FOCUS (Part 1): Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

FOCUS (Part 1): Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
by Dr. Toby A. Travis

The trusted school leader exemplifies Character when he or she “establishes clear goals and keeps those goals in the forefront of the school’s attention.”[1] A school’s core mission and priorities must be infused into its organizational structure.

Any organization’s structure either creates a foundation for growth, development, and success or stifles creativity, advancement, and initiative.[2] The organizational structure of a trusted school focuses on supporting the school’s mission and keeping it central to every decision made and every position held. Every role, from Board member to custodian, should pursue the same goals and outcomes; working together to see those goals realized. When this happens consistently across all levels, the perceived Character of the organization and its’ leaders is elevated.[3]

Trusted school leaders measure all the functions and activities of the organizational structure in relationship to fulfilling the school’s top priorities. Every member of the schools’ organization knows what those top priorities are and individually measures all they do in relationship to those goals. I recall Dr. David A. Wells, former Director of Alliance Academy International, repeatedly stressing that every member of the faculty and staff “keep the main thing, the main thing.” His directive is supported by many organizational and school leadership experts. In Learning From the Best: Growing Greatness in the Christian School, Gene Frost entitles a chapter, “The Centrality of Mission to the Christian School,” where he applies Jim Collins’ famous hedgehog concept by stating the following:

The lesson is that one does not need to be an expert at everything to succeed. One needs only be the best at something… The Christian schools’ passion must be centered on its mission. Any school can be passionate about great sports teams, state-of-the-art facilities, and improved SAT scores. For the Christian school, however, assets such as these, along with other programs that might be identified in the “Being the Best” category, are always dependent on the right people and must be subservient to the mission. [4]

One of the fundamental values, and most important indicators marking trusted leadership and Character, is the effective management of people, programs, and resources to meet educational and other core objectives. That effective management exists in the leader’s ability to keep the school’s mission as the basis for all organizational and operational decisions. The mission statement serves as a measuring rod to ensure the school remains focused on its’ core objectives – even when it may be more expedient to do otherwise. It is very easy for schools to embrace a wide variety of good activities and programs. However, no matter how good these may be – if not clearly supporting the school’s core mission and values, then they are a distraction to the pursuit of the school being great.

Ensuring a constant focus on the essential mission, and that decisions are processed through the school’s values, is a primary practice that instills trust; knowing that the school’s leader is committed to “keeping the main thing, the main thing.” Disciplined focus on the school’s mission and values communicates a sense of Clarity of purpose, demonstrates Character, and builds unity among the stakeholders – rallying the troops, as it where, around a shared purpose.[5]

However, what Frost points out above regarding Christian school leadership theory, and the concepts underpinning effectiveness in a school, are no different from effective leadership theory in all organizations.

Collins has identified that leaders who take organizations from being good to being great are focused and trusted – individuals of Character. His research also shows that the leader who with servant-leader qualities, which he labels as Level 5 Leaders, are at the pinnacle of organizational leadership; and those Level 5 Leaders all demonstrate characteristics that emulate trust. These leaders are gentle and yet resolved. They are people-focused and yet mission-centered. Collins notes that, “Level 5 leadership is not about being ‘soft’ or ‘nice’ or purely ‘inclusive’ or ‘consensus-building.’ The whole point of Level 5 is to make sure the right decisions happen – no matter how difficult or painful – for the long-term greatness of the institution and the achievement of its mission, independent of consensus or popularity.”[6] In other words, these leaders consistently demonstrate high levels of Character. Collins’ findings are not unique. Many have discovered the concepts of trusted leadership theory serve as the foundation for successful organizational management, and are research-based best practices employed by the best of leaders. (To be continued…)

©2017 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

[1] Marzano et. al., 707, Kindle.

[2] Richard W. Scott, “Organizational Structure,” Annual Review of Sociology 1, no. 1 (1975): 1-20.

[3] Mark R. Kramer, “Creating Shared Value,” Harvard Business Review 89, (February 2011): 62-77.

[4] Frost, Learning From the Best, 523; 540-543, Kindle.

[5] William C. Rivenbark, and Willow S. Jacobson, “Three Principles of Competency-Based Learning: Mission, Mission, Mission,” Journal of Public Affairs Education 20, no. 2 (2014): 181-192.

[6] Jim Collins, Good To Great And The Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 171-174, Kindle.

[7]  Michael J. Anthony, Introducing Christian Education: Foundations for the Twenty-first Century (Aba, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001), 255-257, Kindle.

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