Is boss by Margie Carter Different views, different actions

Reprinted with permission from Exchange magazine.
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Is boss a four-letter word?
byMargie Carter
Ships, airplanes, platoons, and teams
have captains; choirs and orchestras have
conductors; governments have mayors,
prime ministers, and presidents. Who do
early childhood centers have to keep
things on track, assure people are learning their parts, working in harmony, and
strengthening democratic ideals? The
McCormick Center for Early Childhood
Leadership has coined the phrase,
“Directors are the key to quality.” Since
research shows that quality in most programs is mediocre at best, I can’t help but
wonder: Where have we put our keys?
I’ve been musing on how directors perceive their roles and choose their leadership style, particularly when changes are
needed in their centers. In communitybased ECE programs I typically see a
preference for the idea of director as a
facilitator, rather than a supervisor, and
for shared leadership rather than a ship’s
captain. Is this because our profession is
predominantly female, inherently
focused on nurturing growth and philosophically opposed to authoritarian pracMargie Carter is coauthor of The Visionary
Director: A Handbook for Dreaming, Organizing, and Scheming in Your Center. She
extends gratitude to all ECE directors who
keep on keeping on, in spite of formidable
challenges. To learn more about the “From
Administrator to Innovator” Institutes and Study Tours she and
Harvest Resources Associates offer, visit
tices? More importantly, is this approach
working well? Elsewhere, middle managers in ECE programs run by school districts, Head Start, or large multi-site organizations are obliged to work in a hierarchical fashion. I’ve noticed that some
appreciate this while others complain
about the chain of command. In these settings and others, I’ve witnessed directors
give up their power and abdicate leadership. Is this because of the dilemmas of
the middle management position, or are
they unaware of the impact of a leadership vacuum? When I’m in programs
where things are unraveling, I want to
shout, “Who’s in charge here?”
The word boss is typically avoided
when ECE directors describe their
work. Obviously no one wants to be
bossy, but why is this word shunned?
Curiosity took me to an online
thesaurus and I discovered that while
boss as a noun or verb is associated
with being in charge and running
things, boss as an adjective is defined
as being great, with informal
synonyms like awesome, champion,
excellent, wonderful, and first rate.
I suspect many early childhood
directors would love to be viewed
as boss in that sense.
Different views, different actions
If one can change the thinking and
environment of school leaders, the
system will follow.
Michael Fullan (2003)
Within the same week I had interesting
conversations with two directors, each
with similar philosophies of encouraging respect for and empowerment of
children and teachers, but constructing
very different approaches to taking the
reins as a director. One was hired to
direct a well-regarded center with a
long history of informality and casualness toward basic regulations (such as
having parents sign kids in and out).
She felt a need to quickly address these
kinds of things which ruffled the feathers of both teachers and parents. “I was
firm, yet respectful of these concerns,
but they clearly viewed boss as a fourletter word.”
The other director approached her role
as a collaborator and coach and didn’t
take charge even when it was clear that
corrective action was needed. Perhaps
she saw boss as a four-letter word also.
Whatever the case, morale at her center
continued to plummet, especially
among the staff with better teaching
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What kind of thinking do boss (as in awesome) directors have? Directors may be
wonderful, hardworking people, but how
they think and the environment they
create either contributes to or undermines
their boss accomplishments in improving
their programs. While philosophically
aligned with each director described
above, I sense in their stories an organizational culture of confusion about who is
responsible (accountable) for what and to
whom. Sometimes this confusion originates in misunderstandings about ways in
which autonomy or empowerment can
strengthen or erode an organization’s
functioning. Maybe it’s an absence of clear
values, systems, or protocols. You may be
able to point to some management accomplishments, but there is no real leadership
in building an intentional culture and
guiding the organization’s progress.
n Management is about designing
systems to operate efficiently with
your human and financial resources,
so that you sustain the organization
and remain in compliance with
Much has been written about the distinction between management and leadership;
both are needed in early childhood programs, large or small:
Director as coach
n Leadership, on the other hand,
involves setting direction and galvanizing everyone’s attention and intention
toward actions around a unified vision.
