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Ten Durable Leadership Insights
Or, a little more about me...
An introduction to the introduction
The basic facts of my career can be found on my LinkedIn profile and I’ll get to my educator origin story at some point, but in short - I started teaching as a graduate student at Emerson College in 1994 and took a leap in the dark taking a midyear dorm parenting job at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA in 1996. I worked my way up to Assistant Head of School over about twenty years and then I have spent the last seven as Head at the Westover School in Middlebury CT.
It’s been a ride and it is head spinning to think about all the change in the world encompassed in that 26 year arc.
I also want to make clear that I have nothing but love for Westover and Walnut Hill. Any critiques of the field aren’t built on my experience alone but are underscored by conundrums or incongruities I’m watching my peers struggle with as well. Even at larger independent schools, in the scheme of things, we are working at small, intimate, complex organizations created in a different social and cultural context, not built for rapid adaptation to change. And on top of it all, as we emerge from a global catastrophe, our organizations are very highly stressed.
To give you a sense of my philosophy and outlook, I wanted to share what I originally labeled, with tongue in cheek, The Natick Rules.
The Moscow Rules were informal rules known by CIA operatives in the USSR during the Cold War. I saw this list at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC years ago and kept them in a frame in my Walnut Hill office as an irreverent commentary on administration.
Note: Irreverent commentary perhaps, but also nuggets of good wisdom for administrators, such as “Do not harass the opposition.”
Note: Another characteristic of my style is to make connections between education and other unusual sources. I look forward to exploring that as I share links and recs to articles, books, podcasts, etc. in the future.
Years ago, I presented at The Association of Boarding Schools with my dear friend, the brilliant educator and leader Tom Kardel, currently Assistant Head at Kimball Union Academy, on “Management Strategies that Work.” For that presentation, I created The Natick Rules. People stood up to take pictures of these slides; I thought I might be onto something.
When it came time to look at head of school jobs, I found statements of educational philosophy mostly boring, often interchangeable, rarely revealing. I wrote a standard one. I revamped it into more of an essay, musing on Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times and Orwell’s scathing essay on boarding school, “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Better, but still meh. I then incorporated The Natick Rules and in my first shot at a head’s job, passed it onto the consultant, the wonderful Chris Arnold at Educational Directions, who loved it and told me people would be ripping it off.
When I pulled it up this week, I was happy to see that it holds up, both to represent my outlook and as some insight into priorities in schools. This is the punched up, Faulstich 2022 version.
Ten Durable Leadership Insights
1. Always face the facts
Problems don’t fix themselves, unless you get very lucky, and often if you wait, they just get exponentially worse. It is tempting to minimize - thinking everything goes in cycles or this employee is just having a hard day/week/month/year or everyone is struggling with enrollment right now or of course because of the stock market donations are down. All these things can be true, but a leader has to cultivate some detachment to fully analyze the problem and then feel confident enough to share the problem with others to get to some effective solutions.
2. First, last and always - it’s about the kids
They’re the reason we exist. But the concept of “student centered” can be a little trickier than it first appears. Some people interpret “student centered” as enabling the kids and removing all challenges from their paths. Others see it as a lowering of academic standards to adapt the approach to “teach kids not content.” It’s neither - it’s about answering the question: how do we use the school’s resources - human and financial - to support students thriving at our school, in the context of our mission?
3. First, last and always - it’s about the mission
The school’s mission is the reason for being. It’s not the how, it’s the why. The core consideration in making major decisions should always be the mission – how will this decision promote the mission, now and for the long run? The School is what matters; it is bigger than any individual and exists to serve students well into the future.
4. The path of least resistance leads to the cul-de-sac of mediocrity
Often leaders are faced with the expedient path and the more difficult path around hiring, promotion, or making a policy decision. The expedient path is tempting, solves immediate problems quickly, and likely ruffles fewer feathers. The expedient path is often the one that entails the least disruption to elements of the school culture. Sometimes this is the best road to travel and during COVID it was frankly often the only reasonable road to travel. But often it will not move the School forward in the best way possible to serve the students and the mission in a 21st century context and often its the difficult path we need to travel to shift school culture.
4. Principle, not precedent
There have been a number of times in my career I’ve been asked, “But what about the precedent?” The question should be, “What principle is at work in this decision?” We are small communities that run on relationships, not soulless bureaucracies. With well-understood principles, I am able to explain to anyone who walks in my office why I might make an exception for a faculty or staff member or a student. Run amok, this can make a leader appear capricious, so it must be used judiciously. Used correctly, it promotes a humane environment.
