Wondering # 2

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This iteration of “Wondering” begins with a simple statement of gratitude which many of us share for the rare privilege of leading a boarding school. We are blessed with the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people in the context of institutions which are uniquely constructed to magnify our influence (for better or worse). Our life is a calling not a mere job.

We are also “lucky,” I suppose, to be acting as “CEOs” in a time of extraordinarily high compensation in comparison with our predecessors. To quote from the newsletter of a prominent American consultant compensation is reaching “levels of $500,000 to nearly $1,000,000 (excluding stock options).” The newsletter says in a subsequent paragraph:

Given the competition for fine school heads in the nonprofit and for-profit realms means that the “early bird gets the worm.” By “early,” this Consultant means holding out enough of a compensation carrot to make it worth a candidate’s attention.

My “wondering” then, is this, did the hugely revered and celebrated heads of yore seek and subsequently hold out for “compensation packages” that enriched them? Can any of us imagine Frank Boyden, Endiott Peabody, Jean Marshall, or Nancy Offort holding out for more pay? Yet it is beyond argument that this beloved, respected, and honored generation commanded a status and stature that is rare if not extinct in our generation.

There are probably multiple reasons for this generational change (nothing is as simple as one cause), but I am wondering if one of them is not that we have sacrificed our moral authority by being just another “CEO.” If we are paid like CEOs, with our salaries vast multiples more than on highest paid teacher, could we not be subject to the same criticisms as CEOs? As our jobs as heads of school become more complex and as we look more and more like business people, why should we not be treated with the same level of respect as lawyers, financiers, and entrepreneurs? Those professionals live in a high risk dog-eat-dog Darwinian world, and they are accorded the respect equal to their latest success and quickly kicked to the curb upon failure. They are surrounded by litigation, conflict, risk, and competition. They earn high compensation because they are tough, smart, resilient, and persistent. They may be feared, they may be grudgingly admired, but they are not revered.

Is a “CEO” what we are or want to be, or does our job require us to shoulder a certain moral authority? Have we cede that moral authority when our compensation enriches us? Has being the head of school evolved to a position that is more a job than a calling?

Just wondering.

Arch Montgomery is Head of School at Asheville School (NC).

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