To be successful, directors must ensure
that neither the managing nor leading
role is neglected. Boss directors take
responsibility for not only managing
compliance with regulations and fiscal
sustainability, but leading the organization through any transitions required to
align core values with practices that
bring them to life.
In our book The Visionary Director (Carter
& Curtis, 2010), Deb Curtis and I empha-
size the importance of a center leader’s
mentoring and coaching responsibilities.
This requires a focus on who the teachers
are as learners, beyond getting them to
meet standards. Just giving them autonomy won’t make them intentional
teachers. In fact, Michael Fullan (2003)
“Providing professional autonomy to
groups of teachers who don’t have
the commitment and wherewithal to
conduct their work with disciplined
knowledge inquiry and moral purpose will do no more than squander
Boss directors understand that teachers
need coaching and time to examine their
work with colleagues and ‘critical
friends.’ Studying the practices of the
schools of Reggio Emilia and Aotearoa/
New Zealand, I have come to believe that
early childhood centers must have strong
pedagogical leadership that goes beyond
technical assistance and keeps the organi-
To be successful, directors must
ensure that neither the managing nor leading role is neglected.
Boss directors take responsibility
for not only managing compliance with regulations and fiscal
sustainability, but leading the
organization through any transitions required to align core
values with practices that bring
them to life.
zation focused on the teaching and learning process.
Key activities of boss leaders
Our American K-12 public schools have
been trying to manage an improvement
process for years. What they’ve learned
from successes and failures could be
instructive for us. I’d like to see some of
our early childhood conferences featuring
some of their boss leaders who could be
briefed on our context, make their presentations relevant. Researching literature on
transforming schools, I’ve discovered
numerous approaches to school leadership
described. If you want to dive into this
study, two valuable resources include
Essentials of School Leadership (Davis, 2005),
and The Moral Imperative of School Leadership
(Fullan, 2003). Knowing that your time
may be limited for such study, I will try to
distill some of the salient points here, particularly the parts that sing out to our early
childhood leadership dilemmas.
Though researchers and authors tease out
distinctions between different leadership
approaches and each is worth considering,
I’m struck by some consistent themes in
the literature. Leaders successful in
improving schools engage in three
kinds of activities:
1. Setting direction with a clear sense of
2. Developing people in the context of a
learning community
3. Realigning the organizational culture,
structure, and systems with adherence
to core values.
Leading each of these activities must
have specific strategies and work plans
with evaluation markers attached to
Somewhere in this literature on transforming schools I read the phrase, “Leading is learning,” which is boss (awesome)
in several ways. Directors don’t have to
have it all figured out before launching
the change process. They just have to be
very thoughtful and engaged. Linda
Lambert’s (Davis, 2005) formulation of
applying constructivist learning theory to
leadership actions explains how successful school transformation is a collaborative, co-constructed leadership process.
Lambert offers three stages for designated leaders to consider as they pave
the road for changes:
1. A directive or central leadership role is
required for the initial period when an
organization is establishing a collaborative culture, structure, and processes
that haven’t existed before.
2. During the transitional stage, the designated leader releases more control as
teachers gain skill and experiences to
emerge in their leadership roles, with
continued support and coaching.
3. At the high capacity point, the designated leader assumes more of a
facilitative and co-participant role.
I think these stages explain Fullan’s position above about the dangers of dispers-
The literature heralds Professional Learning Communities
(also called Communities of
Practice) as the most effective
structures for developing ourselves as collaborative learners to
translate big ideas into specific
ing leadership and relying on teacher
autonomy before the time is right. It’s not
just about having the right people, but
having a clear process for developing a
collaborative culture that motivates professional engagement and an eagerness to
be part of leading organizational change.
When you develop a learning organization, you have a culture and structures in
place to foster the ongoing learning process. This is not only essential for teachers, but administrators and support staff
as well. The literature heralds Professional Learning Communities (also called
Communities of Practice) as the most
effective structures for developing ourselves as collaborative learners to translate big ideas into specific practices.