5. Fix the internet before fixing curriculum
Faculty’s first priority is their work with students. In a literal sense, they need very basic things to deliver their curricula – a good Internet connection, a functioning copier, white board markers, etc. There is nothing more frustrating than having an assignment all ready to go and then not being able to copy it, or project it, or get to the LMS. In a more abstract sense, faculty also need faculty and department meeting programming that feels immediately useful, valuable and supportive as well as the opportunity to discuss school policies. You can built a lot of political capital by listening carefully to the faculty’s needs in serving the students and developing a reputation of trying to meet those needs.
6. Paying attention shows you care
Swiftly responding to a concerned parent with a meeting time, returning an email promptly with a thoughtful response, coming prepared to a committee meeting, asking a faculty or staff member how things are going – people notice and appreciate this attention. It shows them that they, and their roles in the community, matter to you. Schools can be isolating places where individual faculty members, academic departments, and operations can all be in their own little bubbles. It is amazing what sometimes even a five minute conversation over the coffee machine in the dining hall can do.
8. Step into your authority - good boundaries are your friend
One resonating observation I heard early in my career is that intimacy is the enemy of authority. You can’t be afraid people aren’t going to like you when you make a decision. You can’t be best chums with a direct report, dependent on him or her for all emotional support. Transparency and candor about professional matters are much desired but confessional conversations are not. Recently, I had so many connecting conversations with community members about caring for my elderly parents and it was wonderful; however, I am not calling them at 1AM to share all my existential fears. This doesn’t rule out being friendly – taking the staff out to lunch, going bowling after the administration retreat, socializing at the parent association fundraiser. That’s part of being relational. But at bottom, people want authority to be clear, confident, and principle driven; intimacy confuses boundaries. And there’s no way to escape it: at times, it is lonely at the top.
9. Change is rarely permanent
School communities can become tense contemplating change, but it is important to remember that all but the most bedrock decisions (fundamentally changing the mission, for example) can be transitory in the long run. A school can pilot any program or policy change and often such programs end up becoming the fabric of the organization. But they are also up for reevaluation and examination and further change if necessary. It is more challenging to sunset programs for sure, but it can be done with discipline and focus. Letting go is an art and we get better with it with practice. Life, and the world, is not static.
10. Never face the facts
The facts can be scary and overwhelming. Westover School would not exist today if the leaders in the 1970s had faced the facts. Neither would Walnut Hill School for the Arts. A vision has to transcend the literal facts. A talented leader can see all the elements needed – some already in place, some to be put in place – to create something larger and more inspiring than the sum of its parts.
And if I had a #11, I would steal one from Tom Kardel – “It’s not organ transplant.” The beauty of schools is that any of us can have one dud class, one spreadsheet with errors, one inconsequential meeting – and life and death is not at stake. What is at stake is the long game of educating young people. Schools open minds, develop skills, help children discover who they are and what they can contribute to the world. I believe there is a basic desire in every person to make strong connections to others and contribute meaningfully to her community. Leadership in a school means leading into a future that matters for all of us, and every day I work in education, I am grateful for this exciting and significant challenge.
2022 ADDENDUM: The Three Enduring Rules of Administration
No one reads anything.
People lead complicated lives.
If someone hasn’t gotten the answer he wants, he behaves as if he hasn’t gotten an answer at all. (courtesy of my father, a long-time HR director)
Thank you to all the subscribers out there!
The response was more robust than I could have hoped for, and I hope when you see my newsletter arrives in your in-box, you’ll be glad it’s there. (I would also highly recommend the Substack app if you are trying to minimize inbox traffic.)
I promise you the following:
Posts will generally not be too long
The prose will be readable and, hopefully, fun
There will be thoughts about solutions - not just venting about problems and obstacles. I’m neither Grinch or Pollyanna. (Although the Grinch-y side is probably the funnier one.)
By the end of the summer, my goal is to start to feature other voices than mine, likely in the form of Q and As and guest posts.
I also look forward to regular posts where I share what I’m reading or watching that has furthered my thinking on topics - as I mentioned above, often they are only indirectly related to education or organizational leadership but they spark interesting connections and insight. I also want to start regular threads where people can share what’s on their minds, or topics they’d like to see explored in this newsletter.
I’m contemplating doing my first links post next week, as I’ll be in the middle of moving house. Stay tuned.
Have a wonderful weekend!