Reflections on Leadership: Building Team Through Shared Readings

Dear PAIS Members,

When I first became a Head of School, there were times when I seriously wondered how we could ever move our struggling school to a position of strength. Although the school was still well regarded by many in the community, the reputation of the school had slipped overall during the previous decade. This was reflected in enrollment and therefore also reflected in the budget. For motivation I began to read about organizational transformations. Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End by Rosabeth Moss Kanter was an inspiring and vivid behind-the-scenes account of the rise and fall of different organizations and the various efforts undertaken that led either to a turnaround or, in a couple of cases, a breakdown.

Moved by the book’s accounts of turnarounds, I explored reading other books, but didn’t want to be the sole beneficiary of these turnaround stories. So, I decided that our leadership group would begin reading such books together. We agreed that our June Retreat would be dedicated to reporting on a selected text, and the August Retreat would be dedicated to how we might implement the elements of the book into our leadership of the school. In the early years, these were almost exclusively business books. Not surprisingly, Good To Great by Jim Collins was highly impactful, as the book’s jargon became incorporated into our rhetoric. We would regularly allude to “the flywheel,” “the hedgehog” and “Fifth Dimension leaders.” Another year we read Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, which convincingly demonstrated that organizations failed not for a lack of vision or planning, but for their inability to execute their plans. Finally, because we felt that the school’s overall morale could be infused with a dose of positivity, we read the now classic by UPenn Professor, Dr. Martin Seligman entitled Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

The exercise of reading together and discussing important themes that relate to an organization like ours was bonding in itself, but the content of the books rallied us around the importance of being a team committed to excellence. The mechanics and operations of our organization got better and better. We became more efficient operationally. Interestingly, our efficiency enabled us to devote greater attention to the quality of the educational program. The effects of our shared reading experience manifested in enrollment, fundraising, and other quantifiable measures. In hindsight, it was not only the content of the literature that we read that fostered an institutional transformation, but also the bond that formed among our team from a common understanding of what we were trying to do as leaders of our school.  

Sincerely yours,
Gary J. Niels