Key components of
learning organizations
Thomas Leonard (1998), often referred to
as the father of personal coaching, succinctly says, “People need, and benefit
greatly, from direction.” Whether you call
them boss, manager, coach, or critical
friend, effective leaders provide direction
that shapes an early childhood organizational culture with the following components:
• High standards and strong accountability in keeping with your core
According to Eric Kurjan, (2008),
president of Six Disciplines Northwest
“Accountability can be understood better when you view your organization
as a ‘system’ of individuals, linked by
mutuality and trust, taking personal
and group responsibility to achieve
something meaningful — the mission,
vision, and strategic position of your
organization. When it’s all said and
done, a workable definition of accountability might include the following
elements: Taking responsibility for
your own behavior; doing what’s right
consistently; demonstrating personal
integrity; and actively participating in
activities and interactions that support
the strategy of your organization.”
• Commitment to ongoing learning and
leadership development
Alma Harris and Linda Lambert (2003)
“The key element in the development
of leadership is the notion of learning
together, and the construction of meaning and knowledge collectively and
collaboratively. Such leadership allows
opportunities to surface and it mediates perceptions, values, beliefs, information, and assumptions through
continuous conversations. “
• Clear communications and open
Kerry Patterson and co-authors (2002)
describe the power of dialogue that
happens when people have respectful
conversations about things that are
eating away at them and the ability of
their organization to work cohesively:
“High performance companies result
more from employees mastering crucial conversations than from performance-management systems. . . . At the
core of every successful conversation
lies the free flow of relevant information. Successful dialogue results when
everyone feels safe enough to ‘add
their meaning to the shared pool’ of
• Systems, structures, and protocols
aligned with your core values and
For example, if your core values
include acting with intention and
integrity when faced with standards
and outcomes, Harvest Resources
Associates Wendy Cividanes and
Debbie Lebo (2010) insist,
“Teachers have the right to the time,
support, structures, and tools that culti-
vate their ability to reflect on the ways
that new standards can be integrated
into their existing teaching practice.
Reflective teaching and learning is not
easy work; it takes an investment of
time, resources, discipline, focus, and
relationships. . . . Members may need
support in centering their discussion
and remaining focused on the topic at
hand. This may be particularly true for
early childhood teachers whose voices,
skills, and knowledge have too often
been overlooked in our field. Consequently, many teachers have had little
practice participating in a deeply
reflective exchange of ideas. Use of a
protocol can help communities of
practice overcome this obstacle.”
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Beyond good intentions
I see so many well-meaning early childhood directors who are exhausted to
the bone, but can’t get beyond crisis
management or mediocre quality for
children. Clearly, it isn’t enough to have
an inspiring vision or good intentions.
Effective leaders steadily acquire skills
and a mature staff eager to build a learning organization. They continually evaluate and put systems in place to manage
each facet of the organization, including
the growth of an intellectually vibrant
and respectful program culture. With
these keys in hand, a boss is not a fourletter word, but truly awesome!
Carter, M., & Curtis, D. (2010). The visionary director (2nd edition). St. Paul: Redleaf
Cividanes, W., & Lebo, D. (2010, November/December). Cultivating a reflective
disposition for teaching and learning.
Exchange, 196, 48-50.
Davis, B. (Ed.). (2005). Essentials of school
leadership, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Paul Chapman & Corwin Press/Sage
Concerned about Sunscreen Safety?
Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of
school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Corwin Press.
Harris, A., & Lambert, L. (2003). Building leadership capacity for school improvement. Philadelphia: Open University
Kurjan, E. (2008, October 17). Building
accountability into your organization.
Toledo Free Press.
Lambert, L. (2005). Constructivist Leadership. In B. Davies, (Ed.), Essentials of
school leadership (2nd edition). Thousand
Oaks, CA: Paul Chapman & Corwin
Leonard, T. (1998). The portable coach.
New York: Scribner.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R.,
& Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high.
New York: McGraw Hill.