jones is Head of School, Holton-Arms School, in Bethesda, MD, a top-notch school, founded in 1901 that provides an exceptionally rigorous academic curriculum. Before coming to Holton-Arms, Susanna had similarly served as Head of The Ethel Walker School, another highly respected secondary school. Susanna’s background includes teaching and development work for private schools, the Union Theological Seminary and development consulting for Peggy Powell Dean & Co. As we would expect, Susanna has been involved in many significant volunteer activities and associations, including the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls, Headmistresses of the East, Simsbury Historical Society, and serving as a board member of SPHERE and as a Trustee and in numerous other capacities for Phillips (Andover) Academy.
Susanna attended Princeton for her undergraduate degree then received two Masters degrees from Columbia. She and her husband, Robert Beguelin, live near the Holton-Arms School.
I feel privileged to have Susanna as a guest leader as she herself is a highly respected leader, dedicated to the education and growth of young women.