One of the unique aspects of leading a small school is that, due to limited resources (both monetary and human), the administration is typically very lean. In other words, there are not very many people to get all of the work done. While the same things need to be accomplished in a small school as in a large school (admissions, development, business management, curriculum oversight, faculty management, student management, building management, etc.), there are fewer people to accomplish the work. And ultimately, it is the Head's responsibility to make sure everything gets done.
When I was the Head of a small school, I used to joke that in another school, a task might be given to the assistant to the Associate Admissions Director. At times, I wore all three of those hats- Admissions Director, Associate Director, and Assistant! While this can certainly be seen as a challenge, I also see this as a benefit. As Head of School, I learned about and was aware of every aspect of our school. When we finally were able to get a part-time Admissions Director, I worked closely with that person and still was able to be involved with every step in the process.
However, being responsible for so many aspects of a small school’s operations does create a significant challenge for small school leaders- time and focus management. Most of the Heads of small schools that I know say that there just isn’t enough time to accomplish all that needs to be done. Many Heads express frustration over having to spend so much time “in the weeds” and lament that because they need to focus on budgeting, student behavior management, fundraising, plunging toilets, etc. they have little time for strategic thinking. Others said they don't even know where to start with addressing the bigger picture and more visionary thinking. While it is true that Heads of small schools need to spend more of their time responding to operational needs, they serve their schools best when they can engage in leadership activities such as strategic thinking and setting and working towards a vision.
Operational issues related to staff, students, building, money, etc. are very visible, and it is easy for Heads to become solely focused on them, to the exclusion of the larger strategic issues that need their attention. While the Head may be particularly good at managing the daily operations, they are the only one who is uniquely informed and qualified to perform the leadership duties needed by schools. I propose that there are six areas that Heads of School need to address and sustain regularly: 1) themselves and their leadership, 2) overall fiscal and programmatic stability, 3) managing the Board, 4) thinking strategically about the operations of the school, 5) setting the vision and managing the “brand” of the school, and 6) managing the culture and climate of all constituent groups. There is no one else who can influence each of these areas to the extent that a Head of School can. And if any one of these areas has problems, flounders, or otherwise runs amok, it can have a significant negative impact on the rest of the school’s functioning.
None of this is to say that Heads of small schools shouldn’t be closely involved in the day to day operations of their school; given the small administration that is characteristic of a small school, they need to be involved. However, Heads of small schools need to recognize that they will have the greatest influence over the long run if they stay "above the operations line" and lead, rather than do.
The graphic below depicts the “above the line” and “below the line” focuses. I’ve also developed a summer reflection form- both a short, free Worksheet and a longer, more comprehensive Workbook version to help Heads of small schools consider their performance and goals in each of these areas.
Writes about small school leadership and governance