By: Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D
As a program officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation, I am responsible for the foundation’s day school leadership grants portfolio. I am therefore constantly surveying the field and its literature for ways to help frame our approach to day school leadership development and to be of service to our grantees. I am in an ongoing conversation about how to best prepare leaders to confront the many challenges, pressures, and impediments to successfully stewarding Jewish-mission-driven day schools. Occasionally, I come across a ground breaking approach that I believe should be part of every leader’s (school or non-profit) training and personal professional repertoire of knowledge and skills. Such is Cage-Busting Leadership by Frederick M Hess (Harvard University Press, 2013). To my mind, it is a must read for school leaders and heads of Jewish non-profit agencies alike.
Why? In his book, Hess makes an interesting distinction: “Cage-dwellers,” his posits, “spend most of their energy stamping out fires or getting permission to lead, and most of their time wooing recalcitrant staff, remediating ineffective team members, or begging for resources. Cage-busters wake up every morning focused on identifying the challenges, dreaming up solutions, and blasting their way forward. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a helluva lot more fun to me.” Though his book is aimed at superintendents, principals, and leaders of mainly public schools, the range of suggestions and ideas for breaking out of our leadership cages can have enormous impact on the work we do in Jewish education and in Jewish philanthropy. Many of the suggestions and ideas that he makes for thinking out-of-the-box and busting out of the cage for public school leaders are easily translatable into our educational, non-profit, and philanthropic worlds.
Hess roundly criticizes much of the literature on leadership because it fails to take into account the realities of everyday work that include collective-bargaining agreements, financial realities, and contractual complications that impede the efforts of leaders to make change. The leadership literatures avoid tough subjects like layoffs, due process, labor negotiations, regulations and ineptitude. “It quickly becomes clear that these (leadership literature) are suffused with the five C’s of the leadership cannon- collaboration, consensus, capacity, coaching and culture- while cage busting concerns are largely ignored.” The author calls upon us to see things differently, to look with beginner’s eyes and ask questions about why things are the way they are and how we can rethink the structure of our schools and institutions and the way we spend money and allocate personnel resources.
Hess suggests a structured approach to problem-solving which includes:
Is X important?
If so, how well should we be doing when it comes to X?
How well are we doing with X?
If we’re not doing as well as we should, how can we improve X?
What’s stopping us from improving X?
And finally: How do we remove, blast through, or tunnel under the bars stopping us from improving X?
Hess offers a plethora of cage-busting solutions that administrators whom he interviewed all over the country have succeeded in implementing to move their institutions forward despite the enormous pressures and impediments that stand in their way. I highly recommend this book to any head of school or non-profit institution; it should be read cover to cover as soon as possible!
Dr. Steven M. Brown is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation
AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.
Posted by: StevenBrown
July 8, 2013
By: Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D