2 Flexibility Principles for Principals

School leaders demonstrate the leadership competency of supporting their faculty and staff when he or she is able to adapt their leadership style to the context and needs of the current situation. Trusted school leaders are flexible, readily able to adapt everything from school procedural practices to its organizational structure.

Trusted school leaders constantly tweak organizational structures and coordination – flexing the design and flow of supervision to take advantage of the school’s ever-changing administrative needs. Although to those who prefer constancy and avoid change, flexibility may not appear as a healthy leadership practice, it is. All organizations are far more successful when organizational structures are built around specific people’s talents and gifts at any present time – rather than forcing an antiquated system (i.e. square pegs into round holes).

Flexibility Principle #1
No Square Pegs in Round Holes

Often the square pegs problem is seen in the organized local church, where many equate success and ministry health measured by a program perceived to be essential. For example, consider how many churches face this issue within the staffing of a Sunday School program. To clarify, I am supportive of healthy and meaningful Sunday Schools. However, keep in perspective that the Sunday School program is relatively young in church history, introduced in the late 1700s in the USA to address a less than adequate public education system. The Christian church flourished for over 1,700 years before the first Sunday School. The Sunday School is not necessarily an essential part of a healthy, growing church, and is certainly not a biblically mandated program. In fact, if the program is valued over the people in a local church, it can make that local body unhealthy, stunting its growth. Churches marked by vital and growing ministries build programs around members’ gifts, talents, and passions, not the other way around. Sometimes the healthiest thing is to let a ministry activity or program, such as a Sunday School, die until God brings the right person or team to breathe new life into it. The same is true within the school to a certain extent.

Certain programs must be provided for a school to exist. The English Department cannot die, for example. However, the English Department’s program organization and leadership should be defined by the gifts and expertise of those leading the English Department.

Trusted school leaders are sensitive and insightful regarding their team members’ abilities. They may have knowledgeable department heads and/or grade-level leaders, but if those mid-level leaders do not develop and foster professional growth in others and coordinate their department effectively, they need to be released from those positions. When that is not practical, re-structuring the organizational coordination may be necessary. Organizational structures look very different from school to school based on those serving within various levels of leadership. There is no such thing as a perfect organizational structure. Every successful structure is built around individual members of the organization and their unique, specific skill-sets.

Flexibility Principle #2
Adapt Structure to People Rather than People to Structure

One continual challenge within the international school setting is constant personnel turnover, especially among instructional staff members. They serve for a few years then return to their home country or move on to another international experience. Thus, those who do stay long-term tend to rise within the organization, and eventually enter into leadership roles. For example, when I served at Alliance Academy International, in Quito, Ecuador, we had an amazingly gifted teacher, with a vast depth of knowledge, who served as the Chairman of the English Department. He taught at the school for decades and was a beloved member of our community. Without question, he provided the greatest level of insight, guidance, and understanding in his department. However, he lacked organizational and administrative abilities, and the skills to develop a team; ensuring his department moved in a healthy collaborative way. For me, as Academic Director at the time, to take the Department Chair position away from him would have been demoralizing and resulted in a negative impact on the broader school community. Therefore, the solution to this dilemma was found in flexibility – restructuring the organizational flow of the academic departments.

This restructuring was possible as I was also blessed to have a talented and gifted English as a Second Language (ESL) Coordinator, who in her service to the school demonstrated the ability to manage and supervise a team in a healthy collaborative manner. Therefore, we reorganized our High School program by creating a Humanities Department in which the ESL Coordinator served as the Chair. This made sense within our setting given that over 80% of students were considered ESL learners. We placed the ESL, English, and History subdivisions all in the same department, which allowed our new Humanities Chair to utilize her strengths and still benefit from the knowledge and background of our English and History Department Chairs.

Through this restructuring, the beloved teacher remained in the role of English Department Chair – and he was supported well through the gifts and leadership skills of the Humanities Chair. Our organizational structure was modified to best utilize the abilities of those in leadership roles at the time. In the future, this structuring of departments will not necessarily need to remain in place – although, restructuring to place more emphasis on the needs of ESL students was a brilliant move to better meet the current student population’s needs.

Other examples could be provided which identify flexibility. For example, one study from the Information Systems industry, suggests flexibility is strategic to competent operations and leadership, as seen in five “first order constructs: Operational Flexibility; Human Capital Flexibility; Information Flexibility; Supply Chain Flexibility; and Financial Flexibility.” Regardless of the area of leadership, flexibility is an essential responsibility that, when executed well, demonstrates Support, and results in a greater level of trust.

©Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved

Recommended Reading:

  • Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works
  • Hoy and Miskel, Educational Administration
  • Kevin Simmons, John Wilkes, and George Yip, “Performance leadership: managing for flexibility,” Journal of Business Strategy 32, no. 5 (2011): 22-34.
  • Charles S. Englehardt and Peter R. Simmons, “Organizational flexibility for a changing world,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 23, no. 3 (2002): 113-121.
  • Frank R. Tillapaugh, Unleashing the Church: Getting People out of the Fortress and into Ministry (Nashville, TN: Regal Books, 1985).
  • Fariborz Damanpour and Shanthi Gopalakrishnan, “Theories of organizational structure and innovation adoption: the role of environmental change,” Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 15, no. 1 (1998): 1-24.
  • William MacKinnon, Gerald Grant, and David Cray, “Enterprise Information Systems and Strategic Flexibility,” Proceedings of the 41st Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (2008): 402.

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