New View EDU Episode 25: Developing Independent School Leaders for the Future

Available October 11

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As schools and communities have undergone swift and often unpredictable transformations in recent years, leadership has also changed. What worked before may not be what schools need now. Ideas about the characteristics of leadership, who owns the title of “leader,” and how leadership gets distributed are evolving rapidly to keep up with a culture of constant change. What does it mean to be the kind of leader who can adapt and build strong schools now and into the future?

Nicole Furlonge and Donna OremHost Tim Fish talks with Dr. Nicole Furlonge, director of the Klingenstein Center at the Teachers College of Columbia University, and NAIS President Donna Orem about their views on independent school leadership for this moment. How has the need to respond to ongoing crises of well-being and safety, among other issues, changed the leadership model? What’s different for school leaders now, and what skills do they need to continue to lead successfully?

Building off the idea that the purpose of school is to cultivate humanity through building strong, flourishing individuals who can live and relate to one another in community, Nicole and Donna discuss a new view of leadership that’s shared rather than bestowed. While historically, we may have viewed leadership as positional and belonging to only certain individuals who manifested particular characteristics, leadership now can be innate and expressed by many members of a community. Particularly given recent challenges in schools, Donna points out that what communities need is for different people to step up and become leaders at different points in time, drawing on their own personal gifts and abilities for the strength of the whole group.

Nicole also speaks to the need for leaders to develop in their own integrity and continuous learning, so they can broaden their roles. Leaders, she posits, lead not only those directly within their purview, but also those in their surrounding communities. Schools exist in relationship with the broader community; leaders in schools therefore need to be positioned to manage the complexities of that relationship. During COVID, she points out, the very definition of a school community stretched until “community” could mean the whole world. Learning from, and designing learning for, one another beyond individual school campuses became a key part of leading through the pandemic. 

Nicole and Donna also discuss the value of learning to manage polarities and democratize leadership. Calling upon school leaders to move away from homogeneous language like “faculty” in favor of thinking about “faculties,” Nicole makes the point that there are multiple, diverse human beings with individual strengths and capacities within any school community. Harnessing those capacities to allow them to lead in their own ways—as the face of the school to students and parents, as the go-to person for a specific subject area or resource—creates an ecosystem of leadership that benefits everyone. Importantly, it also allows heads to step back from certain areas and divest themselves of sole responsibility, helping to balance their self-care and manage the competing priorities of constant availability to the needs of others, and availability to tend to their own needs to maintain their well-being.

Developing leadership for the future, Donna and Nicole theorize, is not a hierarchical or individual pursuit. Instead, they lean into ideas about developing practices around deep listening, creating stronger relationships, networking with others, and prioritizing both balance and joy.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim, Nicole, and Donna explore in this episode include:

  • What are the characteristics of leadership? How do we define a “leader,” and how has that changed over the years? 
  • How can leaders rely on their own sense of self, core values, and integrity to practice more authentic and relational leadership? 
  • What does a more shared or democratized vision of leadership look like, and what is the power of giving away power? How can that help leaders manage their own well-being?
  • What is the role of listening in leadership? How can we change our understanding of what it means to listen to become more effective in our listening and our leadership?

Episode Highlights

  • “Leadership is not necessarily a specific role. It's not specifically a way of being, it's really being authentic about what your purpose is, having a vision that takes you there, and really bringing other people along with you. And I don't think that leadership is positional in the way that historically we've seen it, because in any type of organization or even any kind of community, different people can be leaders at different times, and we need different people to be leaders at different times.” (6:00)
  • “I think parents, in engaging in education, are trying to find this polarity between protecting their children and preparing their children. And I think it is creating some difficulties today, because obviously as parents, we want to protect our children, but we also have to prepare them for a world that is much different than when we were children. Understanding that polarity is not a choice. It's a both/and. We have to both protect children, and we have to prepare them at the same time.” (14:29)
  • “What I saw COVID do, and what I saw COVID call on leaders to do, is to really think about how is that community bigger than the people that walk through your doors every day? How is it bigger, even, than the alumni who still call you their alma mater, their home, their learning home?” (20:24)
  • “I do think that there was a need…for leaders to think about how they could find in their school communities those spaces that they could rely on, that they could trust to engage in that deep leadership that we were just talking about earlier. That you didn't have to be a solo leader and that other people could lead. So whether it was the teacher that was getting on Zoom and being the face of the school in our students' homes, or, when we come back to schools, the ways in which we recognize that everyone at every level of the school is a leader and touches the lives of students as they learn.” (27:16)
  • “But if they can also then demonstrate and model what it looks like to lead through listening, then that becomes something that the whole community understands they have permission to do. To tune in, to pay attention, to be present, so that we understand both what our strengths are, and I think this is even more important, that we understand where our growth edges are. Because I do think the propensity is to highlight what our strengths are at the expense of being able to grow in different ways.” (33:03)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

About Our Guests

Nicole Brittingham Furlonge is a professor and director of the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. She also serves as Narrative Medicine Core Collaborator at Columbia Medical School and is co-founder of LEARNS Collaborative, a catalyzer for human-centered, equitable change in organizations. A first-generation college student, Nicole earned her Ph.D. and B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and her M.A. from the University of Michigan. Prior to joining Teachers College, Nicole served as director of teaching and learning at the Holderness School (NH). She has taught English and served as English department chair and director of diversity at several independent schools, including St. Andrew's School (DE), The Lawrenceville School (NJ), and Princeton Day School (NJ). Nicole is the author of Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature, published by the University of Iowa Press. Her book demonstrates listening as an essential interpretive and civic act that leads to deeper engagement with others. Nicole has previously served on the boards of People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos and Village Charter School (NJ). Currently, she serves on the advisory boards of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning and Tang Institute. Her research examines the intersections among listening, cognitive neuroscience, equity and belonging, and school leadership. She lives in New Jersey with her spouse, Nigel (also an educator and head of school) and their three children.

Donna Orem was named president of NAIS in November 2016. Orem served as NAIS’s chief operating officer for 11 years before becoming president. In that capacity, she directed the organization’s strategic planning and provided vision and leadership for new initiatives, products, and services. She also oversaw human resources and talent management. Orem joined NAIS in 1998 as the vice president for educational leadership and later became the vice president for strategic initiatives and research. Prior to joining NAIS, she was the vice president for products and services development at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). In her 15 years at CASE, she also served as the vice president for independent schools. In that role, she managed all services for the independent school advancement community, including the annual CASE/NAIS Conference. Earlier in her career, she served as associate director for the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Orem speaks frequently about leadership, governance, innovation, trends in independent education, workforce development, and student health and well-being. She is co-author of the NAIS Trustee Handbook and contributes regularly to Independent School magazine, the Independent Ideas blog, the NAIS Trendbook, and Looking Ahead. She holds a B.A. in English from St. Joseph’s University (PA) and attended graduate school at the University of Maryland School of Journalism.