CEOs and School Leaders: The Good Ones are More Alike than Different

CEOs and School Leaders:

The Good Ones are More Alike than Different

 The Dim Bulb

The Occasional Musings of an Educator

by Michael Keany

The brain is capable of performing 10 quadrillion (that’s 10 to the 16th) “calculations,” or synaptic events, per second using only about 15 watts of power. At this rate, a computer as powerful as the human brain would require 1 gigawatt of power. Maybe a dim bulb isn't really as dim as it seems.

The photo above is the Livermore Centennial bulb, the world's longest burning electric bulb. 

Number 8

May 23, 2011


A recent article by Adam Bryant in the NY Times, “Distilling the Wisdom of C.E.O.’s” got me thinking about the common leadership skills shared by educational leaders and successful CEOs.  Adam's new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (April 17, 2011) is featured on SL 2.0  The book, published recently by Times Books, analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders.

His list of five characteristics shared by the most successful CEOs presents some lessons for us who play a role in educational leadership, whether we are administrators or teacher leaders.

Passionate Curiosity

Good leaders are constantly curious about the world and keenly curious about how education works.  They are always asking questions such as:

“Why do we do it that way?”

“Isn’t there a better way?”

“How does it work in another district? Another state?  Another country?”

They want to delve into a system to see how the parts work together.  How would an adjustment here bring about the change I want to see and know is good?  What might be the unintended consequences?

They wonder how others think, and feel.  They think about the future.  

Battle-Hardened Confidence

Often, the best leaders are the ones who have learned some hard lessons and have been wounded along the way.  They have seen a problem, an injustice, or failing and have jumped in to make the world a better place.  These leaders are not ones to sit on the sidelines, carp, or play Monday morning quarterback.  However, the world of school politics often reacts violently to change.  Good school leaders learn from reading, studying, discussing but, in a very real sense, they learn from the bruises they have gotten along the way.  They are not reckless by any means and they tend not to make the same mistake twice but they have not escaped without scars.

The important point here is that good leaders, as Ackerman says in his book, The Wounded Leader, think about the lessons learned, deal with their hurt and move on, unbowed to the next challenge.

Team Smarts

Gone are the days when a school leader could simply cause change by the shear act of will.  The educational system is too complex.  All aspects of the system must see the change.  This implies a sense of team unity and that is very much the responsibility of the leader.  The leader provides that sense of coherence that helps everyone make sense of all the complexities that vie for attention.  Most of all, the leader creates a sense that when success is achieved, we did it.  Often the leader gives much credit to others and takes little for herself or himself.

A Simple Mind-Set

Keep the message simple.  If the mission cannot be stated in such a way that everyone understands, then people invent their own definition of success.  No school or organization can be successful with people pulling in different directions.  I always thought a good test of a mission is to tell it to the students.  If they understand and agree to it, you’re using the right language.  Simple language can be powerful.  It negates ambiguity and brings about team effort.


When I was in 4th grade, Fess Parker, as Davy Crockett, was my hero.  I knew the thousand stanzas of “The Legend of Davy Crockett” by heart and sang them to and from PS 33.  “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee ...”  Yes, you remember it also!  To this day, Crockett’s words that still reside deep in my brain are “If you’re right, then go ahead.”  A simple, straightforward mantra that has escaped many leaders.  It has been replaced by, “How will the community think about this?” or “I’m not going to be the first one to stick my neck out.” or “Let’s not get ourselves in hot water.”  Fearlessness is not foolhardiness.  Fearlessness is doing what’s right simply because it’s right.

This is a tough time for educational leaders.  Good people are squarely in the cross hairs of opportunistic politicians.  Good educators have somewhat, strangely, and obscenely become the bad guys.  Perhaps, though, tough times produce great leaders.  We have seen that in our nation’s history.  Maybe the great educational leaders of the future are being formed in the crucible of today’s difficulties.  Let’s hope so.

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