Personal Reflections on Governance:
The Eleven Keys to Success
The research into School Governance is one of the most widely anticipated topics in the long history of the Effective Practices research project. Schools have been struggling with the questions of how best to organize themselves and manage their affairs so that the young human beings in their care can receive the best possible Waldorf education. “Just give us the organization structure, the policies and the practices of the successful schools so we can put them into place. We want to get on with the real work of educating children,” has been the unspoken plea of many a leader in our school communities. And yet, having completed a detailed study of the ways in which schools with strong and successful governance cultures approach this issue, I was struck by the wide variety of approaches the well governed schools have put into place. There does not seem to be a single approach, structurally or procedurally, that works well in the best schools. There is no fixed, perfect form or approach to governance in our schools. A number of different forms and a variety of policies and procedures are in place in well governed schools, and these differing forms are each effective and appropriate for the schools which employ them. Biography, size, and the stage of a school’s development all play a role in suggesting the best form for a particular school at a given time, yet even here there is no one-approach-fits-all-schools solution.
What then can we take away from the study of Effective Practices in governance? If the answer isn’t in the structure per se, where is it? What do all of these schools have in common that, despite their different structures, policies and personalities, allow each of them to be particularly effective in their approach to school governance? What are the overarching principles that will inform other schools which are earnestly striving to address governance issues in their communities?
Despite the wide variety of approaches, structures, methods and practices we documented, each of the well governed schools seem to me to share eleven key features that contribute to their ability to govern their schools at a highly effective level. These eleven keys to governance success are:
- Conscious Agreement
- Shared Vision
- A Republican Approach
- Cultivation of Leadership
- Separation of Policy and Operations
- Operational Leadership Teams
- A Threefold Perspective
- Active Participation and Destiny Meetings
- Ongoing Review
- Communication and Trust
- The Collaborative Path
Each of the schools with successful governance enjoys a high level of conscious agreement about their governance structure, policies and procedures. In these schools the mechanisms of governance are well understood by the employees of the school and by the broader parent community. Not only is the governance of the school well understood – it also enjoys broad support.
Oftentimes these schools developed their approaches to governance as the result of crisis or breakdown of some sort in the school. These crises force schools to address their governance practices, and to do so in a way that achieves the understanding and support of the employees and the parents at the school. The combination of structure, policies and practices were typically built up over time, as faculty and volunteers worked together to find approaches that best addressed the needs of the school. In no instance did a school report adopting an entire governance structure and implementing it whole. Instead they worked and struggled and built something that was uniquely their own. It is clear that there is something in the struggle to build consensus and support that sharpens the thinking and allows broad levels of understanding and support to develop. These schools have embraced the need to address governance issues and worked them through. Good governance is not something they implemented; it is something they have earned.
Not only do these schools have broad-based conscious agreement to their governance structure, policies and practices, but they also have a clear vision of the school and where it is headed. This vision of the immediate needs and long term dreams for the school, and the understanding of the values that underlie the way in which work is done, are well articulated and talked about regularly in the community. Faculty and parents, paid staff and volunteers, all share a common vision of the school and support the values that inform the way in which the school is managed. These schools have, in the words of Rudolf Steiner, worked “to acquire the spirit that will unite the school.” This works “engenders in us our sprit of unity.”
A Republican Approach
All of the schools in our study of effective governance employed a republican approach to their operations. A republic is a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of its citizens, and that power is exercised by representatives chosen by the citizens. Schools with successful approaches to governance use decision making processes such as various forms of consensus to ensure that power rests in the general bodies of the school rather than in the hands of a headmaster, director or single administrator. Large bodies such as the Board of Trustees and the College of Teachers make key policy decisions for the school, and these bodies choose representatives to do the operational work on their behalf.
This approach, often called republican academies, is the basis on which the committee life of a well governed Waldorf school is based. Large groups consciously delegate authority and responsibility to individuals and to groups to do work on their behalf. These delegations may take the form of a job description when authority is vested in a single individual or in the form of a committee or task group mandate when the delegation is given to a group of individuals. In this way large governing bodies are able to retain authority in the key areas of decision making (policy setting) while delegating operating issues to volunteers and staff. This ensures that the proper amount of time and attention can be paid by individuals entrusted to deal with them without bogging down large governing bodies with the need to deal with operating minutiae.
Environments that Cultivate Leadership
Schools with effective governance do more than tolerate their leaders – they empower their leaders, honor their willingness to serve as leaders, and consciously work to develop more future leaders for the school community. The presence of a strong shared vision and clear delegations of authority in the form of written mandates and job descriptions allow leaders to step forward in many areas of the school’s operation. The faculty, Board and parents can be comfortable in allowing leaders in various areas to act, knowing that the depth of the shared vision and the clarity of written delegations will inform the well intentioned individuals the school has selected to do work on its behalf. The personal freedom of the various leaders in the school is maximized, meaning that people are free to be as creative as possible in the ways they choose to carry out their responsibilities. Structures that allow many people the opportunity to practice leadership mean that the school will be well served when new leaders are asked to step forward to fill a void – it will have a strong stable of experienced leaders from which to choose should the need arise. And, perhaps most importantly, because individuals and small groups have been entrusted to do work on behalf of the larger group, the time available for the most important work – educational deepening and pedagogical study – is maximized.
