Avoiding Crises Through Values–Driven Leadership: Are You Leading Your School’s Culture Or Is It Leading You?

The following is published with permission to authors David Wolowitz, J.D., McLane Middleton, P.A. and Claude Marchessault, Strategic Leadership Group, Inc.


Educators understand that nothing is more important than promoting the health, safety and welfare of students in a school’s care. However, attitudes about safety in independent schools have evolved significantly over the years. Until fairly recently, most parents assumed that when their children were in school, they were in a safe environment. But this fundamental trust has been, and continues to be, eroded by a number of recent events and societal developments. We live in an age of 24/7 news coverage which relentlessly focuses on scandals of all types. Rumors and fears, regardless of facts, circulate almost instantaneously through social media to large audiences that dwarf the reach of traditional news media of just a few decades ago. Independent schools are not immune to impact of the increased societal anxiety about potential harm to children. Following the highly publicized national coverage of a student suicide in 2010, state legislatures across the country rushed to enact strict anti-bullying laws. Currently, concerns about sexual assaults in schools are a constant topic on traditional and social media. The federal government has become very active in efforts to regulate schools through Title IX in an effort to address this issue. Other behavioral issues in schools, such as hazing and harassment are also being addressed through legislation and litigation. Regardless of whether specific state or federal laws or court decisions apply to a particular independent school, the combined impact on independent school policies nationally is changing both public expectations and the standard of care for addressing issues of student safety.

With so much increased regulation, it is not surprising that independent schools are responding with a focus on improved risk management. An example is the increasing implementation of enterprise risk management (ERM) which focuses on operational, financial, strategic and reputational risk across the entire institution. It is designed to be an organization-wide, systematic and consistent approach to identifying, categorizing, communicating and managing risks. An integrated risk-awareness system, such as ERM, is appropriate and essential to a systematic approach to keeping schools safe. However, it is only a component, not the entire solution.

Risk management systems are designed, as their title suggests, to manage risk, not to address the root causes of it. Risk management systems are appropriately focused on compliance, which, as noted above, is more important than ever for independent schools. These systems, when effective, help to identify conduct which violates the school’s rules and the laws or regulations that impact schools. Typically, these laws or regulations include, at a minimum, harassment, discrimination, hazing, bullying and sexual assault.

Risk management systems are, by their nature, reactive approaches designed in response to external forces, such as legislation, regulation and litigation. Their focus is compliance. But all too often, increased compliance leads to resistance manifested in increased clandestine activity, whether by students or employees. Adolescents are more likely to know what they are against than what they are for. They are driven by their quest for peer approval. Often what matters most to a student is what another student, rather than a teacher or administrator, says or does. For adults, the dynamics of resistance can be more powerful than the imposition of rules. Adults, like students, tend to be heavily influenced by their peer groups which operate by their shared values and concerns. These powerful sub-cultures are self-centered rather than system-centered and can be frustratingly resistant to change. If they perceive compliance efforts as potentially adversely impacting their interests, they will not be receptive. Stated otherwise, an unhealthy culture can trump the best efforts at achieving compliance.

How does a school avoid and break down unhealthy subcultures? It needs an integrated approach of engagement and enforcement. Engagement involves the whole community developing, owning and communicating shared values and their application to everyday life on campus. This iterative process requires strong, values-focused leadership. The goal of this process is to develop a clear and simple articulation of behavioral norms in the form of standards, consistent with the school community’s shared values and expectations.

Because the pressure to comply also triggers the impulse to defy, standards that are imposed are not likely to be successful at breaking down unhealthy school subcultures. Whereas enforcing compliance is a management process that is reactive to forces outside of a school’s control, shaping culture through shared values is a proactive leadership process that utilizes forces within the school’s control. When the whole school community is engaged in this educative process, students, faculty and staff can conclude for themselves, both individually and collectively, that the behavioral standards are in their interests as well as the school’s interests. Standards that are the result of group dialogue with students and employees are more likely to become socialized and integrated into the norms of the group and to motivate the behaviors that ultimately shape a school’s culture.

Successful engagement, however, takes committed, consistent leadership. The ultimate payoff is significant in terms of promoting a healthy and safe school culture. In a school community in which student and faculty leaders identify with the school’s values, those leaders will influence their peers to conform with the widely accepted standards of conduct. Thereby, the likelihood that individuals, pairs or subgroups will make consequential behavioral decisions in isolation will be reduced.

Of course, some students, and even some faculty and staff, will inevitably engage in behaviors inconsistent with the standards. In a system in which the core values of accountability and responsibility have been socialized and normed through engagement, behaviors inconsistent with accepted standards are more likely to be identified and addressed before they develop into more serious transgressions which violate rules or laws. Schools will likely find it easier and more successful to address behaviors of concern at an early stage, as part of an educational, rather than a disciplinary, approach.

Once a school identifies and articulates a core list of succinct and clear behavioral standards it must continue to socialize it every year to students and employees. The standards should be referenced and reinforced at every key stage of the student’s experiences throughout their education, from application through graduation. The standards should be referenced whenever behavioral issues arise. Student leaders, in particular, should be selected utilizing the standards, and their training should emphasize the importance of modeling the standards.

Similarly, the respective behavioral standards for employees should be referenced and reinforced at every stage of the employment process. Most schools focus employment efforts on performance based criteria. But, the greatest risk of harm to a school is behavioral. Behavioral standards should be included and emphasized in job descriptions, interviews and reference checks, employment documents, training, evaluations and discipline. This is part of the socializing process.

To evaluate the efforts at leading culture, there need to be measurements. Without metrics, there is no way to measure change or progress. Two important areas which lend themselves to measurement are training and reporting. Keeping a database of all training relating to student health, safety or welfare should be standard behavior for an independent school. Similarly, schools should keep a database of internal and external reports of misconduct, investigations and actions taken. Key metrics should be routinely shared with school’s Board of Trustees. The Board should have a committee whose responsibilities include oversight of the school’s culture.

Another way to evaluate the health of a school’s culture is to routinely conduct after-the-fact reviews of significant matters. Consideration should be given to when concerning behaviors were identified and how they were addressed. Particular attention should be paid to internal barriers to communication of concerns, especially information silos. Lessons learned from these reviews will help to identify specific areas of concern and to inform future training.

Changing culture through leadership is not easy. But if a school does not lead the culture, the culture will lead the school. Serious behavioral crises, which severely harm students and damage the reputation of a school, typically involve a series of behaviors which lead down the slippery slope of misconduct to disaster. Establishing clear, succinct behavioral standards which are accepted by the community makes it more likely that significant behavioral events will be identified and addressed at a much earlier stage and disaster will be averted. Behavioral standards cannot simply be imposed. Gaining widespread acceptance of behavioral standards requires engagement. As with most significant educational efforts, successful community engagement takes time, commitment and hard work. Most importantly, it takes leadership.


David Wolowitz is the co-chair of the McLane Middleton law firm’s Education Law Practice Group. His practice focuses on the representation of independent schools. He is a pioneer in introducing training on professional boundaries to independent schools. David regularly consults with schools nationally and internationally on issues relating to student safety, risk prevention and crisis response.

Claude Marchessault is President and Co-Founder of Strategic Leadership Group, Inc. an organizational consulting firm focused on organizational effectiveness and health. He specializes in the development and maintenance of cohesive leadership teams that can create, communicate and reinforce organizational clarity through alignment of human systems and cultures. As a leadership consultant, coach and mental health professional, he assists boards, executives, and managers in sustaining significant organizational change.

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