The most important factor influencing a school’s success isn’t class size, length of the school day, or other reforms, says researcher and author Jim Collins—it’s having a great leader at the helm.
Speaking at the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education Feb. 21, Collins told the superintendents in attendance that the best thing they could do to improve their schools was to make sure every principal is a top-notch leader. He also explained the characteristics that make a leader “great.”
Collins is the best-selling author of Good to Great, Built to Last, and other books exploring the factors that are most responsible for companies’ sustained success, and he said these same factors also apply to schools. But that doesn’t mean reformers who seek to adopt a more businesslike approach to education are correct, he cautioned.
“We must reject the idea [that we should] mindlessly impose business thinking on the public sector,” he said. After all, most companies are only average performers—and we don’t want just average schools.
“It’s not a business idea” that school reformers should be looking for, he explained—“it’s a greatness idea.”
And the greatness of an institution always begins with its people, Collins noted.
When Collins and his research team set out to identify the factors common to great enterprises, they assumed they would find that greatness was led by dynamic leaders driving the change. But that wasn’t always the case.
(Next page: What really makes a great leader)
Instead, what they found was that leaders of great enterprises had “the ability to make exceptional people decisions,” Collins said. Great leaders don’t assume they have all the answers, and they rely on a first-rate network for support.
He said the X factor of great leadership is not the force of one’s personality—“we confuse leadership and personality all the time”—but rather, “humility combined with an utterly ferocious will on behalf of the cause.”
In Collins’ framework, there are five levels of leadership:
Level 1: Highly capable individual
Level 2: Contributing team member
Level 3: Competent manager
Level 4: Effective leader
Level 5: Level 5 executive
The word “humility” might not come to mind when we think of Level 5 leaders such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Collins said. But, while it’s true that these men—and others like them—had big egos and were driven to succeed, all that drive and ambition was channeled outward, into the enterprise, and not inward toward themselves, he explained.
In other words, a Level 5 leader has the humility to ask other people for their opinions—and the will to confront the “brutal facts” and do something about them.
When you’re leading in a diffused power environment, where a lot of people have the power to stop change, “that’s when you need real leadership,” Collins said.
True leadership exists when people follow even if they have the power not to, he added—and that only happens when people can see that a leader isn’t acting out of self-interest, but is interested only in the cause. So, Level 5 leadership is even more important outside of a business environment, Collins asserted.
In Collins’ research for his books, he looked for what he called “matched pairs” of companies that were very similar in makeup, but achieved very different results. He then looked more closely at the inflection point where the results diverged to identify the factors that led to this discrepancy.
Collins told the AASA conference attendees that his team has applied the same “matched pairs” technique to the study of schools, looking at institutions with similar numbers of poor and minority students—some of which were successful and some were not.
In trying to isolate the common factors for success, he found that it wasn’t class size that mattered most, or the length of the school day, or the amount of funding a school received—or even how involved its parents were. What mattered most, Collins said, was having a great leader as principal.
“The beauty is, that’s the seat that you can change,” he told the superintendents. “There is perhaps no more important swing variable than getting all principal seats filled with Level 5 leaders.”
But great institutions don’t just need great leaders, Collins said; to experience sustained success, they also must practice disciplined thought and action.
Disciplined thought is necessary for school leaders to confront what Collins referred to as the “brutal facts” of their situation, while still maintaining “unwavering faith” that they can, indeed, improve. And disciplined action is necessary to keep this improvement going over a long period of time.
(Next page: Key questions to take away)
Sustaining greatness requires what Collins called a “20 mile march” philosophy, by which he meant setting clear, consistent, and self-imposed performance goals—and then sticking to these goals, no matter what.
The term comes from the approach adopted by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen on his trek to reach the South Pole in 1911, in which he and his team set out to cover 20 miles per day, regardless of the weather and other hardships—and they ultimately succeeded. Collins contrasted this approach to that of Robert Falcon Scott and his team, which lacked such a disciplined approach, and tragically, they perished on their return journey.
Great schools not only hold themselves accountable, Collins said; they also pick one good strategy and stick with it long enough to see results, instead of trying different techniques and then abandoning them after only a few years for the “next big thing.”
Effective leaders also know how to distinguish their institution’s core values from its practices, Collins said—preserving the former while changing the latter to stimulate progress. But school leaders might be surprised to learn how much change is really necessary, he said—and how much change is too much.
To illustrate his point, Collins cited the example of Southwest Airlines, which has enjoyed phenomenal success. It’s a little-known fact, he said, that Southwest actually copied the business model of another airline, Pacific Southwest Airlines, which is no longer in business.
As the market evolved and airlines struggled to adapt, one of these companies changed its business plan about 70 percent, Collins said; the other, only 20 percent. As it turns out, it was Southwest—the company that succeeded—that only changed 20 percent of its plan.
“I promise you, if you change 70 percent of your business plan, you will fail,” he asserted, “but if you change zero percent, you will also fail.”
The trick is to understand the right 20 percent to change—and why. And that requires understanding what it is you do well, so you can maintain those practices that are working.
Collins concluded his talk by leaving the superintendents with several key questions to ponder, including…
• Do you want to take your schools from good to great? That is, do you have the Level 5 will to do whatever it takes to make this happen?
• How many keys seats do you have on your bus? How many are filled with Level 5 leaders—and what will it take to make this 100 percent?
• What are the “brutal facts” of your situation?
• What is your “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG)? This is a goal that is clearly definable, yet “profound enough to change the lives of every student in your district” should you succeed.
• What is your 20-mile march, and what do you need to do to hit this goal consistently for the next 25 years?
• What is the right 20 percent to change about your own school district—and why?
Follow Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce on Twitter at @eSN_Dennis.