Separation of Policy Setting from Operations
The successfully governed schools are increasingly moving toward a state where the Board and the College of Teachers are the primary policy setting arms of the school. Operational implementation of the policies created by the Board of Trustees and the College of Teachers is delegated to its key administrative personnel (the pedagogical chair, the business manager and the community development chair) and to their respective committees. The College of Teachers sets educational policy out of their shared study of the growing child, and then directs the key administrative personnel of the school to work cooperatively to see that these policies are implemented. Because the College is able to successfully entrust the operational implementation of its policies to others significant time is freed in the College meetings to allow further study. The days of the College attempting to coordinate the detailed implementation of all of its policies are ending, allowing the College to become the etheric heart that is so necessary to support the development of the young people in the school’s care.
Similarly, the Board of Trustees is increasingly avoiding the temptation to dip into financial and development operations. The successful Board keeps its vision firmly on the horizon and its ear cocked to catch the thoughts of the moral owners of the school. Boards are learning to avoid the trap of double delegation that has so plagued them in the past. Double delegation occurs when a Board names a business manager, but then also names a Board treasurer with a remarkably similar job description and unclear separation of duties. It can also occur when a community development director is hired and a Board development committee is also created. Increasingly Boards keep their focus on the creation of policy and the long term strategy for the school, while the operational aspects of those policies are handled outside the trustee circle.
While a number of Waldorf schools have been experimenting recently with the use of an executive director, it is interesting to note that not one school using this approach was recommended for inclusion in our study of schools with strong governance. While it may be that with increased experience schools will find a way to make the single headmaster approach work, Robert Greenleaf suggests that this will not be the case. Known for his work in the area of Servant Leadership, Greenleaf writes about the perils of a single chief in his booklet, “The Institution as Servant”. His concerns about the concept of a single chief include:
- “To be a lone chief … is abnormal and corrupting. None of us is perfect and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues. When a person is moved atop a pyramid he or she no longer has colleagues, only subordinates. The frankest and bravest of subordinates does not talk with one’s boss as one talks with colleagues.” Communication is instead warped and filtered.
- “A self-protective image of omniscience often evolves from these warped and filtered communications. This in time defeats any leader by distorting one’s judgment.”
- “The idea of one-person-in-control enjoys widespread support because of the decisiveness it affords when decisiveness is needed. Yet a close observation of top persons everywhere reveals the burden of indecisiveness to be much greater that the benefit of decisiveness. The difference is that decisiveness is usually conspicuous and sometimes heroic, whereas indecisiveness is often subtle, hard to detect, and sometimes tragic. When one person is chief the multiple liabilities to the institution resulting from indecisive moments much overweighs the assets of the few cases where the chief is conspicuously decisive.”
- “Everywhere there is much complaining about too few leaders. We have too few because most institutions are structured so that only a few – only one at a time – can emerge.”
- “The typical chief … is grossly overburdened. The job destroys too many of them … But for the institution there is also damage. For in too many cases the demands of the office destroy the person’s creativity long before they leave office.”
- “When there is a single chief there is a major interruption when that person leaves.”
- “Being in the top position prevents leadership by persuasion because the single chief holds too much power. The chief often cannot say persuasively what one would like to say because it will be taken as an order.”
- “The prevalence of the lone chief places a burden on the whole society because it gives control priority over leadership.”
Perhaps our successfully governed schools have intuited many of Greenleaf’s concerns. For whatever reason, these schools are increasingly moving to the use of a leadership team to manage the day to day operational matters of the school. These leadership teams manage the daily operations of the school in a collective manner, and report on their work in a regular way to those they serve.
A Three Fold Perspective
In the past schools employed organizational structures which were built on polarity, and this scheme seemed to bring out oppositional forces in a predictable and negative way. The Board and College were seen as the two primary organs of the school. The College was the pedagogical/cultural arm, and handled both policy setting and operations in that realm. The Board was the realm of “everything else”, and focused on policy and administration in the administrative and development realm. The Board and College in these schools might enjoy good relations for extended periods of time, but when challenges arose they frequently engaged in a game of power tug of war. While these challenges are always overcome in the end, the drain on the etheric forces of all those caught up in the struggle far outweighed the benefits from the eventual solution to the problem.
Schools now seem to be moving in an operational direction that is more explicitly threefold in nature, leaving the realm of opposition and polarity for one that enjoys the stability inherent in a three-legged stool. The Board and College have limited their focus to policy setting and long term strategy, leaving the operations to three carefully selected leaders. These leaders are the pedagogical chair, the administrative chair, and the community development chair. Together they form a management circle or leadership team that can ensure that policies established by the Board and College are put into effect in a way that meets the sometimes competing needs of these three realms and recognizes that the spirit of the school can only succeed when all three aspects of its being operate in harmony.
Active Participation and Destiny Meetings
The well-formed and active committee structure in the strongly governed schools has several benefits. One of those benefits just mentioned is that it allows many opportunities for people to practice the exercise of leadership in roles both large and small. But another, more subtle effect of the committee life is that it allows many people to develop a personal and direct experience of the school. Development officers all know the same secret – the fastest way to make someone feel like an owner of the school is to allow him an opportunity to be the servant of the school. It is interesting how quickly a parent’s speech can be transformed just by allowing him an ongoing responsibility for some aspect of school life. Often it only takes a few weeks of meetings before the phrase “the school” is replaced with “our school” or “my school”.
Not only does active participation create a sense of ownership and responsibility, it also sharpens thinking and moves conversations out of the philosophical (who cares?) realm into the immediate and practical (we do!) realm. This sharpened thinking, especially when coupled with the use of consensus decision making, requires people to bump into each other, find areas of agreement and, on occasion, to knock the rough edges off of each other. Consensus decision making adds another layer to this awakening process. While hierarchy allows one individual to suppress the other, consensus decision making requires true meetings between people and forces them to hear and consider what the others in the group may be considering. While consensus decision making is not always the most expeditious approach, it certainly has the advantage of being the most effective in the long run, for the school and the individuals involved.
It is these opportunities for us to truly meet each other that led Rudolf Steiner to demand non-hierarchical republican structures and consensus based decision making for our Waldorf schools. Only in this way can we achieve the shared understanding of the spirit that will unite the school that is essential if we are to self-administer our schools without a single headmaster or intrusive government regulation.
The schools with strong governance are also well disciplined when it comes to reviewing their work. They have processes in place for ongoing review of events, activities, decisions and mandates. Evaluations take place routinely at year end, but they also take place in an ongoing way throughout the year. In this way the school experiences ongoing opportunities for improvement, and continuously strengthens its performance.
Communication and Trust
A reflection of this interest in continuous improvement is the practice of following up immediately whenever unhappiness or uneasiness is sensed. Schools with good governance ask promptly, “What is concerning you? How can it be better? What else is needed?” Their ability to ask the Parsifal question (“Brother, what ails thee?”) ensures that issues are addressed early on, long before they have the ability to poison relationships and derail important activity.
The social life and trust that is built up among community members through committee life pays great dividends here. Those who are feeling concern know that they can express their perceptions candidly, and rest assured that the human connections built up over time will help them weather the discomfort of temporary disagreements about what is best for the school and its students. Conversely, those who have been delegated responsibility in one area or another at the school understand that they have a responsibility to share with others information on the decisions they are making and the thinking that informed those decisions. This trust and two-way communication are critical factors in the school’s ability to use republican academies effectively.
The Collaborative Path
The schools with successful governance have done more than just create well documented administrative models. They have built into their very structure the collaborative approach that Steiner insisted was essential in building a unified center. Collaboration is emphasized everywhere. It is seen in the sharing of policy setting responsibilities between the Board and the College, and emphasized in the cooperative management structure of the leadership team. The active and extensive committee structure in the school again echoes the collaborative theme.
These successful schools have created structures that are workable and sustainable, and that permit meaningful amounts of time to be dedicated to group study and conversation. Out of this group study comes a shared imagination that gives direction and context to each small group, committee and individual at work for the school. It is as if the members of the school community are engaged in a large-scale paint by numbers project, each one very capable of performing his or her #1 or #2 task very well, and each comfortable in the knowledge that the shared imagination developed through their study and conversation will guide each part of the school in a coordinated effort without the control and interference of a hands-on direct superior or manager.
Good Governance: Wide Spread Happiness
Schools with good governance are recognizable by the broad level of happiness that exists with the form of its governance and with the individuals serving in various leadership roles. If the leaders of the school are happy but there is wide spread dissatisfaction in the faculty and parent community, the governance of the school is not strong and needs attention. Similarly, if the parents and faculty are happy with the school’s governance but the small group of individuals serving in leadership positions feels overburdened and unappreciated then governance problems still exist. In the end, broad happiness and satisfaction is the hallmark of a school with truly effective approaches to governance in its structure, policies and procedures.
Lynn is currently the Administrator of the Highland Hall Waldorf School in Los Angeles. She has been a school consultant, member of the AWSNA board and school administrator for many years.
This essay by Lynn Kern was done as a part of the AWSNA Effective Practices Governance Module, part of the Effective Practices Project. People working in AWSNA affiliated schools may find the module on the AWSNA website WhyWaldorfWorks under the password protected school resources section. Check with your school administrator for the password.